It is said that Max Hellmann and Johnny Collins, Controlling the Famous’ dual vocal partnership, met the rest of their band during a search for strategically placed black and white photos across downtown Los Angeles. The very odd scavenger hunt of strange images and clues is what lead them to the phrase “automatic city.” After forming a band, they had an album title!
Sadly, the story of how the album title came to be is more interesting than the music itself.
It is apparent early on that Controlling the Famous share a lot of the same musical cloth as Sunny Day Real Estate — including producer Brad Wood, but without the same sense of deft melodicism as their idols. It’s emo-rock sans the angst — a diet soda in an already overcaffinated genre. Opening with the jam-band-goes-rock generic riffs of “Detox”, we are treated to a chorus with a dry and not-that-memorable hook (though the furious picking immediately after creates the album’s first true sense of dynamics). Soon we enter “Heart Attack” — another glimpse at a competent band that seems in search of a good hook. “You get high to keep your head on / Hoping to make it last long / Last long,” sings Hellmann, going through lyrics that cover topics of uncertainty and even a bit of paranoia, but shedding no new light on such subjects. We have to wait until “Easy Life” to hear not only Controlling the Famous’ first solid chorus, but the first sense of originality in their lyrics. “I want the easy life / I want to fuck in the sun / There needs to be a scheme / So that I know that I’ve won.” Suddenly we get the feeling that they’re trying to become famous themselves, and “Easy Life” just might be their ticket to it.
The rest of the album is a mixture of highs and lows, the dusty riffs of “Long Day” making you gleefully ponder if At the Drive In would have been just as good if they kept the tempo down every once in awhile. “If You Die” sounds like some long-forgotten Franz Ferdinand demo, except with a more angst-ridden bent. Aside from these great highlights, however, the rest of Automatic City feels like a mess of sloppy riffs stacked on one another without a large amount of focus, energy, or care.
Bottom line: Max Hellmann and Johnny Collins need to control their own sound before they control anything (or anyone) else.