Review Summary: If this was their debut, I would be convinced to award them a few more points with their solid grasp of pop hooks and workmanlike piano skills, but in truth their sophomore effort is practically identical to How To Save A Life.
It’s been almost four years since Denver-based piano-rock combo the Fray released their debut How To Save A Life, a fairly acceptable disc of mid-tempo “rockers” and MTV-pleasing ballads, and became multi-platinum superstars. Of course, after listening to their self-titled sophomore effort, you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself thinking that no time at all had passed. The piano is still the centerpiece of the band’s sound, pounding out chords in accompaniment to the stadium-ready drum parts and unexciting bursts of guitar. Singer Issac Slade still sounds like he has a perpetually sore throat and still spouts high-school poetry like “man was born to trouble like sparks fly upward, innocent” (“Absolute”) or “happiness is a firecracker sitting on my headboard” (the sublimely-titled “Happiness”).
During the course of this album I often pondered questions that I had, in fact, struggled with during my last encounter with the Fray in ’05, questions like: or “Is singer Slade really still this unhappy after becoming one of pop-rock’s most successful radio acts?” or “Will the Fray ever consider speeding up the monotonous tempo they have sold millions of records on?” or even “How many interchangeable minor-key melodies can one man take before simultaneously combusting with sorrow?” Alas, the answers are, respectively, “yes,” “no,” and “possibly.”
Single “You Found Me” is the kind of piano-based, optimistic single that is the Fray’s bread-and-butter and a song that will assuredly grace multiple high school proms across the country, heartbreakingly earnest and totally uncompromising. Unfortunately, I couldn’t distinguish it from the opener “Syndicate,” another piano anthem in the lyrical vein of previous hit “How To Save A Life.” Nor were either of them much different from the frantic “Say When,” or the somber “Ungodly Hour,” or the fast-paced “Absolute,” although the handclaps on that latter are an admittedly nice touch. The hooks are all there; the same melodies that sold millions of records are all nicely in place, brushed up and polished to studio perfection; the originality, however, is not.
To be fair, there are a few attempts by the band to branch out of their comfort zone, however lackluster they might be. “We Build Then We Break” is the most obvious one, building off a buzzing synth line and a pulsing drumbeat rather than the omnipresent piano. It’s also the best, a song that messes with the Fray’s signature sound, introducing a sweet little guitar lick here, a spacey synth twirl here, and soaring vocals that contribute to the haunting atmosphere of the song. And the entirely out-of-place instrumental breakdown at the bridge and droning climax are awesome simply because it’s totally separate from the rest of the album. The Fray can do different, and this should give listeners hope after they’ve digested all the middle-of-the-road piano rock they can handle.
Artists have been excused of making the same album over and over again, and some for good reason, but few have gone about it as blatantly as the Fray. If this was their debut, I would be convinced to award them a few more points with their solid grasp of pop hooks and workmanlike piano skills, but in truth their sophomore effort is practically identical to How To Save A Life. They will make millions, they will rule the radio for the next year or two, and that will be probably be all the reason they need to keep doing the same thing over and over again. Welcome to modern pop radio.