You can call it selling out. You can call it mainstream. Just don’t call it bad. Call it the best album of their career. Scratch that: call it one of the best of 2006.
There's a remarkable moment right in the middle of Young Machetes, the fifth album from screamo stalwarts the Blood Brothers. It's right at the start of "Spit Shine Your Black Clouds", when suddenly the '60s organ comes in, and it's riding a melody that doesn't sound like a ball of distortion flying through blown-out speakers, like on most of their songs. It's the most blatant pop song they have ever recorded, and if rock radio ever gave it a shot, it'd be a hit. Never has selling out sounded so eyeball-meltingly cool.
When the Brothers released Crimes in 2004, hardcore fans were outraged; they switched from indie-friendly ArtistDirect Records to mainstream niche label V2 Records, home of artists like Moby and the White Stripes. People were worried that America's favorite hard rock act was selling out. Fortunately, though Crimes was slightly more sedated than their landmark Burn, Piano Island, Burn. It featured the strange blend of cabaret and screamo that made them so endearing, and one of the most ferocious live acts in rock history. Yet fans can now get fearful again, because Machetes is the most accessible album in the Blood Brothers canon. No more pseudo-story arcs from their March On Electric Children days, and there are even a few moments where you can understand what vocalists Jordan Blilie and Johnny Whitney are saying without looking at the lyric sheet. Needless to say, though it may not be the heaviest album they'll ever record, it's easily their best so far.
That doesn't mean this is a calming album, however. "Rat Rider" -- in its two minutes and three seconds of fury, despite carrying on their obsession of putting the word "rat" into as many song titles as possible -- is a lucid and powerful hard-grooved freakout. On this album, bassist Morgan Henderson makes his presence known, and basically proves why he's one of rock's must underrated treasures. "Vital Beach" could have easily fit on Piano Island. "We Ride Skeletal Lightning" is rather pop, however, as the Brothers seem to be getting into a solid groove and riding on the pop bliss for as long as possible. Even "Huge Gold AK-47" features a bass line that is more punk then metal, almost as if the Brothers are blatantly acknowledging their past and heritage (to glorious effect).
Yet it's the pop moments that ultimately shine the strongest. Perhaps it was Neon Blonde -- the Postal Service-gone-hardcore side project of Whitney and drummer Mark Gajadhar -- that made the Blood Brothers decide to bring their pop elements to the forefront this time, but that decision only brought focus to something that was already there. It'd be hard to listen to the note-by-note pop perfection of Piano Island's "Ambulance vs. Ambulance" and not realize that if they took their amps down from 11 on occasion, they could have a few radio hits under their belt. The chorus of single "Laser Life" alone marks a high point for the band. Yes, the band has changed. The hairpin melodic turns of Electric Children are gone, but this newfound focus leads to moments that are much more powerful and poignant. The dual closing tracks of Machetes scream of defiance of their past, going at a speed no one thought they could go: below mid-tempo. Though Whitney and Blilie still sing of sleeping outside on broken glass, the church organ that follows the anthemetic lighter-raising chorus of "C’mon, c’mon, let’s ride!" in the middle of "Street Wars/Exotic Foxholes" stands as a moment filled with something that you'd never think the band capable of: sweetness. Then, with mournful oboes and what sounds like a stand-up bass, the song drifts into a near dreamlike, cinematic instrumental. It's a shock for a band that previously had only two speeds: fast and fastest.
Even on "1, 2, 3, 4 Guitars", the band lulls you in with near-jazzy bass work, only to suddenly give you an avalanche of feedback at a moment's notice. It's like they're acknowledging their history of curve-balls they've thrown their audience: they even once ended an album with a screamo number that had nothing but a standard piano backing them up ("American Vultures" from Electric Children). When you're listening to the anthem-in-the-making "Lift the Veil, Kiss the Tank", it's hard not to believe that you've been thrown the biggest curve ball of all: the Blood Brothers' pop album. You can call it selling out. You can call it mainstream. Just don't call it bad. Call it the best album of their career. Scratch that: call it one of the best of 2006.