Review Summary: The climax of Bad Astronaut's sadly short career.
When Bad Astronaut burst onto the punk scene with the release of their 2001 album Acrophobe, with it’s blistering pop punk antics, snotty attitude, devotion to rhythm and wonderful melodies, few listeners would ask the question “What next?” It seemed pretty simple; Acrophobe was only half an hour of Bad Astronaut showcasing their talent, and the forthcoming album would be just more of an onslaught of that same sound. That’s how it is with most pop punk bands, anyway, especially ones of the 21st century.
But Bad Astronaut rebounded with Houston: We Have a Problem, an alternative rock album of the highest order, and an almost left-wing change of overall sound. There are elements of their debut still resident, but they are mere traces in the scheme of things. Rather than dividing their album into different sounds as they had done with Acrophobe, Bad Astronaut have a main sound for Houston: they’ve slowed things down, brought more structure to their songs, added a slew of minor chords, and picked up a few acoustic guitars.
To describe Bad Astronaut’s sound would be somewhat pointless, as it is deceivingly simple; the band have brought a simple folk sound to their punk rock, adding a more thoughtful, deeper, and sadder element. As mentioned, there is little remaining of their pop punk sound, and only exists in a few moments on the album, sprinkled into the sweeping melodies, beautiful (though simple) guitar parts, even strings and pianos. While “Single” may be the closest the album gets to rekindling their punk affair, as it is the fastest song on the album, songs like the delightfully simple “Another Dead Romance” scatter punk traces throughout, with the solo, four chord power chord progression, and the bitter lyrics. But Bad Astronaut have, simply, moved on with their sound, and the result is not only as catchy and heart-warming, but it’s almost simply much more suiting to the band and, even simpler, is much more effective and better, to be blunt. “Off the Wagon” is as youthful as a punk rock song, but sounds more mature due to the band’s receding tempo and more keen eye towards intelligence and rhythm, and it’s a simply great result.
It’s incredible how much Bad Astronaut have slowed down and grown up in such a short time. While the sound of Acrophobe might have been considered a remarkably mature and defining sound already, Houston: We Have a Problem digs even deeper into their remarkable melodies, brilliant lyrics (either satirical or serious, mostly via metaphor), and fun nature, while overall deepening their sound a great deal. The absolutely lovely number “Disarm” starts off incredibly sad and heart-felt, the piano skipping across and playing off of the guitar chords is so simple yet so effective, but even as the song completely changes direction into a more punk realm, it remains as rhythmical, thoughtful and mourning, but also adds a very effective sense of fun and happiness into the mix, creating a completely emotionally involving song even (or especially) while taking simple elements and sounds. Houston: We have a Problem could potentially be one of the most enjoyable sad albums ever made, since they know their limits with sorrow and happiness (the brilliant ballad “Our Greatest Year” would be a key example of both), and create a very relatable experience every single time.
The band has a definitive sound of slower, more thoughtful indie rock, and Bad Astronaut also twiddle their fingers with a louder, more rock sound, while not compromising their sound in the slightest. While this was only hinted at with Acrophobe, this shines full force with this album, even while it is in a somewhat deceitful package. The opener, “These days”, is a slow-burning, powerful and very climactic (loud bursts of slow rock perfectly break out of silent piano/guitar interplay) song, again balancing the band’s moods perfectly. “Break Your Frame” and “If I Had a Son” are mellower songs, tinged with a hint of sadness and discomfort, but sound as sharp and brilliantly portrayed, but the marching nature of the songs are flawlessly led into very powerful, though subtle, climaxes. The cover of The Posies
’ “Solar Sister” isn’t necessarily a heavy song, but on the album is about as heavy and forceful as the band gets. The guitars are being strummed at high velocity, the rhythm section hammering away, and the vocals and piano wonderfully playing off each other, and creates a truly anthemic experience, while in fact not doing too much different than cranking up the volume a bit and letting loose.
But in the end, it’s when the band slowest that they achieve a more effective level of music. It’s simply beautiful, constantly laying guitars and keys over a simple guitar strumming, soft percussion, ambient bass work and softly swaying vocals, until the song sounds twice as full as it started out being. The cover of Jon Snodgrass’ “Break Your Frame” is an absolute stunner, starting off innocently enough yet picking up speed and packing a bigger sound as it goes, ending in a more downbeat solution to pop punk. “Clear Cutting”, “Off the Wagon” and the last two songs “Our Greatest Year” and “The Passenger” are where the band achieves perfection; everything the band represents wrapped in neat little packages, making a one-stop Bad Astronaut powerhouse, both when representing their more rock their more quiet sounds. Even with simpler aspects like beautiful song writing, great musical performances, and a heartfelt approach, the band achieves startling heights and truly move the listener.
Bad Astronaut’s second album is a classic for the following reasons, which are very simple: it’s a beautiful song album. There are no bad songs, no filler, no bizarre songs that seem out of place. It’s a wonderfully smooth, accessible and perfectly programmed album that never gets tiring, whether you listen from start to finish, or start in the middle and listen to two or three tracks. The lyrics are quirky and playful, often with a hint of farce but never any less convincingly thought-out or sincere, and the music sounds human, something that doesn’t blow you away or make you feel small, but at home, comfortable and even relatable. In the end, this is basically a perfect album for the genre, and therefore is unconditionally recommended to fans of alternative rock, pop punk, or just rock music in general. You won’t be sorry. A classic.