We’ve been searching long and hard for the American Radiohead for years. People have recently proclaimed My Morning Jacket to be the closest fit. It’s more likely that our Interpols and Sufjan Stevenses are the creative forces that will endure and mature during the next decade. But Film School sound like a band attempting to fit into that niche of literate rock music. They succeed pretty well, and they find their strength in softer songs. This is not a band on the cusp of something new and spectacular. It’s a very good repackaging of what other new, spectacular bands have used to create their identities. Film School’s highest achievement is the quality with which these ideas are repackaged.
“On & On” is one of their best moments. If it were a minute shorter, I could even imagine hearing it on modern rock radio stations. Robotic quarter-note, single-string accents ring from guitars instead of chords. The bass player creates his own path rather than simply following along by plucking the root note at appropriate times. It’s unique and haunting and works well as an opener (not counting the instrumental “Intro”). “Harmed” is excellent at times, but its distorted section lacks the charm of the more creative and melodic quiet sections.
“Pitfalls” begins with just drums and bass and recalls the mature, recent Fugazi work. The music is engaging throughout, but vocals by Krayg Burton don’t coax the song past its comfort zone. This song best exemplifies the strengths and weaknesses of Film School. On the one hand, they manage to lay down fantastic instrumental tracks. The rhythm section is superb. They have the knack of creating moody rhythms that can be ominous and catchy at once. The drum sound and style mimic bands grouped with the recent goth-pop movement. A busy hi-hat and precise bass kicks give the otherwise dreamy and atmospheric music a jittery, off-putting groove.
The surrounding guitar tones normally ring with clean, trebly notes played very rhythmically to interact with the drums and bass. The single-note style that the Strokes have mastered works well for these guys as well. The atmospherics are more akin to Pink Floyd and prog rock, though. The synthesizer tones are often cheesy and mechanical. Other synth sounds include angelic, robotic female vocals. Perhaps the least arresting part of the equation are the lead vocals. “Breet” proves to be the exception. It’s a slap-happy sing-a-long that is in debt to the Cure’s radio-friendly numbers.
Of course, that youthful desire to be a deep, deep band with thought-provoking song titles and enigmatic lyrics shows itself with “He’s a Deep Deep Lake”. The title is as bland as it is pseudo-intellectual. What’s worse is that the music is an audio equivalent of the pretentious weightiness hinted at in the title.
Another clear standout, due to its singular sound, is “Sick of the Shame”. Instead of berating us with high volumes and studio tricks, as often happens on some of the louder songs, this gentle waltz bathes in nuance. The atmospheric noises here, as opposed to their appearances on other songs, are more significant and important because the backing music is quieter. The album ends gracefully, in the same subdued mood, with “Like You Know”.
Maybe they want to be a heavy, hard-rocking band, but the final two tracks demonstrate clearly that Film School are much more productive and assured when they dial the volume down from 10. There’s no shame is utilizing dynamics. Radiohead are the kings of that.