Alt-rock group releases bland album, covers Talking Heads without irony, but pulls pleasant curveballs with a simple acoustic guitar.
The first track off of The Exies’ latest album will make you wonder if you bought the wrong CD. You may have bought A Modern Way of Living With the Truth because you like post-Stone Temple Pilots alt-rock radio rockers, but when you hear the opening chords of "Leaving Song", it’s a shock because it’s acoustic and it’s a genuinely heartfelt, Nick Drake-styled ballad that is unlike anything in the Exies’ entire back catalog. When frontman Scott Stevens’ voice screeches on the line "Come down with me / It’s time to leave," the effect is staggering. The song clocks in at less than two minutes, but hints at the breathtaking promise of a daring new direction for the band.
"Leaving Song", unfortunately, is nothing but a red herring.
For a group that so shamelessly mixed the late '90s chug of alt-rock with near techno-fury on their first major hit "My Goddess" (and later going the Staind route for their follow-up smash "Ugly") here they get even more generic than before, buying into the hard-edged emo rock that was so painfully abundant at the half-way mark of 2007. Lead single "Different Than You" could easily be mistaken for Three Days Grace or Mudvayne or … just about any other band cut from the same hard-rock fabric. The guitars are all angry but clean sounding, showing you don’t need a major label to get a big rock-radio sound (the band left the big budget world of Virgin Records for the creative control of a smaller label [Eleven Seven Music] for this release). The lyrics offer nothing new as well, sometimes even managing to just be flat out terrible (the most cringe-inducing of the bunch being the pained emoting of the line "loneliness is so hard!" from "These Are the Days"). When Stevens’ screams "This is not necessary!" during the chorus of "Lay Your Money Down", you can’t help but agree.
Yet it’s still hard to completely dismiss the Exies. The group tries to prove themselves, and they accomplish this best with their elated choruses. The poppiest ones are the most successful, like the one for "Dose" (which recalls Silverchair in their hey-day). The title track chugs along at a good, solid pace, and even the girl-gone-astray lament of "Better Now" displays a wee bit original pep in its chorus. Yet the Exies manage to cement themselves in the history of odd rock covers with the album’s penultimate track, their own take on the Talking Heads classic "Once in a Lifetime".
Let’s take that in for a second: a modern hard rock group taking on the bouncy eccentric pop of Talking Heads, much less one of David Byrne’s most iconic songs (for the uninitiated, it’s the one with the memorable yelps of "this is not my beautiful wife!"). Starting with simple, contemplative acoustic strumming, the group pays very little attention to the melodicism of the original, instead beefing it up into a sub-par Incubus ballad. The idea behind this recontextualizing is interesting -- as suddenly the quirky number about walking into the wrong life becomes a contemplative number about no longer knowing the people around you -- but ultimately the big payoff is short-changed by Stevens’ voice. He sings in the most generic of rock croons (which is even more perplexing giving the wild extremes his voice reached on of their Virgin debut, Inertia), and when he gets into the more solemn second verse, his vocal inflections are anything but interesting, shooting any sort of emotive believability to dirt. In order to reach alt-rock catharsis, you really have to sell it, and here it doesn’t sound like he’s even trying.
The album ends much as how it began: with a single-guitar mini-song. "Spectator at the Revolution" is made to sound like some old long-lost demo recording, but under all the little pops and scratches in the "recording," many of the lyrics get lost. It’s an interesting experiment, but it lacks the emotional impact of "Leaving Song" and thus gets lost as a footnote in the shuffle of things. At their best, the Exies are a dynamic style-shifting rock group that follows convention but managed to add a sense of excitement to their songs. At their worst, they sound just like every other one-hit wonder rock group out there. The Exies keep hinting that somewhere inside them lies a solid, stunning rock album. Perhaps they’ll record it someday -- but this isn’t it.