Review Summary: Not exactly the most disappointing follow-up possible to their sophomore masterpiece, but The Starting Line have not improved on it either.
For those of you playing at home, The Starting Line are an Pittsburgh-based collective of four twentysomethings, with the most attention going to vocalist, lyricist, bassist and multi-instrumentalist (see the credits for the band’s previous record for proof of this) Kenny Vasoli. It seems all of, if not all of the band’s songs, are his visions, his thoughts, his perspectives. Sure, like most pop-punk (or “emo”, as you would have it, Rolling Stone), his subject matter is strongly centred around love, lack thereof, that girl, being a kid, how awesome it is to be a kid and have that girl, how much it sucks that girl is gone, etc. But when the music of such great quality, you can’t really complain.
Take 2005’s “Based On A True Story”, for example. A fantastic record that challenged the status quo of pop punk with orchestration, vicious spiteful lyrics against their record label (now THAT’s punk rock!), pensive acoustic numbers and a diverse array of instruments and percussion. It was one of my favourite records of the year, and the lead single “Bedroom Talk” came in third in my top 10 songs of that year also.
So where do we find the band in 2007? Have the band gone above and beyond their previous record with new progressions and innovations to their genre with Direction? Well, I’ve got good news and bad news.
Bad news first- the answer is no.
The good news is that the record doesn’t necessarily suck because of it.
Of all the opening lines in the world, never in a million years would I have expected these guys to have theirs as a loudly screamed “BREAK-DOWN!”. You’re left in two minds about the whole ordeal- It’s either the most unintentionally hilarious thing you’ll hear this side of Cannibal Corpse
, or they’re aiming an attack on style-over-substance-core bands like Escape The Fate
. Either way, this is how the band kicks off its title track and opening song. The song goes on in a similar, left-of-centre (for these guys, at least) style. Apart from the recognisable vocal lines, you can hardly tell it’s the same band.
Despite initial bad vibes and a few bad lines (“I was growing my hair/And I could not care what they think”? Jesus, Kenny, what are you, fourteen?), the song itself really isn’t that bad. Like a lot of Starting Line songs, it’s got more hooks than a bait shop, and definitely makes for a good listen. Plus, it’s something different- always a plus for a new album, especially bands like TSL that get criticised for being “cookie cutter”, too samey, “generic” etc.
After the track finishes, a sense of familiarity occurs as “21” kicks in. The band are in familiar territory on this song, doing what they do best- energetic pop-punk much in the vein of their contemporaries. While the song is fine (notably lyrically with a very catchy, albeit a tad clichéd, hook of “I’m twenty-one and I’m already wasted”), you wonder through your head-nodding and feet-tapping how long the band can keep the subject matter up; especially considering the band are now in their twenties and, for want of a better phrase, growing up in the world. The naivety that shined on their first two records has notably faded as the band has aged, or at least should have. As a listener you’re left in two minds, also, on what direction (pardon the pun) the record will take from here.
Unfortunately (or possibly fortunate for some), a good bulk of the record seems to fall into the “21” category of energetic but barely passable pop-punk- songs like “I Could Be Wrong” and “Hurry” are prime examples of the painful ordinariness of the less-satisfying parts of the album. Sure the songs are boppy and catchy enough, but the record overall is flawed for having too much of not enough.
Naturally, like all even half-decent albums, Direction has some real gems. For what Direction lacks, it certainly makes up for with its highlights. The standout is “Something Left To Give”, a fantastic stripped back number which brings relief like Based On A True Story’s “Photography” did back on first listens in 2005. After the boppy tunes and electric guitar start to overwhelm, this track takes the tone down. Sounding a lot like John Mayer
in both the acoustic guitar playing style and the lyrics, it glides gently along before absolutely soaring, thanks in no small part to the fantastic production job, especially when the gang vocals are brought in (see “The World” from the previous record- an otherwise average song given some great effect and catchiness). The song is a triumph, and it really reminds you of just how great the band can be when stripped back.
Another fantastic listen is “Need To Love”, one of the songs on the record that made me really stop and want to listen again…and again…then several times more. Lyrically, Vasoli is at his heart-warming (or wrenching) finest, and vocally he is at his best on this track. The mix of acoustic and electric guitar is also a really good touch. While I admire the excellence of these tracks, it certainly also left me wanting more out of this band who I know are capable of making a truly great album instead of just a good one.
This is an enjoyable, occasionally fantastic album with some good production and a few good changes in direction (damn puns again). It’s worth your time, and if you’re a fan of the band then you’ll probably love it. But unfortunately, lack of consistency, too much of the “same old same old” and not enough change and progression as a band has restricted this band from topping “Based On A True Story”.
Next album, maybe?
Oh, well. Altogether now- “BREAKDOWNNN!”