By Chris Moore:
RATING: 4.5 / 5 stars
Some of my favorite bands kicked off their careers with mediocre debuts (think: Bob Dylan) — some overrated at that (like August and Everything After & Horehound) — and others with terrible and/or terribly ho-hum debuts that betrayed little of the excellent work that was to follow (cough, nudge… The Wallflowers).
While some have accomplished it (the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Pearl Jam, and Barenaked Ladies come to mind), it is not often that a new band hits a home run on their first attempt.
The time has come to add another to that brief, auspicious list: namely, Bad Books.
As with the Thorns’ excellent debut, Bad Books has experience and range working in its favor. The band is comprised of solo artist Kevin Devine and (what is essentially all of) the band Manchester Orchestra. The resulting album tempers the band’s all-out indie/alternative rock sound with Devine’s folk-influenced style.
With any such collaboration, the danger is that the whole will either sound too similar to the work that the members have produced previously or that it will come across as a forced attempt to cover new ground.
Bad Books manages to avoid both extremes.
Bad Books feels cozy, simple even. Nothing here that will challenge your previously held opinions about what good music should sound like. Yet, simultaneously, Bad Books is expansive, spanning from the spacey ambiance of “How This All Ends” to the stripped down acoustic “The Easy Mark & The Old Maid” to the crunchy guitar-driven rocker “Baby Shoes.”
And that’s only the first three tracks.
The pinnacle of the album is indisputably at the beginning of “Side B,” or track six for all you downloaders and the handful of you CD buyers out there. “You Wouldn’t Have to Ask” clocks in at under two minutes, but, in its short span, it accomplishes much. There is no intro: the song kick-starts with lush harmonies, clean, subtle guitar work, and a steady drumbeat. This builds up to a more driving beat with excellent drum fills, crunchier electric guitars at the front of the mix, and what amounts to a duet between Devine and Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull. (The music video, based on the Everly Brothers’ 1964 Shindig! performance of “Gone, Gone, Gone,” aptly sets the band’s contemporary indie sound against a black and white backdrop of a bygone era.)
This partnership is what seems to propel the album, each contributing half of the songs to this joint effort. There is the nearly unhinged emotion of “Please Move,” transitioned to smoothly from the broken-down vulnerability of “I Begged You Everything.” Extremes are placed back-to-back, and yet it works. The arrangement is brilliant, not only on the song level but also on the level of the album as a whole.
And to be certain, lyrically, Devine and Hall have composed some of the strongest songs of the year, seemingly simple songs like “You’re a Mirror I Cannot Avoid” and “Mesa, AZ” that reject the concept of background music. These songs, as it often is with the good ones, require multiple listens to comfortably ascribe meaning. The allusions, when made, are not always readily apparent, the most notable probably being a reference to Shakespeare’s Henry V. This is original, fluid writing. I dare say this is poetry.
It is thus shocking — and unforgivable — that the packaging is less than minimalist. A lackluster cover (my apologies to the band members who created these sketches, images that would have made for fascinating insets within the packaging) is about all there is. A dismal one-fold covering for this CD with no booklet and no lyrics and no more than these ten brief songs: this is all there is.
Bad Books is one of the premier albums of the year — top three material — and yet the packaging is non-existent. The lyrics are unacknowledged. This I will never understand, because — I’m sorry — if a band like Jukebox the Ghost can mass-produce a colorful, three-fold digipack with a thoughtful design and complete lyrics, then seasoned folks like these either deserve more options from the higher-ups or we deserve more effort from them.
If we as listeners don’t “deserve” it, then certainly this beautiful music deserves more.