10 June, 2008

Album Review - The Fratellis' "Here We Stand"

Release Date: June 10, 2008
Label: Interscope Records
No. of Tracks: 12

I'm sure everyone remembers the iTunes commercial from last year with the female sillhouette dancing about to the rock song with the "ba-da-da-dah-ba-da-da-dah" chorus. The song was so damn catchy you can't help but remember it. Well, that song was "Flathead", and the band performing it was The Fratellis. I must admit that it was that commercial that introduced me to and got me interested in this band. Their 2006 release Costello Music was a fantastically fun and roiling compilation of funky guitar chords and powerful sing-a-long pub choruses. The little band that could from Glasgow, Scotland enjoyed immense success in the UK after being named the best new band in Britain by NME. Their success in the US, of course, was a bit of a disappointment, but what else is new.

Now the band has recorded and released their follow-up album, Here We Stand. It's hard to say that this album is much poppier than Costello Music given the mainstream appeal that album had, but it is the simple truth. What is even more mind-boggling is that the band actually recorded and produced this record themselves. Music critics usually love to point fingers at the producer for turning a band away from what they do best, but there isn't one in this case. Don't get me wrong, the sing-a-long pub songs are plentiful on this new release, and it is even louder in many ways than Costello Music. But the band seems to have turned their back on the "spontaneous" fun contained in the actual music. The guitar chords are nothing you haven't heard a million times before, the lyrics have departed from the funny but insightful social realism of the past for more standard pop subject matters, and the record actually sounds over-produced most of the time. And a HUGE missing element is the omission of soccer-style backing chants.

The album opens well enough with "My Friend John". The opening percussion piece is pretty good, but it gives way much too soon to a hard rock guitar riff backed by fairly simple timekeeping. "A Heady Tale" follows and shows that the boys have found a piano player. But don't get too excited; the piano does little to add another dimension to the music. It only serves the fun quotient. "Straggler's Moon", the fifth track, is the first good, but not great, song. The high-pitched, distorted guitar riff is a nice touch, and the track closes with a ghostly Arabic style guitar piece that recalls Led Zeppelin and Arctic Monkeys equally. "Mistress Mabel" is the first single from the album. This song also features a fast-paced and fun piano accompaniment, and the funkiness is injected back into the band briefly with a quirky electronic blip and several quick tempo changes in a row at the mid point. "Babydoll" is this album's attempt at an acoustic-style ballad but lacks any sense of emotional punch to match its country-influenced feel. "Acid Jazz Singer" is the closest offering to what was heard on Costello Music. The vocals have an excellent rhythm to them, but the guitar is still too loud and there are no interesting tempo changes present. "Lupe Brown" would have to be my favourite track on the album. The music is still pretty standard stuff, but there are enough transitions to hide the flaws. This is also the most heartfelt song in vocal delivery, and you can tell the band put a little extra effort into this one. "Milk and Money" is a jazzy, largely piano-driven closing track that ends with a two-minute sonic assault that doesn't seem to serve any real purpose other than trying to make up for what has come before it.

Overall, this is a disappointing second album. I've always detested the term "sophomore slump", but this album would definitely qualify for that label. It is still catchy and has moments of infectious fun, but it doesn't leave a lasting impression the same way Costello Music did. It isn't an extremely drastic departure in sound, but it is obvious that the band tried with all their might to make something different. I'd like to think that they were just trying too hard instead of trying to make something so mainstream it couldn't help but sell in a global market. Then again, in these days of dying record companies and plummeting music sales, you never know.

Overall Album Rating (out of 5): 2.0

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