The Reputation have forced me to invoke the Walt Whitman Corollary to Critical Review. Lately, I’ve been bemoaning bands whose albums sound the same from start to finish, pining for variety. Now, with the Reputation’s sophomore CD, To Force a Fate, the pendulum swings the other way, and I find myself wishing that the band — vocalist Elizabeth Elmore, guitarist Sean Hulet, bassist Joel Root, and drummer Chad Romanski (since replaced by Kent Stewart) — would pick one style and stay with it. Hence, the Whitman Corollary: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”. Of course, the band members are invoking the corollary themselves, exploring all the musical facets that interest them … but we’ll get to that later.
It’s clear that the Reputation are excited about lots of different kinds of music, and to the band’s credit, they’re all crack musicians and can genre-hop with ease. But To Force a Fate may induce dizziness in some listeners, jumping from the late ’90s alt-rock vibe of opener “Let This Rest” (of course, Elmore’s previous band, Sarge, played late ’90s alt-rock, so that may explain that), to the Liz Phair-circa-2003 “Face It”, to the Jayhawks-esque roots rocker “March”. Elmore is a chameleon, cooing and growling, equal parts Gwen Stefani and Phair.
The band seems to have bought into the crazy patchwork quilt quality of To Force a Fate … or at least the press release trumpeting the album’s release hints that they have: it boasts the album “has something for everyone.” Trying to be all things to all people is a surefire recipe for disappointing someone. It’s hard to rectify this notion of a musician brimming with ideas and exploring different musical venues and being, well, populist, with refining and focusing an artistic vision, becoming elitist and narrowing their potential fanbase. I don’t know which way is better, but it’s the kind of thing that keeps me up nights … because I lead a mostly worry-free life.
But I digress. There are a lot of great ideas on To Force a Fate, but I can’t get as excited about the band as I feel I should — who doesn’t root for an obviously-talented band, especially in today’s barren musical wasteland? For instance, a clever barrelhouse piano drives “Follow-Through Time”, and the minor-key piano and strings on “The Ugliness Kicking Around” envelops the whole songs in a smoky, late night vibe. They even approximate the hip NYC retro rock scene on “Some Senseless Day” — urgent guitars plus a broken-dream invoking chorus (“Wake up some senseless day / And realize you never recognized what you became”) equals NYC cool, and To Force a Fate‘s best song, to boot. To paraphrase Cracker’s “Teen Angst”: “What the world needs now is another NYC band like I need a hole in my head”. The sentiment may be true, but a good song is a good song.
And maybe that’s the point (the bit about good songs, not the “hole in my head” part). The Reputation like making good, well-crafted songs that just happen to cross genre boundaries. I still wish the band would focus their energy and talent into one sound and make a great album, rather than a merely good one, as they’ve done with To Force a Fate — but that’s my problem, not theirs. If you don’t agonize over genre categorizations, and can recognize a fun song when you hear it, then maybe you’re the type of listener the Reputation is courting.