Review Summary: Don't call this a comeback; Trophy Scars embrace their flaws and remember their past to create something entirely new but comfortably familiar.
When we last left Trophy Scars they were breathing their own fumes and loving it. Alphabets. Alphabets.
was a concept album about Trophy Scars' members' youthful years that experimented with a wide if unwieldy range of different genres and influences. In many ways it was a rare glimpse at the obvious; to hear Jerry Jones sing, scream, and wail about lost love, the thrill of a good show, or copious bong rips while his supporting cast plays predictable but efficacious post-hardcore that works in indie, old school hardcore, and even rap, is to experience the story of any average kid's late adolescence. Trophy Scars' take on it was no more special or illuminating than one's own nostalgia. Their experimentation was copied and pasted like a 17-year old discovering Garage Band on his Mac and programming a hip hop beat under a punk chord progression. The album was embarrassingly self-indulgent and sophomoric, and the only thing that saved this train wreck of an album was Trophy Scars' ability to tap into the effective crescendos and mood swings of their previous albums, the highly enjoyable Goodnight Alchemy!
and the brilliant Hospital Music (for the Aesthetics of Language)
. Alphabet. Alphabets.
was an ill-executed attempt at creating a magnum opus and stands as the sole blemish on Trophy Scars admirable discography.
Trophy Scars' newest album, Bad Luck
, gives the impression that Trophy Scars has finally grown up. Considering the ill fortune that befell the band in the past year or so and the line-up changes they've had to endure, this development isn't unexpected, but it is certainly satisfying. Bad Luck
is an album that is interesting, enjoyable, and accomplished enough to reveal Alphabet. Alphabets.
as the awkward puberty of Trophy Scars development as a band. Alphabet. Alphabets.
is the musical embodiment of the pizza-faced nostalgia described on the album itself. Bad Luck
, on the other hand, is Trophy Scars being self-assured and artistically refined. This maturity starts in the lyrics. Jerry is still obsessed with elusive females, nostalgia, and pop culture kitsch, but instead of formulating his narratives in open-ended rants about his own life, he creates a full-fledged concept about chasing a girl (Anna Lucia) in a fantastically noir fashion. His lyrical flourishes that veer towards melodrama or memories of adolescence (pretty much stuff that the knuckleheads over at Absolutepunk go gaga for) are reined in by his attention to tone over imagery or narrative. His lyrics are less adorned with flowery livejournal poeticisms and awkward, verbatim storytelling (well maybe a little bit). Instead, they occupy a comfortable medium between effusive and reserved. His affectations are not for shock-value but are built into the overall aesthetic of the lyrical content. That being said, I was happy to hear that this carefully honed lyrical approach does nothing to reduce Jerry's characteristic vocal style, which seems to have willfully expanded from the growling, wailing, and shouting of Darts to the Sea
to engage a more diverse palette of singing techniques (just listen the primary vocals and overdubs of "Bad Winter").
The vocals and lyrics aren't just insulated instances of tonal sophistication or this smoky, noir aesthetic, but rather complement the songwriting and arrangements, which have combined the best orchestral deviations from Hospital Music
(remember that killer Rhodes piano on "... And That's Where They Found My Body"") and the budding love for classic rock, indie, and barroom pop that created some of the worst moments on Alphabets. Alphabets
, but that are deployed quite sensibly here. Bad Luck
sounds like a Cursive album in how fluidly horns, strings, and piano are worked into indie / post-hardcore songs, but is tempered by Trophy Scars' much heavier work from previous albums and what the band members themselves have labeled as "bluesy" guitar work. A song like "Nola" has verses with clean-tone tapped guitars and pizzicato string accents with chanting gang vocals. The song moves through Mars Volta-like interludes to build up to crushing choruses that recall Trophy Scars at their best in 2004. It is a summation of their career's work as well as an extension into territory that had only previously been explored by bands that are considered titans of genre (Cursive and Mars Volta are pretty fat name drops). Other songs make similar large scale gestures at stylistic alloys. "El Cowboy Red" mixes guitar licks that sound like fado lines with a colloquial narrative that includes lines like "I said 'damn man, it's been way too long.'" "Years So Much" has a saxophone solo throughout its bridge that plays antiphonic melodies with a ripping solo guitar. Sometimes the injective devices can be as simple and lightly applied as the trebly reggae drum fill at 2:23 in "Botanicas" that enters once and never returns. Whether a pervasive instrumental theme or a passing curiosity, Trophy Scars' imaginative orchestrations enliven their genre splicing and elevate their experimentation to respectable, almost genius levels.
Unfortunately there are also some lamentable remnants from Trophy Scars' puberty that hold Bad Luck
back from being a truly amazing album. Earlier when talking about Jerry's lyrics I parenthetically mentioned that there are some less than stellar moments. Jerry's lyrics can slip into lapses of judgment that leave embarrassing unpoetic hangnails that undo some of the lyrical achievements (try on Botanicas' "Big sunglasses / Vanilla milkshake / Cherry lipstick / The look that you gave"). He has trimmed off most of his myspace baggage and livejournal poetry but there is that remaining percentage of cringe-worthy lines that diminishes Bad Luck
's potency. The biggest problem with this album is that while Trophy Scars made tremendous leaps and bounds in terms of arranging the instrumentation and layering every track with interesting textures and captivating melodic fragments, they rarely deviate from brooding harmonic minor chord progressions and swinging 6/8 rhythms. Additionally, the chromatic descent that follows the choruses on "Toronto" appears all over the album and is sort of a fallback for creating maudlin tension. These crimes of overuse jeopardize Trophy Scars' orchestral diversity and in turn Bad Luck
as an album. Despite their best efforts to blow open the sonic palette through interesting instrumental aspersions and unique tonal aspirations, Trophy Scars still find ways to cave in and stunt the ingenuity of these devices. For all of the leaps and bounds they've grown, they sacrificed one component of songwriting for another. This balancing act is hardly zero-sum; Bad Luck
is as enjoyable as it is respectable, but there are still a few unfortunate acne scars that prove that Trophy Scars have a way to go in meticulous songcrafting before they can match or possibly even eclipse the wild successes of their touchstone release, Hospital Music (for the Aesthetics of Language)