Review Summary: They're yet to make a record without apparent flaws, but at this rate it won't be long before they're viewed as the heavyweight champions of power-pop, if that isn't already the case.
Pop-punk as a genre is incredibly difficult to pin down at times. Stretching between its two component parts, its development has seen an inevitable backlash from artists and fans geared more towards the underground, as bands struggle to find their place in a scene that cares far too much about its image. And there's no doubt that the genre has become, in recent years, the most bastardized label in music; local gig scenes are plagued by hundreds of carbon-copy bands trying to reproduce exactly the sound of a band they grew up listening to. For this reason, the genre of pop-rock has become more closely associated with its punk neighbour, as a dog-house of sorts for the latter genre's worse bands. This has the unfortunate effect of devaluing pop-rock as a whole, especially the type produced by Motion City Soundtrack.
MCS never try to be overtly alternative or edgy; their sound comprises a strong dose of pop, a noteworthy rock presence, and basically no punk. Gone are any of the miniscule rough edges in sound and production that existed on their earlier releases (I Am The Movie, really); Even If It Kills Me is a pop album, pristinely executed and deliberately mixed to appeal to an audience that gets high off hooks. 2005's Commit This To Memory saw the band reach catchy heights and their 2007 release makes their intentions clear, without staying entirely still. It was always the obvious and correct direction to head; Justin Pierre's vocals hardly conjure ideas of rebellion or anything more gritty than pick'n'mix. Sounding like a slightly less wimpy version of Copeland's Aaron Marsh, he guides Motion City Soundtrack through 13 tracks of sugary pop-rock which are constructed around his voice, fairly standard accompanying guitar work and prominent moog-synth riffs.
The singles - Broken Heart, This Is For Real and It Had To Be You, respectively - are proud to be the best reflection of Motion City Soundtrack's ideas; songs which rely on gradual progression from an opening guitar or bassline, through a marginally more layered verse, and open (rather than explode) into a euphoric chorus, they're formulaic but all still brilliant. It Had To Be You, the best of the trio, is a pop-flavoured anthem which demonstrates why the band are able to remain on top form despite their reliance on the same structures and tactics. A large part of it is Justin Pierre's down-to-earth, pensive wordplay, usually introspective and always heartfelt. When the bridge's instrumentation drops out to a picked guitar line and glockenspiel, and the bass ushers in the heart-stopping line, "What a disaster it would be if you discovered that I cared..." it's genuinely beautiful. It's gone before you can absorb it and that's half of the attraction - Even If It Kills Me is capable of making you feel that range of emotions between jumping around senselessly and staring upwards thoughtfully, without making a big deal about it.
For all its blatantly mainstream tendencies, Even If It Kills me is far from devoid of substance. Though the band are probably at their most consistent on the more straightforward power-pop songs, there are a lot of stand-out moments over the course of this record's 44-minute runtime that rely on a subtle shift in aesthetic. Most obviously, piano-ballad The Conversation is a reflective slice of brilliance with the phenomenal line, "You were drunk and tried to take a mental picture with your hands." The track shamelessly mirrors Ben Folds but the truth is it would be at home on one of his own records, and probably even his greatest hits album. It's the one time, that exists on every Motion City Soundtrack album, when the band bare their emotions without the bouncy hooks to cover them up, and it's probably Even If It Kills Me's most affecting moment. Elsewhere, Max Bemis offers guest vocals on another stand-out - Hello Helicopter - which is slightly more mid-tempo and whose chorus sees the volume drop rather than rise, and the title-track boasts stuttering drums which build tension through the verses, sound almost-tribal in the pre-chorus and then do their usual work in the refrain. There's easily enough variety throughout these 13 songs; the structure largely stays the same, as does the overall sound (due largely to Pierre's vocals), but the methods MCS use to trip the listener up make Even If It Kills Me a thoroughly enjoyable listen.
There are three tracks here which slide into mediocrity or tediumwhen placed alongside the other tracks on offer. The opener, Can't Finish What You've Started and Where I Belong are all content to slip by unnoticed and at times become far too predictable and simply boring to warrant their inclusion - Where I Belong, especially, has a chorus which is just there and reaches absolutely no climax. Every single other track, though, is an impressively-delivered example of great pop-rock, and some are among the best material in Motion City Soundtrack's back catalogue, which is getting quite heavy with sweet, infectious and subtly affecting pop songs. They're yet to make a record without apparent flaws, but at this rate it won't be long before they're viewed as the heavyweight champions of power-pop, if that isn't already the case.
As always, good review Adam. I meant to listen to this when they were down under early in 2008 & never got around to it.
I've always had difficulties with the term "pop-rock" as people define it so differently. For example, is Jack Johnson/Ben Folds pop-rock, or are The All-American Rejects/The Academy Is... pop-rock? I don't think both pairings can be. I prefer power-pop for some reason.
I'm rambling. Anyway, I think I prefer the latter pairing & therefore have no issues with your use of the term in this review. Judge Davey rules for Strikey.
Haha. It's a weird situation because as you said, vastly different artists are placed under the same genre, but then it exists everywhere; take pop-punk for example, Mayday Parade and Brand New are HUGELY different in style and sound but both are still placed under pop-punk. Sometimes I wonder whether it matters if you reverse the tags i.e. punk-pop. Is a punk-pop band one which introduces punk elements to pop music, and a pop-punk band is vice-versa? Dunno. It just sucks that pop-rock gets such a bad name by way of All Time Low and other mediocre-terrible 'pop-punk' bands being labeled so, when there are some very solid bands which fit under the moniker. I've always labeled Ben Folds as piano-rock and Jack Johnson as just pop.
Yeah, I don't think I view Brand New as pop-punk anymore. I'd say they're Indie-Rock. While I always thought All Time Low were pop-punk.
I agree on Ben Folds, piano-rock is apt. While I have no idea what to label Jack Johnson. Soft rock or soft pop maybe. Or we could possibly come up with our own genre; How does Relaxapop roll off the tongue?
Haha re: Coldplay. Is it true that on the liner notes of VLVida, the lead singer is referred to as Vicious Chris Martin!? Haha.
By the way Adam, I'm just putting the finishing touches on my next review and I would eventually be interested to see what you think of the album, as you could really really like it. Give me a couple of hours though as I'm tweaking. Hell, I'm still deciding on the final rating!
Haha, I shall have a look. It's half 3 here though so unless it's in the next 2 hours it'll be tomorrow. I flipped between a 3.5 and 4 for this but in the end I think their 2005 album is better and not more than a 4, so I settled on 3.5. It's damn good though.
Just went and checked re; VLV, and not that I can see. Where did you hear that?!
Oh lol it was a joke about the punk thing, I seriously did not get that, although it is slightly more quirky than their usual liner notes i.e. "recorded in a baker, a nunnery, a magic shop, a church." so I have something resembling a very poor excuse. :P
This album gets way too much crap around here. Sure, the majority of it concentrates on being poppy & breaking into the mainstream, but there’s still a great deal of variety (the Weezer-like ‘It Had to Be You, the Max Bemis assisted ‘Hello Helicopter’ & piano ballad ‘The Conversation’). Plus, when songs are as catchy as ‘Broken Heart’ & ‘This Is For Real’, it’s difficult not to get hooked in. All the while, Justin Pierre’s fantastic lyrics continue to have listeners hanging on every word. Recommended Tracks: Broken Heart, This Is For Real, Hello Helicopter & Point of Extinction.