Review Summary: Quite possibly the most epic, towering indie-pop record of all time
Epic and bombastic: those are not qualities that folk music is supposed to entail. However, the brand of ridiculously accessible, new-wave indie folk that has taken over the radio waves during the past several years has begun to reshape the idea of what the genre can be. We have groups like the Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men, and Mumford and Sons taking it to newfound levels of accessibility, to the joy of some and the dismay of others. Now, here come The Strumbellas – a band very much in a similar vein to the aforementioned indie-folk giants and a prime mainstream candidate for 2016’s breakout artist. The lead single ‘Spirits’ gave us a good idea of what to expect from Hope
: it’s a wildly over-the-top anthem that even included a music video that saw the band parading through the streets akin to Sgt. Peppers
or The Black Parade
. Unnecessary" Definitely. Derivative" In most ways, sure. But despite all of its inherent flaws, indie-folk’s sweeping version of a massive concept album is surprisingly enjoyable and massive enough in its scope that it just might take this small-time band and place them on maps across the entire world.
Here’s the thing about The Strumbellas that everyone needs to understand before diving in – they’re really
a pop group. Very little about Hope
includes authentic traces of folk, but then again that’s sort of the norm when it comes to the commercially-leaning indie-pop that they bring forth. Each song is grandiose bid in some way or another, and even though it can grow quite wearisome after a while, it’s more often than not just plain and simple fun. The saccharine choruses and engaging melodies are impossible to get out of your head, and the larger-than-life aura will satisfy the sweet tooth of those who enjoyed the figurative ancestors of these types of massive records – here’s looking at you, Styx/Green Day/My Chemical Romance, et al. To put it as simply as possible, The Strumbellas are going to be huge whether you like it or not. It’s a little off-putting as the band’s overarching trait, but chances are you’ll love them even more for it after listening to Hope
in its entirety. The band embraces their pompous approach, and that makes the whole thing a little easier to swallow.
A harbinger of epic things to come, the opening track ‘Spirits’ certainly seems to have it all. There’s a massive chorus with a melody that sticks, harmonized crowd chants, clashing cymbals, a tender bridge heavy on the piano, and even some subtle brass. The element of grandiosity – for as often as it feels out of place in music – almost seems fitting here. As The Strumbellas sing out proudly “But something inside has changed, and maybe we don’t wanna stay the same” and “I don’t want a never-ending life, I just want to be alive while I’m here”, there’s this sense that they’re speaking to a larger purpose worthy of such a demonstrative celebration. Subtlety may be lacking all around, but I can promise you that even if you only listen once, it won’t the last time it plays through your head. ‘Shovels and Dirt’ seems like it is going to change the album’s tune at first, featuring a glistening acoustic passage with gentler verses, but even that eventually builds to two entirely separate but equally colossal choruses of “I got a head full of darkness and darkness is good, cause if we all die young then we don't get hurt” and “I put a banjo up into the sky - it keeps us moving, it keeps us moving.” It reads more blandly on paper than it actually sounds, so it’s still worth a proper listen to gauge its effect within the context of the album.
Many records of Hope
’s magnitude start huge and then simmer, but that’s not even close to the case here. ‘Wars’ features an infectious mid-tempo beat with a crowd-chant chorus of ‘I know I can do you proud / when I'm high above those clouds’ and even features an honest little admission from frontman Simon Ward in which he proclaims, “I don’t sing well, but I’ve got a lot of heart.” That line seems appropriate outside of the album’s context too, because the strength of Ward’s vocal contributions – and really of the album as a whole – isn’t what is brought forth in terms of skill or technical precision, it’s all about the time and effort put into crafting each song to perfection and the enthusiastic, incredibly entertaining delivery. In fact, the band probably won’t get enough credit now (or ever) for the quality of their lyrics. There’s definitely a lot of clichés and fluff to be sifted through, but that shouldn’t overshadow lines like “every monster that they make was once a happy child”, a utopian look at how behind even the harshest of outer shells, we all started the same way. It’s important to keep the words in mind as this album chugs along, because they are all too easy to overlook amidst the pomp and frills.
The album’s midsection features some of Hope
’s most unique and satisfying moments. ‘Dog’ is probably the closest The Strumbellas come to crafting a real, genuine folk song on the record, as Ward’s country inflections and the stomp-clap beat lend it a certain sense of rural authenticity. ‘The Hired Band’ is the best mellow song on Hope
, with a relaxed and swaying chorus that wouldn’t feel out of place while sitting out in a lawn chair on a summer evening. There’s even a regal brass section halfway through that, while a bit surprising, doesn’t feel the slightest bit out of place and lends the track that extra instrumental push it needs to go from simply laid back to one of the album’s strongest tracks. Following one of the album’s most ridiculously fun and upbeat songs in ‘Young & Wild’, ‘The Night Will Save Us’ captures The Strumbellas in a rare moment of subdued vulnerability. Atop pristine acoustic picking and haunting ooh
’s, Ward croons, “We sat under an oak tree and watched as every leaf hit the ground…the sky became a painting and we watched as the planes crashed down.” It’s some pretty stunning imagery for a band that takes the approach of everything all the time
, and to be honest Hope
would have been better off with more moments like this. Either way, it illustrates a side of the band that perhaps we will see more of in the future.
comes to its conclusion, a few things will become obvious regardless of who is listening. The first thing is that The Strumbellas have crafted what is quite possibly the most epic, towering indie-pop record of all time. The second is that even though the band is far more fun and engaging than even their most prominent peers in the scene, there is a lot of room to expand in terms of musical variety and atmospheric depth. Amidst all the things we’re left to ponder over, Hope
has that same feeling of what just happened
that tends to accompany all massive concept albums by the time they’ve reached their ending. It’s almost dizzying. Hope
is a total lack of restraint, and a reckless use of force when it comes to fun and accessible melodies. You’ll be left wanting to go back again and again to learn the lyrics and sing along. The only question is how long that appeal will last. As with so many flashy and polished pieces, often the initial effect far outweighs the real underlying substance. For now, though, we’re just going to have to enjoy Hope
for what it is: an insanely catchy record from an indie-pop juggernaut that has likely just set the standard for radio-friendly folk.