Review Summary: Despite sounding imitative at almost every turn, strong songwriting and clever production drag In Stitches above much of the criticism
Alright, let’s get this out of the way. His dad broke the scandal that brought down Nixon; his mom wrote and directed Sleepless In Seattle
. The child Max Bernstein wound up singer and guitarist with LA pop-punkers The Actual, spitting bitter and ironic rhymes between sweet and sugary pop melodies- is it any wonder?
Following the modest performance of their 2003 Eyeball Records debut Songs On Idaho Radio
, The Actual were chosen by Scott Weiland (Velvet Revolver, ex-Stone Temple Pilots) and production partner Douglas Grean to launch their Softdrive Records label. Though produced by Weiland and Grean, In Stitches
is a far cry from the grungy radio rock Weiland is known for, instead invoking punk and power pop from The Clash and Cheap Trick through Joy Division and Green Day, but the keen melodic ear which has allowed him to escape obscurity since grunge collapsed is clearly in evidence through the album’s tight pop arrangements, accentuating the vocal melodies subtly through vocal harmonies, counter-melodies and clever instrumental accompaniment.
Much has been made of Bernstein’s lyrical prowess, hardly surprising given his upbringing. While there’s a slight element of fantasy to the band’s billing as an “ultra-literate combo,” there is a ring of truth to it as well; Bernstein is well-drilled as a lyricist, spinning simple, terse phrases which are expressive, cleverly-conceived and, most importantly, memorable. Lead single ‘This Is The Worst Day of My Life (Do You Want To Come Over)’ echoes Butch Walker, as the singer observes flippantly, “bad luck always comes in threes / I’ve got two, so come around and finish me.”
‘If You See Her’ casts Bernstein in the Pete Wentz mould, noting, “he’ll make a pledge to protect her and leave her drowning in a talent pool,”
together with ‘Needle Park’’s “my whole world is falling down around you”
As a record, In Stitches
gives the impression of a singles collection rather than a singular-vision album; it feels almost as if there’s several versions of the band vying for attention throughout the record’s thirteen cuts. Opener ‘Pride of the Echelon’ and highlight ‘Needle Park’ could have been pulled from a late-90s Fat Wreck compilation; they’re harsh, abrasive, but also fiercely melodic. ‘To All The Plain Janes’ and ‘If You See Her’ retain some of the same brashness, but the sound is of a more mature and contemplative band, taking in shades of the Dismemberment Plan and the New Pornographers through bright, airy synthesisers. As if to labour the point further, ‘Dancing on the Perimeter’ and ‘Permanent Kitten’ call to mind the sterile post-punk of Interpol and, in the latter case, Jack White’s sparring partner Brendan Benson,’ while the xylophone-propelled ‘Between the Bridge and the Chapel’ its outstanding in its own field entirely.
Similarly, while the performances are uniformly more than competent, the band always appear at the mercy of their material. Bernstein seems to have as many personalities as the band: ‘Needle Park’ and ‘Pride of the Echelon’ recall an Americanised Joe Strummer by way of Billie Joe Armstrong; ‘Permanent Kitten’ and ‘Dancing on the Perimeter’ bring to mind Weiland and Interpol’s Paul Banks; while the lead vocal of ‘If You See Her’ is closely reminiscent of The Exies’ Scott Stephens. Not even comedy actors are safe; lines like “I hyasked
for the rent” call to mind a certain doctor from a certain successful medical drama which isn’t half as funny as it used to be (any ideas? Answers on a postcard.)
Ultimately, despite sounding imitative at almost every turn, strong songwriting and clever production drag In Stitches
above much of the criticism which can be leveled upon it. Why complain about a record being derivative when so the groups they’re imitating have long since abandoned the style- certainly Green Day’s pop punk days are long behind them- and what’s the use in complaining when it’s so much fun