We Are Scientists' most laid-back album since 2008 finds them doing catchy, interesting things with midtempo songs. Too bad the fast rockers are mostly uninspired.
We Are Scientists’ new album finds them in a bit of a laid-back mode. They’re still playing the same type of hook-infused rock that helped them establish themselves in the mid-‘00s, but Helter Seltzer is the most unhurried their songwriting has been since 2008’s Brain Thrust Mastery. That album seemed like a more studio-based reaction to losing their drummer in the wake of their hard-hitting breakthrough record With Love and Squalor.
Helter Seltzer, on the other hand, is more like a natural progression. While 2014’s TV En Francais crackled with the band’s original punchy rock feel, some of its best moments (like the sublime single “Make it Easy”) were the more subdued, pure pop songs.
Perhaps the best example of this on Helter Seltzer is the album’s centerpiece, “We Need a Word”. Keith Murray’s singing is at his most sincere and sweetest here, in contrast to the sarcastic and/or sardonic tones he usually uses during the band’s more uptempo songs. Those vocals are backed by a buzzing, steady bassline, tremolo guitar that comes and goes, and a drum part that alternates double snare hits and single hits on the backbeats. That musical combination gives the song a feeling of constant forward motion.
The soaring chorus features bassist Chris Cain singing “If you want this” followed by Murray replying, “We need to have a word.” It’s a very effective melodic tactic that’s enhanced by an unusual and unexpected half-step chord change near the end of the refrain.
The choices We Are Scientists make on their other relaxed songs tend to be interesting ones. The mid-tempo, synth-infused “Never Too Late” has a noisy, catchy chorus that the band contrasts very effectively here and there during the rest of the song. At one point the band drops everything except a few piano notes to let Murray run through the refrain by himself.
The best part of the song might be a quiet, quickly picked guitar counter-melody that only shows up during the second verse. The thick, heavy tone on Cain’s bass drives much of “Hold On”, giving the song a huge low end beneath the treble-heavy guitars, synths, and Murray’s vocals.
“Want for Nothing” is a genuine power ballad, fully committing to acoustic guitars for the song’s first third before bringing in the rest of the band. Too bad it isn’t a particularly memorable power ballad.
“Waiting for You”, on the other hand, throws a curveball into the power ballad formula. Here the band gently rocks along in the verses, with Murray throwing in guitar leads over a pulsing bass, acoustic guitar, and drums. But when the chorus hits, everything sits out except for the acoustic guitar and a lovely three-part harmony.
The album does have several more typical rockers. “In My Head” has a light touch in the verses and a big damn chorus. Catchy synths enter the song in verse two and stick around for the rest of the way, and the bridge is almost as big as the chorus.
“Classic Love” is a barnburner that starts with a chunky distorted guitar riff, replaces it with acoustic guitar in the verses, and then comes back full throttle in the refrain. That riff is the best the song has to offer, though, as the refrain “Classic love / Isn’t good enough anymore” isn’t particularly effective. That’s a shame, too, because the band works the contrast between distorted electric and clean acoustic guitars very well.
“Headlights” is short (two and a half minutes) and very fast, but its issue is the inverse of “Classic Love”. “Headlights” has a strong, catchy chorus; it’s strong enough that the song opens with it. But it doesn’t have anything else. There’s no real guitar riff and the half-hearted verses don’t have much melody. This is an example of when a good chorus isn’t enough to carry a song all by itself, and even keeping it short doesn’t quite make it work as a song.
Album opener and first single “Buckle” has its own issues. Murray’s supposed to be sultry chorus- “Why not make this interesting? / I want you to buckle when you think of me” – is undermined by the song itself being a typical We Are Scientists’ hard rocker. As a straightforward rock song it works pretty well, with a locked-in rhythm section propelling the song under Murray’s melodic guitar leads. But it’s about as sexy as a Nickelback come-on.
Helter Seltzer ends up being a bit of a hit and miss album, where the biggest pluses come from the band stretching its sound a bit. When the band rocks out this time around, those songs tend to be a bit pedestrian. Murray and Cain’s knack for catchy choruses works much better on the midtempo and quieter material here. That’s a pretty big progression for the band over the past ten years, when Love and Squalor succeeded in part because We Are Scientists went full tilt for the whole record.