Review Summary: Could have been so much more...
I hesitate to label Bad Books a “supergroup.” We have Kevin Devine, that songwriter who followed Brand New around for a while but never managed to leech off of their growing popularity. Ctrl+F his Wikipedia page for “Brand New” and you’ll find not only that the fellow Long Islanders pop up numerous times, but that he’s still touring along with the band even after Daisy marked a pretty stark change in direction. Fantastic. His solo work has been middle-of-the-road material, your everyday singer-songwriter ditties that haven’t been enough to catapult him off those coattails that have
to be getting ragged and dirty, by now. On the other side of the equation, we have Grizzly Adams look-alike Andy Hull; he makes music, but is more notable for having the 2nd-best beard in modern indie (next to that bird’s nest hanging from Sam Beam’s chin). The Manchester Orchestra frontman has garnered a hefty following after the success of Mean Everything to Nothing
, which makes the fact that his side projects like Right Away, Great Captain, and now, Bad Books, haven’t gained much momentum surprising. Will Bad Books keep up this pattern? Probably. Is this reasonable? Definitely. Which brings me back to the fact that Bad Books isn’t quite a supergroup, more of an so-so
group with some super potential.
The collaboration could have gone either way. The songwriting talent is latent, and Devine’s gift in this realm seemed like a perfect device to highlight Hull’s beefy vocals. The energy that Manchester Orchestra harnessed so well on their latest release could have been complemented by Devine’s smaller, personal sound. On paper, magic could have happened. Instead of Disney, we get your little brother practicing card tricks. The most striking aspect about the self-titled debut is how unremarkable it sounds. Instead of a Bang!
, Bad Books begin with a lulling upppp and doooown melody that swells but fails to go anywhere meaningful. With some notable exceptions, this becomes the motif of Bad Books
- pleasant melodies with adequate singing that fails to flesh out into anything outstanding.
If Bad Books
has one saving grace, it’s in the collaboration’s efforts to combine Kevin Devine and Manchester Orchestra without becoming too derivative of one effort or the other. Instances like “Baby Shoes” and “I Begged You Everything,” Bad Books sounds like a more folk or singer-songwriter infused version of I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child
. This might be because of Hull’s unique vocals shining through, his endearingly cracking, yet soulful voice, combined with especially poignant, self-aware lyrical style. Either way it’s hard to deny the merit of a few individual standouts on Bad Books, from the single “You Wouldn’t Have To Ask,” the soft sincerity of “The Easy Mark and the Old Maid” complete with background waahh-oohh
s, or the surprisingly raucous “Please Move.” When push comes to shove though, Bad Books is simply another release that doesn’t quite capitalize on the right elements.
What defines this from Manchester Orchestra’s higher points is the lack of defining hooks with catchy, distinct melodies. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve craved “The Neighborhood Is Bleeding” or “I Can Feel A Hot One” and had to promptly satisfy that need by listening. Enjoyable enough while listening, Bad Books isn’t nearly as enticing. The band accomplishes sufficient diversity and is brief enough to not weary the listener, but the lack of a personality holds the release back from achieving anything of consequence. Devine’s songwriting skills can be accredited with keeping the ebb and flow of Bad Books up to par, but I can’t help but feel Hull and his band are being underused- their energy and liveliness, especially. In the end, the exceptional single songs on Bad Books keep the collaborations head above water and save it from drowning, but it’s still an exercise in under-using the capacities available and coming out with a so-so release by a so-so
group that could have been so much more than so-so.