The Illinois underdogs turn down the angst and turn up the charm on a real beauty of a sophomore album.
Although signed to the biggest emo/post-hardcore label in America and constantly lumped in with the increasingly congested Warped Tour crowd, Peoria, Illinois, foursome the Forecast has always been a pop rock band at heart. Embracing the sounds of muscular '70s classic rock and contemporary roots rock as much as the angst-ridden, teen-pleasing sounds of today, their unflinching lack of pretense is enough to confuse any teenaged, girl pants-wearing, comb-over sporting emo boy. But with their excellent second album, it's clear the Forecast have their sights set on an audience much broader than a bunch of pouting high schoolers.
In the Shadow of Two Gunmen is the sound of a band on the verge of living up to the full potential of their promise. Last year's Late Night Conversations hinted that they were on to something good, with songs that centered around both the negative and positive aspects of small-town life, and a very effective dual vocal combination featuring guitarist Dustin Addis and bassist Shannon Burns. The new record plays to those same strengths especially well. With the assistance of producer John Naclerio (My Chemical Romance), the music is not only more refined than anything the band has ever done before, but along with some stupendous pop hooks, it brings in the kind of robust rock riffs and tender, Americana-tinged fare that elicit comparisons to Rilo Kiley and early Wilco. It's an album that indulges in the simple pleasures, doesn't try to be more profound than it has to be, and winds up trouncing its emo peers in the process.
On "Everything We Want to Be", Addis's road-worn vocals and world-weary lyrics suit the gritty opening cut well ("The whiskey slurs that were purged on our lips"). As the band tears through a quick, Foo Fighters-like burst of garage rock, a slide guitar solo serves as foreshadowing for the direction the rest of the album will take. The roaring "A Fist Fight for Our Fathers" combines aggression and twang much like Thin Lizzy's "Cowboy Song" did two decades ago, while "Every Gun Makes Its Own Tomb" successfully combines Southern rawk swagger with the more taut guitar work of the Replacements. "It's a Long Drive" centers around a terrific, dark riff that underscores Addis's steadfast sentiment ("Cutting teeth on dreams of excess with rolled up sleeves / We're bound to push on"), but it's the tender chorus ("Come home quickly but please drive safely / Come home in one piece") that gives the song depth. Meanwhile, hit-single-in-the-making "One Hundred Percent" is indie rock at its sweetest, the layered vocal harmonies are sumptuous.
The Forecast's ace up their sleeve, though, is Ms. Burns. Her sporadic lead vocals on Late Night Conversations served as captivating counterpoints to Addis's lines, and with a soaring soprano like hers -- not to mention the fact that female lead singers are incredibly rare amongst the emo set -- it would be a waste not to have her sing more. Wisely, she's been given more lines and harmonies to sing, and as a result, her towering choruses win us over as soon as we hear them. The formula is executed to near-perfection on the melodramatic "And We All Return to Our Roots" with Burns punctuating Addis's introspection with doses of ultra-catchy angst. Similarly, the pair trade lines like a bickering couple on "West Coast" ("'What are you running from my dear?' / 'Secrets I've packed away and can't even explain'"), only to have the song take off with Burns's chorus of, "Stay away, boy."
The clear winner on the album is the ballad "Some Things Never Change", which blends all the best elements of the record: a strong dose of country rock backed up by a stately organ, an astonishingly beautiful, bittersweet chorus ("Just give me this / A slow dance, a last chance, to tell you everything you need to hear / Because the phone calls don't let me look you in the eyes so I can tell you sweetie please stay"), a tasteful hard rock crescendo, and more lovely vocal interplay between Addis and Burns.
For such an unassuming album, it's remarkably smart, straightforward, and at 36 minutes, doesn't overstay its welcome. The band was fully aware of what they had to do to get better, and they did it, making huge improvements in the songwriting department. By dabbling in other genres yet remaining loyal to their past sound, In the Shadow of Two Gunmen appeals to not only teenaged emo fans, but anyone who enjoys fresh, exuberant melodic rock. It's an undeniably likeable, unabashedly heartfelt piece of work that puts their label mates and current stars Hawthorne Heights to shame. The Forecast deserves to be just as huge.