Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Foreign Born: Person To Person

say it:

Few words in music criticism - save perhaps for jangly and Dylanesque - have been as overused as "anthemic." At what point it became a critic's prerequisite for any band with arena-ready fat guitar riffs, earnestly-thwacked drums that reverberate to the heavens, melodies that stick in the brain like ear worms and Something Really Important And Humorless To Say, I have no idea. Certainly there's no shortage of bands that fit this bill, whether it's indie objects of desire The Arcade Fire or fossilized but sorta-hanging-on relics like U2 or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It's become a sloppy, cavalier term, carelessly applied to a band's style and consigning said band to a stereotype that's hard to shake but tempting to embrace.

Reviews of Foreign Born's debut album On the Wing were quick to define the band in similar terms. In some ways this was understandable: songs like "Holy Splinter," "The Nights Tall" and "Union Hall" were musically booming and boisterous and thematically earnest and sincere, almost to a fault. Though at times the album was overindulgent and occasionally contained bloated or excessively derivative arrangements, the vocal delivery of Matt Popieluch was frequently enough to offset these shortcomings. The band also spent plenty of time standing on the shoulders of their ancestors throughout On the Wing; if Foreign Born didn't yet have the audience to support that album's big sound, their heart-on-sleeve approach was endearing and suggested only a bit of fine-tuning was needed before the band could be fitted for their Win Butler vests and Bono sunglasses and fully morph into an anthem-spewing behemoth.

Person To Person instead finds the band toning down the bombast in favor of something a bit more restrained, atmospheric and lyrically ambiguous, suggesting the band's style has more in common with the indie pop of The Shins than the anthem rock of Arcade Fire. This isn't to say the band has gone folkie; with the exception of slow burners "Lion's Share" and "Wait In This Chair," the songs here are punchy and vibrant, mirroring the catchy melodies of On the Wing. Yet the band's arena-sized impulses are nicely offset by their pop sensibilities, giving the album a degree of texture and movement that was lacking throughout On the Wing. "Blood Oranges" opens the album with a ringing guitar melody that is insidiously addictive. "That Old Sun," "Vacationing People" and "Can't Keep Time" all feature similarly solid melodies and spot-on background vocals, with Popieluch's vocal quirks sometimes reminiscent of James Mercer. The swampy blues stomp of "Winter Games" sounds a bit like the bastard child of Dylan's "Tombstone Blues;" the band's frantic and determined playing mostly offsets the song's apparent Dylan-aping.

Though all the songs are finely polished, in an album context too often a uniformity of sound creeps in, with the last few songs crawling along and killing the album's front-loaded momentum. "It Grew On You" is largely forgettable, while Popieluch's untreated vocals on "See Us Home" sound far too much like all the Beatles not named Ringo. "Lion's Share" is so - and here's that damn word - jangly that Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe could possibly claim ownership of it. That the song is stronger than anything the remnants of R.E.M. have done this decade is perhaps best left for another time.

Fans and critics wanting to peg Foreign Born as music's next anthem band should probably keep looking. Person To Person isn't a perfect album, but it does show the band augmenting its arena-ready sound with a few subtle shifts: insistent melodies, tight harmonies, tempo changes and lyrics that will allow listeners to form their own misguided interpretations. While not revelatory, these shifts should be enough to keep those half-baked comparisons to Arcade Fire and their anthemic brethren at bay.


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