The arty pop-rock on this Athens quintet's debut holds up to a critical listen. The band's got promise.
As long as we have guitars and amplifiers, we'll have bands that churn out conventional-sounding rock. What was it -- remember Defiler, in The Sopranos? Athens's answer is the Winter Sounds, a guitar-guitar-bass-drums-keys quintet that likes to call itself progressive pop, never really strays much to one side of center.
Porcelain Empire is the group's debut, and it shows characteristic debut strengths and weaknesses. The production is fairly low-tech but the effect is visceral, like any good bit of rock -- the band shows it can do triumphant as well as it can do sweetness. At times it bites off more than it can chew, but their hearts are in the right place.
The best songs cloak their essentially familiar progressions in a jumble of rhythm and melody. "Gone to Save Mankind" hides just enough to make you feel like you're working to uncover the sweet melody beneath a huge organ sound; as the song drops away to build up again you feel the plea ("Now we're lost in darkness") as desperate as it is. The band really does pack a lot into each song, ideas shuffling in and out very quickly, but throughout, continuity is never in doubt. "You Can't Give Up" subtly subverts expectation with its hand claps and strong, swishing sound -- and the chorus (of course soaring) is, despite its conventionality, certainly smile-inducing. Familiarity's a given: you'll recognize the melancholy vocals/acoustic guitars of "Minnesota", but the nostalgia turns into fantasy before you quite grasp that yes, he's talking about following children into the forest.
There are so many twists and turns to the sound that you can't really identify something characteristically the Winter Sounds. It's not terrible, but if the group intends any sustained assault on our airwaves they're going to have to narrow their stylistic range. "Sound Forged Like Spine" uses Kings of Convenience-like vocal multi-tracking; "A Call To Arms" mimics U2's trademark guitar jangle and shoots for, but doesn't quite match, a Dropkick Murphys-style anthem; "The Great Forgotten" even dips into Strokes-style FX-ed vocals.
The album ends with a couple of songs that pretty much sum up what the Winter Sounds' capabilities and limitations. "Sad Reminders" is a jaunty pop-punk number you could hear on the radio, but the melody's oblique -- which of course makes it more interesting. And when things settle, rather than ramp, for the chorus, the effect's almost a thrill. "The Tournament of Getting Older", on the other hand, is all big-gesture rock, full of wall-of-sound guitars and tinkles over the top, the final big hand motion to close the album.
Throughout Porcelain Empire, singer Patrick Keenan now and then conceives of himself as a ghost, drifting slowly towards death or hurtling towards it, nostalgic for an uncapturable past or a love that’s gone. That's the thread that holds the disparate parts of the album together, and what makes it a success despite its missteps. The band's got promise.