Review Summary: A boring, tedious listen that’s about as necessary in 2015 as the piece of technology it was named after.
The power of the commercial is still evident in a world where music consumption occurs mostly through digital means. Back in the day, acts like Jet and Feist hit it big by having their songs featured every half hour during television breaks, and a decade later, X Ambassadors have followed the exact same blueprint. Hailing from upstate New York, the usage of their song “Renegades” in a Jeep commercial that runs ad nauseam
on virtually every channel is the sole reason behind their notability. Despite putting out two EPs prior to the release of their debut album, nothing by X Ambassadors stirred up interest, not even a one-off feature on the deluxe edition of an Eminem record. That being said, choosing “Renegades” as the theme for the commercial could possibly be justified by the fact that the vehicle being advertised is the Jeep Renegade, and nothing else.
The album’s title, VHS
, is representative of how it plays like a cassette, telling the story of the band members from when they were young to the present day. This concept isn’t exactly executed well, as there are multiple interludes that consist of nothing but irritating chatter. While they’re supposed to give explanations of where the band is at the time, they are excessive in number and lacking in substance. VHS
makes for a pretty inefficient concept album – the only thing linking together any sense of story or plot are the interludes. The record starts with “Y2K Time Capsule”, where the members of X Ambassadors circa 2000 discuss where they will be in 15 years, and ends with “VHS Outro”, a smorgasbord of random soundbytes with no context to them whatsoever. If the band truly wanted to create a comprehensive story of their lives, they could have put a little more effort into it.
As far as the album’s actual content goes, VHS
is a limp batch of bland and unoriginal songs that bring to mind multiple genres ranging from indie rock to soul to folk to R&B. “Renegades” on its own is a pretty boring track – the vocals are insipidly hollow, the instrumentation is rehashed and sounds just like anything else that gets inaccurately classified as “alternative rock” nowadays, and the lyrics are juvenile and repetitive. Despite all its shortcomings, it’s still one of the better songs on VHS
, which is a true testament to its quality. X Ambassadors happen to be in close cahoots with Dan Reynolds, the lead singer of Imagine Dragons, and the relationship clearly shows on multiple tracks. The band’s overall sound is criminally similar to that of Imagine Dragons, with similar-sounding vocalists and indistinguishable instrumental sections. Mother and clone alike collaborate on “Fear”, which is hands down the sloppiest song on the record. It feels like it was put together in a matter of seconds, featuring one of the most annoying beats of 2015 and vocals that sound like the singer of X Ambassadors (or Imagine Dragons, it’s impossible to tell them apart anyways) is extremely constipated. It’s a jumbled mess that illustrates how little effort was put into the album’s making.
At times, VHS
attempts to go all out, and the moments of bombast are over the top and grandiose for all the wrong reasons. “B.I.G.” (not a tribute to Christopher Wallace) boldly proclaims, “I’m gonna go big! I feel bigger than ever before!” If X Ambassadors’ definition of ‘big’ is a cacophony of unnecessarily loud beats and grating singing, then yes, the song does go ‘big’. “Jungle” falls victim to the same formula; an attempt at a “pump-up” anthem ends up being an assault on the eardrums, and not in a good way. Despite not being good songs, credit does have to be given to both “B.I.G.” and “Jungle” for at least trying something different. The rest of the album is middle-of-the-road indie pop-rock that is just inoffensive enough to be offensive. The musical world didn’t ask for a second Imagine Dragons, and when American Authors filled that void, a third definitely was not necessitated. VHS
simply doesn’t contain any material that positively stands out after a few listens, and any song that isn’t egregious is infuriatingly safe and by-the-numbers. Most of the songs consist of a chorus that repeats one line over and over again, and to make matters worse, it’s not uncommon for the chorus to play four to five times.
X Ambassadors were never expected to be the greatest wordsmiths, but surely they could do better than elementary school-level schlock like “I get nervous when I get happy / I get nervous because what comes up must come down”, “You’re so gorgeous ‘cause you make me feel gorgeous” and “I can’t give you love ‘cause I’m loveless”. The aforementioned note about repetition is a killer especially because these abominable lines replay ten to twenty times within the course of one song, highlighting the lazy lyricism if anything. Lead singer Sam Harris admitted to referencing multiple films throughout the album, and because of that VHS
contains painfully awkward shout-outs like “All hail the outlaws, Spielbergs and Kubricks” and “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Clark Kent, it’s Bruce Wayne”. Harris intended for the latter song, “Superpower” to bring to mind the genius of Nine Inch Nails and Black Sabbath, but one listen is all it takes to realize he did not do his influences proud.
Had it not been for the kind folks over at Jeep, X Ambassadors would have most likely remained a no-name quartet from Ithica, New York. However, thanks to their generosity, “Renegades” became a success, with an instantly recognizable acoustic guitar intro that launched the career of yet another Imagine Dragons knock-off. The desire to sound just like one of the most uninteresting bands of the decade is baffling, although that’s not the only popular act they steal from (Nick Jonas’ lawyers must be wondering how they got away with plagiarizing the teen heartthrob’s single “Jealous” on “Gorgeous”). Simply put, the concept is lackluster, the music is recycled and the lyrics are elementary. VHS
is a boring, tedious listen that’s about as necessary in 2015 as the piece of technology it was named after.