In his review of the latest Beta Band record Heroes to Zeros, PopMatters writer Jason Korenkiewicz blamed the group's recent lackluster output on "the Cusack curse". An interesting idea, I thought, but like extra terrestrials or the Sasquatch, such theorization could simply be the result of coincidence. Even as a devout Red Sox fan, I refuse to believe in the Curse of the Bambino. I needed further proof.
I now believe in the Cusack curse and am sorry to have ever doubted its validity. Whether Max Bemis named his band Say Anything after the Cusack film is irrelevant; the connection has been made and the damage done. Apparently the jinx is not limited to bands that appear in the films of the brooding, collegiate heartthrob. If you're currently forming a band in your parents' garage, you would be wise to heed my advice and not christen yourselves Fat Man and Little Boy, Eight Men Out, or Bullets Over Broadway.
The precocious Bemis (he's 19) deserves credit for recognizing the laughable state of contemporary punk-pop (which is curiously neither punk nor pop... discuss). His Los Angeles-based band turned down major label offers to be "the next Blink 182" for a more principled indie ideology. Bemis attended college for one semester before recording Say Anything Is a Real Boy; he dropped out after having the good-intentioned epiphany that his album should lampoon "the fact that every creative person has this sick ambition to affect some sort of change in society with their art, to be more than just a guy in a band or a poet or a sculptor". He wisely abandoned a rock opera plot, complete with characters and plotline, instead leaving the songs to tell his youthfully ambitious story.
But despite Bemis's raging, intellectually wry attempt to subvert the very pool it wades in, Say Anything Is a Real Boy doesn't really add up to all that much. The record opens with "Belt"'s thick Superdrag punch (whose one-time producer Tim O'Heir happens to handle production duties), quickly setting the scene for Bemis's underage hero: "I wouldn't sell my belt to industry / So they carded me / And they carted me off." The verses and pre-choruses are skillfully catchy, filled with guitars that claw and crawl their way through the complex changes. The chorus is where Bemis falters, its awaited payoff nothing more than cliché wrapped in melodies of factory-bred anonymity: "Hey, this is something I have to do for myself."
Bemis seems to follow this same through-line for each of the album's 13 songs: ambitious anticipation rewarded with disappointing afterthought. The closing track "Admit It!!!" is a perfect encapsulation of the album's failure. Bemis begins by breathlessly riffing on phonies who flog normality: "Prototypical non-conformist, you are a vacuous soldier of the thrift-store Gestapo!" But he veers into the same non-committal, cop-out choruses, exclaiming "What do you have to say for yourself?" and "When I'm dead, I'll rest" among music that could be lifted from the nearest spiky-haired Hot Topic patron. The giant conclusions that Say Anything Is a Real Boy feels like it should come to are never realized; instead we're left with oft-treaded, platitudinous affirmations.
Say Anything's biggest problem is its inability to surpass what it wishes to examine. The acoustic strummer "I Want to Know Your Plans", in addition to blowing a great punch line setup, resorts to a woefully weak chorus: "You're what keeps me believing the world's not gone dead." "Every Man Has a Molly" is the token break-up song, issued with Ben Folds's tongue-in-cheekiness (but lacking his resonant emotional depth). "Woe" attempts to find an out from pop's omnipresent trends, but is instead memorable (or unmemorable) for jokey lines that don't land as they should: "She took pity on me, horizontally / Most likely because of my band." "The Futile" makes an obvious mockery of Say Anything's narcissistic peers: "What do the old people teach us but how to die? / What do those hissy fits teach you except how to cry, pussy, cry?" But then, the (slightly skewed) mainstream guitar pop that Bemis references is obviously how he writes as well; ironically, is he too a victim of his own parody?
Say Anything Is a Real Boy maintains the feel of an overwrought musical, perhaps partly influenced by the co-production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch's Stephen Trask. Nearly every song results in a burly coda belted in unison by a choir of angst-ridden boys. It's an unfortunate gimmick that quickly wears out its welcome, transforming each song into a Chumbawumba anthem by its end. Bemis's vocal delivery is theatrically dramatic, equally brainy and untamed, like he enjoys taunting the microphone with witticisms and then eats it alive. In his choruses, he succumbs to the same bleating style favored by groups like New Found Glory and Sum 41: mouth agape, vowels wrestled from the back of the sinus cavity.
Bemiss' lofty and somewhat pretentious debut seeks to lampoon the current indie/mainstream climate by fighting ambition with ambition, lazily adopting an if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them mentality in its end. Perhaps this is Bemis's way of casting a wink and nudging a shoulder towards rebellion's uniformity, but I'm not buying it. If there's any consolation, it's his tender age. Bemis has an entire lifetime ahead of him to hone his sharper skills, quit relying on tired formulas, and just possibly beat out that curse yet.