Ours delivers a middling record after five plus years underground. Mercy has its moments, but those who still feel the residual spine-tingle of Lullabies-era classics are likely to be disappointed.
Beginning with the recording of a buzz-garnering major label debut (2001’s Distorted Lullabies), Ours genius Jimmy Gnecco forged a brand of darkly anthemic rock, blending the sounds of past masters like U2 and Jeff Buckley. 2002’s Precious raised the bar with blistering cuts like “Kill the Band” and “Realize”, while “Places” remains one of the decade’s most affecting ballads you’ve never heard. Following extensive touring throughout 2003, however, Ours pretty much fell off the map. While Gnecco would take to the road on a couple of brief, though wildly breathtaking, solo jaunts over the years, no new material would see commercial release during this period.
This summer’s Mercy (Dancing for the Death of an Imaginary Enemy) represents the end of a five-year drought. But sadly the old maxim, “if you don’t use it, you lose it” jumps to mind here. While Mercy boasts the sonic sheen of its predecessors, it falls heartbreakingly short in the songwriting department. To those of you who still feel the residual spine-tingle of Lullabies classics like “Sometimes” and “Medication”, I’m sorry to say that you’re likely to be disappointed. There are more than a few glimmers certainly, but overall the bulk of this new material shows that the once rich velvet of Ours' past has worn threadbare in the intervening years.
Still, for old times’ sake, let’s stick to the positive for the moment. There’s got to be at least a little of the good stuff, right? After all, it’s been five whole years and there’s a full hour’s worth of music on this thing. I will admit that it’s still a pleasure to experience Gnecco’s vocal prowess. During the coda of “Saint”, he once more proves that he can belt it out like absolutely no one else in the modern rock game. In fact, his voice saves a lot of the songs on this album. “Murder” would be a cheap-thrills genre-fling in the hands of someone less capable. The singer’s rare gift for soulful articulation and death-defying upper-range acrobatics is the only thing that really makes the track exciting. What’s amazing is that even at this stage in his career, trying to fight his way past popular neglect, he still doesn’t sound like a showboat. In interior design terms, his sense of proportion and good taste remain intact, and while he may never grab the kind of critical respect that Jeff Buckley still gets, he certainly never falls short in the category of “staggering virtuosity”.
We’ve had our mercy, now it’s time to talk about some sins. Number one -- and this gets a bazillion underlines -- this record sounds too much like a cross between latter-day U2 and contemporary Coldplay. The similarity is unmistakable. Gnecco’s always been a U2 fan and he’s also found praise for Chris Martin and company. That’s fine; both bands have made some great music (Coldplay less, obviously), but this new album sounds like it desperately wants to fill some arena seats. There’s tameness in a lot of these new songs that never featured in the band’s exciting early sound. “The Worst Thing’s Beautiful” and “Willing” are guilty of this in particular. The wailing choruses on the former are spot-on Bono imitations and the result is a track that’s completely predictable. It seems to me that while Jimmy Gnecco used to write songs that copped all the right tricks to just the right extent, he’s now resorting to something more akin to regurgitation.
Another gripe I have is with album closer “Get Up”, probably the most experimental Ours song to date. Built upon loops and a ‘80s revival dance beat, it sounds positively tacky. The possibilities that sound collage creates for someone like Gnecco are of course tantalizing, but “Get Up” doesn’t exhibit mastery by any means. Especially awkward are the female vocals that chime, elevator-robotic, at the very end. A concoction that blends an arid mix with the inane sentiment, “and the more you love you love,” it lingers like an irritatingly sour aftertaste.
All in all, Mercy is not the comeback record Ours fans have been hoping for. If there’s something to be thankful for though, it’s that the engines of the band’s original exhilarating sound are still in good working order, and tracks like “God Only Wants You” and “Live Again” speak for themselves in this regard. The major fault of this album comes down to flawed substance. The spoken-word section on “Black”, for instance, sounds sophomoric -- MySpace dramatic. Much of Mercy sounds like music Jimmy Gnecco could make in his sleep. The good songs on this set serve as proof that he can still cut it, and personally, I’m willing to chalk this one up to the sluggishness that accompanies disuse. Hopefully, now that the gears have finally started turning once again, we can expect a stronger showing next time around.