Explaining Spoon’s rise to fame is easy if you break down its songwriting. On first listen—or the 10th, really—its material sounds simplistic because it’s exactly that. Learning Spoon songs isn’t difficult, but replicating Spoon songs is hard. The subtleties and delivery, like Britt Daniel’s hoarse scratch on the tail end of phrases or Rob Pope’s sharp end to his notes, brought about a fan base that’s always been well earned. But Hot Thoughts, the band’s ninth full-length, sounds like a Spoon impersonation. Layers of overthought production and tiny tricks that made the evolution of its songs such a feat in the pop division of indie rock are difficult to dig out because they weren’t placed here to begin with.
That’s not to say Hot Thoughts is without its gems. Spoon revisits the chorus-free thread in Kill The Moonlight with “WhisperI’lllistentohearit,” a song that chases its own tail in a dizzying display of synth and shakers, and the title track is undeniably one of the band’s catchiest singles. When Spoon goes slow, like on piano ballad “I Ain’t The One,” it reminds listeners of its depth. Then it breaks out a guitar solo on par with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga’s with “Do I Have To Talk You Into It.” It’s in these flashes that Spoon shines in the way it always has. But when Hot Thoughts reaches its middle section, the album loses steam.
On paper, the disco-tinged rock of “First Caress” should work given Spoon’s dependence on rubbery bass, but its chorus offers little payoff. Six-minute track “Pink Up” goes for the opposite: a quiet, vibraphone-dotted number that creates ample room for reflection, but where Daniel wants you to look is unclear. Even “Tear It Down” has all the trappings of a catchy Spoon song, complete with “na na’s” and clean drum fills, but its hook never solidifies.
Spoon is a master of hooky songwriting, but Hot Thoughts seems so bent on undermining it that the band undersells itself. Maybe Hot Thoughts is an apt title after all—it’s got great ideas, but the execution is lacking.
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Band chemistry is an imperfect science. Take the nostalgic jangle-pop act Real Estate. Lead guitarist Matt Mondanile left the group in 2015, but the band subsequently gained two permanent members: guitarist Julian Lynch and keyboardist Matt Kallman.
On In Mind, Real Estate’s fourth studio album, the new musicians’ influence is obvious. Lynch adds welcome psychedelic disturbance to the jammy “Serve The Song” and contributes to the Dead-like vibe of “Diamond Eyes.” Kallman, meanwhile, adds frosty new wave synths to the chiming “Darling” and prominent keyboard zaps and electric surges to the otherwise folk-leaning “Holding Pattern.”
Still, despite the added instrumental color and lineup reshuffling, In Mind suffers from the same kind of languorous, unmemorable songwriting that plagued Real Estate’s previous record, 2014’s Atlas. While pristine-sounding, the plodding “Time” and vaguely jazz-influenced “After The Moon” float in the ether, untethered from any sense of urgency. Martin Courtney’s vocals, though just as lush and inquisitive as ever, are equally unbothered, which further saps energy from the record.
In Mind comes across far better when the members of Real Estate take steps toward merging their past and present. The gentle power-pop highlight “Stained Glass” boasts complex Fountains Of Wayne-caliber harmonies. Mesmerizing vocal layers are also evident on the early R.E.M.-reminiscent “White Light.” And the six-minute “Two Arrows” ends in sustained, decomposing instrumental cacophony that encompasses fuzzed-out guitar scrapes, a desperate-sounding melodic ostinato, and freewheeling keyboards that resemble a digital short circuit.
The latter song bodes well for Real Estate’s future, as it hints at a musical direction predicated on cultivated messiness and a looser approach. In Mind, however, is pleasant sonic wallpaper that unfortunately doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression.
Purchase In Mind here, which helps support The A.V. Club.
Main image: Real Estate (Photo: Shawn Brackbill)
The closest point of comparison for Sorority Noise’s new album is one that Cameron Boucher directly references on “A Better Sun,” the track that sees him shouting out his friends in Modern Baseball. Where MoBo’s songwriters dug deep into their most intimate experiences on the band’s third album, You’re Not As _____ As You Think serves a similar function for Boucher. It’s a pop album steeped in the traditions of post-Brand New emo and pop punk, with big, layered choruses offset by minimalist bridges, all in service of a record that’s basically a how-to guide for grief. That process permeates Boucher’s lyrics, each line seeing him being as vulnerable as he can be, putting together phrases that are astonishingly blunt: “When your best friend dies / And your next friend dies / And your best friend takes his life / And you spend six months on your own because there’s no one left to talk to.”
To say that Sorority Noise’s third record is a somber listen is an understatement, but it’s not dour simply for melodrama’s sake. There’s a latent, hard-earned hopefulness running counter to Boucher’s lyrics, as he uses his pain to propel him forward. In “A Better Sun,” he uses his friends’ words to help him carry on, highlighting the fact that these introspective, insular works can be therapeutic not just for the performer but also for anyone else in need of such a salve. “Disappeared” may be the most concrete example of what makes You’re Not As _____ As You Think so effective. Close your eyes and you can picture the band jumping up and down on a stage, blasting through a big, gooey pop punk song. It’s a joyous little scene that makes it possible for a line about Boucher’s friend hanging himself to go in one ear and out the other. But if you catch it, it doesn’t ruin the mood. Instead, it exemplifies the record’s two-pronged approach.
At its core, the album captures the difficulty of losing loved ones without losing faith. With You’re Not As _____ As You Think, Boucher has made a record that serves as a companion through those ups and downs of the grieving process, offering companionship and a helping hand, when such things aren’t always a given.