Review Summary: The Academy Is… return to high school & attempt to recreate their debut album, but disappointingly fall short
Despite the vastly differing timelines, the album progression shown by The Academy Is… (T.A.I) on their first three full-length releases is not too dissimilar to that of the three most recent Jimmy Eat World (J.E.W) albums. Both American artists made excellent pop-rock LP’s with T.A.I’s 2005 release ‘Almost Here’ arguably matching J.E.W’s 2001 effort ‘Bleed American’. The two bands then followed up with albums (‘Santi’ and ‘Futures’) which were more mature, varied and experimental, without matching the quality of their predecessors. These releases were not as commercially successful as the bands and labels had expected, so with the third albums in this comparison, both groups attempted to recreate the magic that had previously proved so fruitful. J.E.W struggled with 2007’s disappointing ‘Chase This Light’ and T.A.I unfortunately fall into the same trap with ‘Fast Times At Barrington High’ (FTABH).
This album begins promisingly enough as a case could reasonably be made that the opening three tracks are the best that FTABH has to offer. At the very least, they appear to be the most likely to be released as singles. The fittingly titled opener ‘About A Girl’ was chosen as the lead single due to a chorus of sing-along harmonies eventually wearing the listener down in amongst the background of an above-average, if slightly generic, combination of pop-punk and arena-ready pop-rock. Better though are the two following tracks, ‘Summer Hair = Forever Young’ and ‘His Girl Friday’, as both cuts are more immediate and accessible due to their contagiously poppy choruses. Yet, it is arguable that none of these three songs are as effective as the highlight tracks from ‘Almost Here’ (‘Slow Down’, ‘The Phrase That Pays’, ‘Attention’ & ‘Down And Out’).
Musically, T.A.I may be one of the tightest bands of their genre and they do indeed prove that here with everything right where it should be, especially the guitar hooks and clearly noticeable drums. However, the composition of this group of 12 songs is disappointingly unimaginative and safe, ultimately not allowing the band to sufficiently show the skills that surprised some listeners on ‘Santi’. Furthermore, talented lead vocalist William Beckett seems to need a motivational coach to tell him that he is in fact better than he thinks he is, as he too often goes through the motions here, leading to many cuts (especially their choruses) sounding the same. See ‘The Test’, 'Automatic Eyes’ and ‘Coppertone’ as examples of this.
It is of no surprise then that the noteworthy standouts of the final three-quarters of this album are those where Beckett does indeed vary his vocals. Track 5 ‘Rumored Nights’ impressively includes effective changes such as falsetto passages, layered vocals and subtle pace-switching in amongst the lyrical content of learning about a girlfriend’s indiscretions. Later, track 7 ‘Crowded Room’ includes a muffled vocal beginning (assisted by Gabe Saporta of Cobra Starship and Mason Musso of Metro Station) which suggests something different and exciting. And the band delivers with a faster punkier vibe which is highlighted by an energetic & anthemic chorus that is full of fist-pumping sing-along qualities.
‘After The Last Midtown Show’ is the token ballad of the album and by far the longest track of FTABH at 5:13. Piano-assisted (with the help of Andrew McMahon of Jack’s Mannequin), this is an effective enough piece, but in no way outstanding like other thematically similar songs that many bands have performed in the past. In its defense, it may be the track which is most likely to improve after repeated listens over a sustained period of time. Almost all other cuts may be more involving in the moment, but their lasting value has to be questioned.
Some listeners may be put off by the fact that it is glaringly obvious that the lyrics included on this album are aimed at teenagers. It is part of the reason why the ‘About A Girl’ title of the opener is so fitting as there are many tracks which are indeed about a girl. But there are just as many which are clearly about life for a teenager at high school... So much so that it is a surprise that there is no song titled ‘About A High School’! In fact, there even appears to be a loose concept of sorts running through the album. This is especially the case with the 2 solid closing tracks ‘Paper Chase’ and ‘One More Weekend’. The former is an old-school pop-punk cut concerning graduating, while the latter deals with moving on to the next stage of life.
Make no mistake about it; ‘Fast Times At Barrington High’ is by no means a bad album. It is merely a safe and inoffensive one. It is difficult to choose a lowlight from the 12 tracks contained within, making this release more consistent than ‘Santi’. However, that does not necessarily make it a better one. And there is definitely no comparison to the much more memorable ‘Almost Here’. The Academy Is… have unfortunately got a little lazy on their third full-length album, resulting in what is ultimately a rather generic sound that many other pop-punk bands are currently playing. That is a real shame as they have clear breakout potential and under-rated talent. Someone really does need to tell them that they are indeed better than they think they are.
Recommended Tracks: Summer Hair = Forever Young, Crowded Room & His Girl Friday.