Review Summary: Around about the time track two ends, it's likely you will have stopped believing.
The Rocket Summer were always a guilty pleasure in the truest sense of the word: it was never so much the issue that others would mock you for playing their songs - although there was certainly an element of that involved - but more that you personally felt slightly dirty for digging through clichĂ©s and cheesy grins to get to the undeniably superb hooks and the odd truly worthwhile song. It just always seemed like the power-pop guitars and happy-go-lucky pianos were hiding enough potential to justify the continued treasure hunt that is their back catalogue. Of Men And Angels
maintains the same guilt-ridden listening experience as before, amping up the enthusiasm and relying more than ever on choruses and handclaps, but this time it harbours a sharper edge, because Bryce Avary's 2010 release also finds me feeling like I've been wasting my time.
It's probably got something to do with the hype that Avery projected onto his fourth studio album prior to release; in an interview with ArtistDirect he said, "I tried to write great songs that would hopefully strike a chord with different people that I haven't beforeâ€"really honest songs."
This is a small-time chat from an artist with not much true mainstream exposure so it would be unfair to read too much into his words but it's clear from the record's big
cover art and its huge
(and sappy) title that this is no transitional record for Avary, which would go a long way to explaining why it's also such a disappointment. For a long time it's been fair game to pass his shortcomings as a musician or songwriter off as fixable or minor details, but on Of Men And Angels
those faults come screeching to the front of almost every song and it's too difficult to ignore or explain away.
Avary is clearly respectably talented; every note on Of Men And Angels
was composed and recorded by the baby-voiced 27-year-old, and he produced the album to boot. These are admirable traits because there is very little wrong with this collection of songs in those respects; the mixing and execution of the ideas on display are both top-notch and at the least deserve recognition, however simple a task they sometimes become - this is light-hearted pop-rock, after all. Unfortunately, there's a lack of general substance which renders these positive aspects almost irrelevant. Take third track 'Hills and Valleys' as your example; it hosts the major chords and melodies we've come to expect, coupled with cute piano twinkles, handclaps and infectious backing vocals. On its own it's difficult to deny the enjoyment factor, but in context... those same backing vocals were in the previous song too. It's a few more major chords to add to his collection. And the piano's not impressive enough to distance itself from the million other times it pops up.
And then there's the lyrics. Listen to me, Bryce Avary: there is nothing wrong with being optimistic
. I mean that. But Jesus
, Bryce. Jesus Christ
. The first six tracks of Of Men And Angels
are as follows:
"Keep hooooolding on!"
"You gotta believe!"
"There's gold ahead! There's golden dreams!"
"Stop fearing death and never look back!"
"Believe you me, you are not alone!"
"This is a brand new day!"
That's not even mentioning 'Japanese Exchange Student' which is a surprisingly awful and awkward slice of lyricism from a man whose communication is usually at the very least honest. He complains about not being able to get backstage with BeyoncĂ© less than a minute into the track and you've just got to turn it off by the time that he's disappointed Paul McCartney won't come to his party. It was always a cornerstone of The Rocket Summer's appeal that Avary's songwriting was carefree, like Something Corporate without the emotional baggage or at least with the ability to ignore it. But a few times on Of Men And Angels
Avary stumbles into accidental self-parody and the rest of the time he's largely platitudinous, coming off as inspired more by Chad Kroeger than the Christian deity he spends much of his time writing about. Fortunately there are points at which he redeems himself like when he sings, I know it's not too sexy that I'm singing about the blessings that we get
in highlight 'Nothing Matters'. He's still got it in bits and pieces, but they're few and far between.
Of Men And Angels
suffers in most instances from being too narrow both in terms of sonic approach and songwriting, and it's also disappointingly predictable for the majority of its runtime. You know, like I did, that the title-track will start supported by just a piano. You know, like I did, that 'Hey!' will be upbeat and fist-punching, even if it does evolve into a noteworthy and riotous offering that's undoubtedly a standout. That's the thing: Bryce Avary still knows how to write a good pop-rock track and in the album's latter stages the volume and intensity are increased to good effect, but by that point it's too little, too late; the damage has been done.
It's almost the kind of album you feel guilty for criticising so heavily because it will obviously brighten up countless fifteen-year-olds' days and inspire five-minute fits of optimism in plenty of hopeful pop-rock lovers. But Avary had always hinted at possessing something more than that simplistic appeal, and after Of Men And Angels
, harmless as it may be, it's suddenly difficult to hold expectations of anything truly great from his future output. I'm always happy to be proven wrong, but right now I'll state firmly that I know, out of men and angels
, where Bryce Avary and, in turn, The Rocket Summer belong.