Review Summary: Turning over a new leaf.
In 2012, Flyleaf found themselves in the unenviable position of losing frontwoman Lacey Sturm, a firecracker of a vocalist, who, with her sheer presence, came to define the band. Experienced vocalist Kristen May steps into those large shoes left by Sturm for the groups fourth album, Between the Stars
, much to the fear and distrust of longtime fans. Only one question remains: is this still Flyleaf"
The answer to that question is actually not so simple. Had Flyleaf forcibly shoehorned May into their signature mix of grunge-metal, the results could have been awkward and lackluster. Wisely, Flyleaf sought to change their sound in accordance with the change in vocalist. All ye who art averse to pop-rock, be forewarned - Between the Stars
is a shiny, slick, radio-ready product filled with poppy hooks and sugary melodies. Those willing to give it a listen, however, are bound to find a surprisingly enjoyable and mature album underneath all the production.
Indeed, it's easy to forget that there are four very capable musicians that started Flyleaf still backing May here, and they understand that the key to successful pop-rock is in the details. The group puts a great amount of confidence in bassist Pat Seals, who contributes an absolutely stellar performance throughout (especially in “Magnetic” and “Well of Lies”) and frequently takes the role of rhythm guitarist to free Jared Hartmann and Sameer Bhattacharya to play off of each other's skills in meaningful ways. Whether it's the funky grooves of energetic opener “Set Me on Fire,” the jangly dissonance of “Thread,” the unusual chord progressions of “Traitor,” or the atmospheric guitar duet of “Marionette,” the guitar-driven Between the Stars
finds some way to hook almost any rock fan.
Of course, all this would be for naught if May were not a capable replacement for Lacey Sturm. Fortunately, her chocolate-smooth vocals prove to be ever the match for Sturm's, though a direct comparison is like that of sugary-sweet apples to tart oranges. May instead relies on her melodic prowess and powerful vibrato to carry this new Flyleaf. Songs like “Traitor” and closer “Home,” make fantastic use of her abilities; May and Flyleaf obviously meld quite well together into their new roles.
Between the Stars
is far from perfect, however. Flyleaf makes a misstep in the pacing by making the album somewhat front-heavy: the three hardest-rocking numbers are all located at the very top of the track list instead of being interspersed throughout. The emotion on display when May sings “I'm not your marionette doll” begs the listener to feel for her on “Marionette,” but the ubiquity of songs done before that echo the sentiment makes it difficult to get behind. An over-reliance on an admittedly slick rotating organ riff makes “Well of Lies” run a bit longer than it should, and a strange 80's-style synth-pop line in the bridge of “Platonic” could have easily been cut. Also, the lyrics take a sharp downturn on the opening of “Blue Roses”: “You said come on, let's go / Down that yellow brick road.” Yikes.
Despite the apparent security of sound that Flyleaf have adopted, changing directions entirely in the wake of losing and replacing a lead vocalist is a risk that the group should be applauded for taking. Solid musicianship abounds here, and the whole of the album obviates the massive potential that this new Flyleaf has. It's not earth-shattering, life-changing, or even career-defining, but Between the Stars
is a mature release full of solid, honest, and unpretentious rock and roll. Here's to hoping Flyleaf takes a few more risks and shoots for the stars and crafts something really special on the next release.
Postscript: The deluxe edition of Between the Stars
concludes the album with two B-side rockers, “Avalanche” and “Ship of Fools,” and they serve to round out the album quite nicely. Also included is a demo and an excellent live version of “City Kids.” Jump for the deluxe version if at all possible.