There’s a type of music that I like which I haven’t been able to put a finger on. In my own mind, I call it “Intricate Rock,” but that name is silly and not quite descriptive enough. Bands like Queens of the Stone Age (and transitively Them Crooked Vultures), Modest Mouse, Manchester Orchestra, and Bad Books satisfy my craving for Intricate Rock. There are distorted guitars in this genre of music, and it would completely fall into the genre of Rock, but there is a substance there that other rock bands lack.
I swear, it’s something in the percussion. These bands have incredible drummers who can add such beautiful texture to the songs that it would spiff up any chord progression. Of course, Queens of the Stone Age had Dave Grohl on Songs for the Deaf, who provides enough texture for twelve albums, but there’s an intricacy in the music of these bands even when the bombastic choruses die out.
Last week, I sang the praises of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the last album by Modest Mouse, and perhaps in that full review, I’ll be able to piece together the X Factor in these bands, but until then, I’m left grasping at straws, knowing Intricate Rock only when I hear it.
II – Bad Books
Bad Books has been described as a supergroup, and it is such in the literal definition of the colloquialism: a band formed by members of other bands. In this supergroup, we have singer/songwriter Kevin Devine and singer/songwriter Andy Hull. The majority of Hull’s band, Manchester Orchestra, fills out the rest of Bad Books.
But Bad Books is a supergroup in another sense. I haven’t heard any other rock band – apart from Manchester Orchestra – make emotions like loneliness and desire sound so downright incredible. Devine’s songwriting lends layers of lyrical tact and pop vibe to Bad Books’ work that might not have been as noticeable on a Manchester Orchestra recording (noticeable in “No Reward). Devine brings Hull’s work to an area more reminiscent of I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child than Simple Math. More “Wolves at Night” than “April Fool.” The combination of Hull and Devine is “super,” to say the least. Having two experienced songwriters at the helm seems to be working splendidly for Bad Books.
Bad Books’ eponymous first album was pretty quiet and folksy, though interesting. I have not given it many listens, but my experience with their newest album, II, is telling me I better go back and give their debut another chance if I know what’s good for myself.
Honestly, I could write about each track on this album. I can only recommend this album as a whole, for a real deal listening experience. These, however, are the tracks which have stuck with me the most.
The After Party – Opening quietly with guitar and drum backed by an ethereal synth, you can hear the loneliness hanging in the air. The riff is simple and clean, but rhythmic enough to let you know it has bite. The drums are plain, but precise and intricate, very Manchester Orchestra The first chorus has lazy guitars slithering around the framework. The synth returns in the second verse to add body.
The second next chorus ends with a deep power chord, and you know something’s not right. It’s the feeling when you are worried sick and your stomach drops out. A buildup to another chorus is topped with a single filtered guitar note, vibrating high over the rest of the track like a satellite. Finally, the track explodes into a full-force set of choruses intermixed with snippets of the verse.
Forest Whitaker – With a pop chorus like “I’ve Got Friends,” “Forest Whitaker” is the first single off II. According to Hull, this song is about two people who hate each other but are completely invested in their counterpart’s actions. It’s a sweet-and-sour black comedy; it has a sad core, but is sugar-coated to go down easier. The lyrics play out a story that, to me, sounds like two scorned lovers following each other, post-breakup, and sneering at the successes of the other party. It really is a delightful look into the distorted relationship of “frenemies.”
The harmonized guitars have a light processing that makes the song feel like an 8-bit romp through an NES love story. The song stays restrained and the drums compressed through the duration, relying on the whistle hook to keep ’em coming back for more. It works.
It Never Stops – This is my most listened-to track on the album right now. It opens serenely and sensitively, with an innocent yelp to get things cooking. The triplet-based rhythm guitar lays a textured bed for the synth later in the song. The chorus is supremely catchy, and some great work on the cymbals really puts import on the lyric, “Honey it never stops.” The lead guitar work by Robert McDowell lends great melody to the chorus, and makes it interesting enough to warrant repeat listens.
The third verse is backed by a gang vocal harmony, which is one of my favorite parts of the song. There’s an energy in a sustained vocal harmonization that a synth doesn’t possess. The song then takes us through one more raucous chorus and ends abruptly, slightly off-kilter, which perfectly suits the vibe.
Underneath, I’ve posted a live acoustic version of this song, which shows the brilliance Hull and Devine have. To take a song so complete in its studio form, and make it a wholly separate song in another style is real talent.
No Sides – Here’s the pop sensibility that Devine lends to the record. The double backbeat during the verse makes this track sound like some B-side from a discarded British Invasion band. Like many of the other tracks on the album, synthesizers, guitar melodies, and vocal harmonies are used to great effect during the chorus.
I particularly enjoy this track, because (like “No Reward,”) it gives a chance to hear the band in a little less-serious light. The song is deceptive like that, though. During the bridge, there is enough change and texture that you can’t catch it all on the first listen through, even though you might think you’ve got it all figured out. After multiple listens, I’m still picking apart the vocal and instruments on this track.
Petite Mort – A solemn baroque ditty, “Petite Mort” is another look into mortality, a black comedy along the lines of “Forest Whitaker,” but almost Shakespearean in tone. The verse is fantastically textured, instrumentally, partly thanks to the tone of the guitars, but also the bassline, which you can tell wants to walk right off the map. The guitars in this track, plucked arpeggios backing the verse and single note harmonies after the chorus, are sparse and hauntingly simple. A sweet and simple track, it leaves you feeling solemn and thoughtful.
I would like to note that the tender songs on this album (“Pytor,” and “42,” namely) are tremendously beautiful, lyrically and instrumentally. They have stayed out of my Key Tracks because I think it is the personality of these songs to stay as deep cuts, and not have a spotlight shone upon them. These songs become the quiet gems on the album, thought provoking and with substance, and provide a fantastic way to cleanse your aural palate between the harder rocking tracks on the album.
All in all, II is a fantastic album. Every track on it is worth a listen, and repeats at that. I’ve been listening to the album for over a week now, and I’m still finding emotion in the smallest crevices. I greatly recommend a listen.