In Brief: Not as epic as The End Is Not the End, but still a solid album that wrings life out of the otherwise tired theme of life in the suburbs.
When you name your band something like House of Heroes, it’s only natural for listeners to expect some epic rocking. And when you make good so well on that premise in a collection of songs that comes across as your magnum opus even though it’s only your second album, it’s probably natural to feel some trepidation about what to do next. Some stalwart rock bands will keep trying to top themselves, going to ridiculous extremes, while others will subvert expectations completely and experiment with their sound. Possibly a saner approach is to pull back and write what you know best, simply aiming for another solid collection of songs. House of Heroes was in just such a quandary following their brilliant sophomore disc The End Is Not the End, which pulled together weighty themes of death and redemption amidst a backdrop of stories about soldiers and civilians living through World War II. Amidst a lengthy tracklisting that surprisingly never wore out its welcome, there was an odd song out, a redheaded stepchild called “The Young and the Brutal” that was tucked away as a bonus track, perhaps hinting at a theme that the band would explore on their next disc. That theme, apparently is the lives of angsty teens living in suburban America. Fear not, it’s better than it sounds.
“Writing what they know” seems to have brought on a series of songs about passion versus apathy, and faith versus foolishness, this time played against the backdrop of the neighborhoods the band members grew up in, with a dilapidated Columbus, Ohio apartment building missing a letter on the front serving as the inspiration for an album title: Suburba. Eerily enough, the band ended up releasing this record on August 3, 2010, the same day that Arcade Fire would drop The Suburbs. Not that Arcade Fire sounds anything like HoH (unless you count some vaguely similar classic rock influences that surface when either band goes back to basics), but it reminds us that this life in the suburbs is a fairly universal theme, one which can be expected to resonate with a mostly middle-class customer base. At least, it can resonate if you write about it well enough to make it distinctive from everyone else who has already covered the topic. House of Heroes isn’t a band to throw a lot of wacky sounds at the speakers and see what sticks, so while they might seem to have a no-frills instrumental lineup, they make up for it with solid riffs and hooks and some spot-on songwriting. Writing about how it sucks to be a teenager and work a crap job for almost no money while pining over a girl who doesn’t notice you is one thing. Digging a little more into the psychology of such a character is another. Some of Suburba‘s best tracks do that. A few are just plain fun, perhaps taking a few listens before we notice the deeper message lurking beneath a fun sing-along chorus. There’s even a beautiful down-tempo moment or two. None of these tricks are revolutionary for rock music, but House of Heroes knows how to deliver a rock album that takes the listener on a fun ride from beginning to end without sacrificing substance in the process. They’ve come along way since the byzantine detours of their self-titled album from five years ago.
House of Heroes is also one of those “Christian” bands. I never expected this to be something that would bug people, since I never expected their music to get noticed outside of the Christian rock ghetto in the first place (due more to marketing than any issues with quality). But The End Is Not the End earned its buzz in the most genuine way – simply by being good music. This meant that it got a wider audience, some of whom might not have caught on to the Christian undertones unless they listened more carefully to the lyrics of “By Your Side”, or made it all the way to the end of the album and its wicked one-two punch of “Voices” and “Field of Daggers”. No attempt to fool anyone was being made here – the band’s content to be crystal clear that they’re talking about God when a song calls for it, and also to let a love song just be a fun love song without needing to justify its existence to the faithful. For me at least, this sidesteps the problem of pandering to an audience – whether they wear their beliefs on their sleeve or they’re writing something more allegorical or that isn’t intended to have a deeper meaning at all, I always feel like they’re writing what’s on their hearts and there’s nobody else pressuring them to name-drop God or to not name-drop God. Fittingly, Suburba has some songs that mainstream rock radio could probably fall in love with if they ever gave this band a chance, and a few that Christian radio would be remiss not to add to their playlists, which are lyrically obvious but don’t sound like total concessions to the genre. It means that not everyone will like everything about the album. But as someone whose tastes lie somewhere in between the two worlds, I really appreciate this approach of letting each song simply be what it is instead of calculating it to reach one audience or the other.
Musically speaking, you know what you’re in for if you liked The End Is Not the End. You’ll hear the occasional snippet of found sound, a momentary acoustic detour, a slight bit of instrumental embellishment from the producer’s chair, but for the most part, these guys are left to turn out the meaty rock & roll that they’re known for. Given the basic guitar/bass/drums/vocals setup, it’s surprising how quickly each song takes shape as its own distinctive thing (as opposed to past albums where it took me some time to differentiate many of the songs from one another). Some tracks are as straight ahead as vintage Jimmy Eat World, while others take slightly “proggy” detours mid-song, trotting out their inner Muse just to see if you’re paying attention. Fun riffs and solos abound. It’s not as high-quality of a performance song-for-song as The End is, but when these guys go epic, they really go epic. That makes Suburba a fun summer record… which of course I’m only just getting around to telling you about as the summer winds down. Silly me.
Your wish for some epic rocking will get fulfilled pretty much right away – they seem to be almost making fun of their own desire for epic-ness with the programmed string intro to this song, as if to hint that they’re going for the 80’s version of epic. But this is a solid, power pop-leaning modern rock song through and through, with the strings only serving as a background element, and some joyous bursts of guitar energy pushed to the forefront. This one’s all about being a teenager and feeling on top of the world, because your whole life’s ahead of you, and even though you live in a dull suburb where you have to bum a ride from your friends to go see your girl who lives on the wrong side of the tracks where that neighborhood’s awkward teenagers all stare at you funny, you feel invincible regardless. The band’s gone meta here, with a rousing chorus that proclaims “Heroes we’ve become!” while riding an ever-ascending melody that pushes sheer catchiness into more innovative territory. The bridge of this killer song offers a good summation of the record’s theme: “Our faith is small, but it is strong enough to carry on. Though we are poor, we shall not want.”
I love the little bursts of guitar at the beginning of this track, with the bass filling in the gaps. It’s the kind of thing that’s determined to grab your attention in the first split-second and not let go, and its recent success at Christian radio despite not being as lyrically straightforward as the usual fare that survives in that environment is a testament to its hook value. “This elevator goes straight to the top of the line! Everybody’s talkin’ about it!” Tim Skipper yelps excitedly, as if it’s the newest and coolest thing ever, and part of the appeal of the song is that he’s gushing about some nondescript cool thing that everybody seems to love but no one knows why. (Sadly, someone on Facebook – as well as many other places, I’m sure – already beat me to the obvious joke about the song going straight to the top of the charts.) The chorus unfortunately isn’t much help in figuring it out – “I want to go where you go when you go, I want to know what you know when you know.” Thank you, Captain Ambiguous. it’s amazingly singable, but not one of their better lyrical moments. The open-endedness makes me wonder if they’re singing about some foolish shortcut to greatness such as a get-rich quick scheme, or if it’s about something more subversive, perhaps a cynical commentary on people putting way too much confidence in a charismatic political candidate to completely change the world, wanting a shortcut to fix deep-seated problems that will take much more than just one man’s efforts to fully eradicate. Consider this: “Time tears our hope, and the change comes so slowly. To who much is given, much will be asked.” That weighty line, perhaps the key to the whole song, comes during the bridge, where I wouldn’t blame you from being distracted by some sweet drum rolls. Nor would I blame you for getting so pumped by the song’s final shout of “SO JUST SHUT UP ABOUT IT!!!” that you completely miss the meaning. Hey, it’s fun!
3. Love Is for the Middle Class
If you thought “Elevator” was a little too busy rocking out to be more descriptive, you’ll probably find this track interesting, as it gives a good deal of backstory to a couple struggling with the practical “gotta pay the bills” and the idealistic “love is all you need”. Basically it goes, boy just barely squeaks by in school. Boy can’t stand office jobs, so boy goes the manual labor route. Boy meets pretty girl. Boy doesn’t have the paycheck to impress pretty girl. Girl comes from a broke family and just wants some security, so boy sort of understands, but still hopes love is greater than that. I bet some of you guys can relate – and I like how this song, despite insisting that the guy doesn’t need the girl’s love if it’s conditional on how much money he makes, tries to be understanding about where she’s coming from. I think it’s one of HoH’s most brilliant lyrics yet, and it’s set to fast-paced frenentic music (one of their more pop/punk oriented songs, actually) just to emphasize what the young guy probably thinks is a warranted rebellion against the system. “If all I had was love, would I still be lovely?” the guy pines in the chorus, but he ultimately concludes, “Don’t need your lovin’ at all. Don’t owe you nothin’ at all. Ee-all. Ee-all. Ee-aa-ee-aa-ee-all, HEY!!!” OK, so that last part looks stupid in print, but you have to hear it to understand how massively catchy it is.
4. So Far Away
A power ballad that could have started with an unassuming guitar intro instead makes another ploy to hook us right a way with a bit, fat “Oh-WHOA!” that might seem like a bit of a cheap bid for radio play, but it’s really those little touches that I think elevate some of HoH’s songs against more typical pop/rock radio fare. It’s important for songs to be distinctive, and sometimes to achieve this, you have to make a song instantly recognizable. Aside from all that, this is a relatively simple song about holding on to hope. The chorus is an encouragement from someone (maybe God?) that hard times lie ahead and it’s gonna take some faith to make it through the long haul, asking “What if I told you it was so far away? What if I told you, would you go with me anyway?” I like that it’s a song that takes the long view, not making false problems to fix problems immediately, but instead asking the listener if they have the guts to stick with a commitment instead of backing out at the first sign of trouble. The most convincing line: “You gotta tell me the truth. If they take that too, then we have nothing to lose.”
5. God Save the Foolish Kings
Take the last album’s “In the Valley of the Dying Sun”. Translate its battle cry from the trenches and foxholes of World War II to the streets and alleys of Seedytown, USA and the bored hoodlums that occupy them. You’ll get something like this song, which is almost spastic in its description of teenage kids who just want to start a suburban war (Arcade Fire didn’t copyright that phrase, right?) and which has a twist you won’t normally hear in a House of Heroes song, in the form of a female vocal that attempts to be the voice of reason. “Promise me you won’t do anything crazy”, says the concerned girlfriend or mom or whoever you want to picture her as, upon learning of the lawless brawl planned for midnight, at the school, behind the bleachers. The use of the word “rumble” and the naming of the rival gangs actually reminds me of West Side Story (and that’s about the only time you’ll get a reference to musical theater from me, so savor it). The song sort of digs into teenage apathy and the reasons behind all of the troublemaking. Even though there are some handclaps and massive sing-along moments, this treads more insightful ground than the average Jimmy Eat World song. What’s weird to me is how it slows down a bit in the middle for a spoken part. These change-ups (which were actually more plentiful on older HoH albums) can be jarring at first, but they’re part of the band’s charm, asking you to pause and consider what’s being said, especially in this case when it’s a bit of divine intervention: “But I met God on the street tonight/And he said, choose your battles wisely/Or you’ll never find me.” Of course they get ramped back up for a huge final chorus after that. It’s about the most fun musical fistfight ever.
6. Salt in the Sea
This one’s an oddity in the HoH canon, and I know it’s going to have its detractors, because it’s an easygoing acoustic song that dares to me more direct with its religious language, almost resembling a praise song. To just call it that, though, would be to focus in on a few lines of the song, and to miss the gorgeous vocal harmonies adding dimension to the simple guitar chords, as well as the intriguing analogy that drives the song. God is described as a wave here, and man as a rock, being slowly worn by the passage of time, refined into something more beautiful, until eventually the day comes when it will collapse completely and become one with the ocean that ravages it. “I’m here until you crash into me”, the chorus repeats, and get the Dave Matthews Band allusions out of your head, because it’s actually a perfectly believable sentiment, a longing to one day merge into something greater than yourself. The key is that the song doesn’t drop its most directly religious statement until the chorus, where it’s built up enough of the longing for it to be satisfying when they finally unmask the metaphor: “Until I become one with everything I dream/I will give you praise, praise eternally.” Because that’s the payoff and not the language they jump to immediately, it’s more powerful when the veil is lifted. Christian radio would probably love this, but unlike most occasions where I’d say such a thing, that’s not an insult. It’d be the radio stations’ privilege to have it. It’s actually my favorite track on the album.
I just don’t know why they had to go and mess this track up at the end by putting a rather didactic intro to the following song (an “old spiritual” style chorus of “Sinner, you better get ready) in the pregap. In the digital age, where a good chunk of the audience has either got a digital download or has converted from CD to a digital media player, it’s one heck of a jarring mood shift to have that snippet detached from the song it actually belongs to.
7. Independence Day for a Petty Thief
The actual song that this intro led into, by the way, is also completely jarring in comparison to that intro – it’s perhaps the roughest, rockin’est ride on the album. Skipper and the gang of background vocals behind him are almost seething with rebellion as they tell this tale of a nervous young punk who uses the 4th of July as an excuse to break into people’s houses and steal their valuables while they’re out watching fireworks. It plays like the punk rock version of one of those outlaw country songs where it’s clear that the protagonist knows God’s gonna cut him down. That’s more implied than outright stated, but again, I offer you “Sinner you better get ready, hallelujah.” This snippet pops up again in the bridge, with the song grinding to a screeching halt just to faintly play it in the background, against the sound of fireworks, and unless you have the volume turned up, you’re gonna think they took a break mid-song for absolutely nothing. Total momentum-killer! It’s too bad, because there’s some stellar guitar and bass work leading back out of the bridge into the raspy shouts of the final chorus, bringing the song to a slamming hard stop. Finding a way to work that “spiritual” snippet into the actual music for this song would have made it work better, but then, the lyrics also sound a bit judgmental (even if it is pointed inward) on the face of it, so however you slice it, this ain’t the band’s best work.
8. Somebody Knows
Also not the band’s best work is this mid-tempo track about the inability of a person to keep his own secrets. it tries, particularly with some interesting judge and jury analogies and an angelic chorus of voices singing “I want the truth!” And some of the guitar work’s not too shabby. But overall, this sounds like The Elms on a mediocre day (most of The Great American Midrange comes to mind). it just kind of floats on by, despite some decent guitar work and some misguided “Whoa”s thrown in at the end to try to liven things up. The classic power pop tricks usually work wonders for these guys, but here, it feels like, “We ran out of gas, how else can we pump up this song to keep it from feeling stale toward the end?”
This is one of those ominous tracks that sort of creeps up on you and gets really intense once you think you’ve adjusted to its mood. In that sense, it reminds me of “Voices” from the last album, especially due to its transition from eerie to full-throttle and almost danceable. Skipper and one of the other guys play a vocal bit of ping-pong here, describing a great escape from a neighborhood with dark clouds hanging over it. The implication is that this old world – Suburba – has nothing left to offer, and that it’s time to move on from the small, limited dreams of yesteryear. (Nitpick – it’s not easy to notice since it’s part of the backing vocal, but pronouncing it “SUB-ur-ba” instead of “Su-BUR-ba” kind of messes with me.) Colin Rigsby‘s speedy drumwork is quite notable here, creating the backbone of a song that, in some ways, is more about rhythm than riffs. It’s one of the more interestingly textured tracks on the album, as well as one of its most driving rockers, and while I was perturbed at first by the way it slowed down at the end just at its peak of intensity, I’ve decided that the crunchy coda is, in its own way, more intense than what came before it. “Guarantees won’t save our dreams” they lament as the car seemingly runs out of gas and the song sputters to a close.
10. She Mighty Mighty
Just when we needed a break from the intensity, along comes a quirky love song about a woman who can talk down the most skilled debators and blister the doubters with a nice little fire-and-brimstone sermon, and… say WHAT?! I guess they sang about falling in love with a communist on the previous album, so why not write a love song about an overzealous Bible-thumper? Hard to tell whether they’re being sarcastic or serious here – I go back and forth on whether this one’s cute or scary. I’ve gotta love the cowbell and the zippy little bits of guitar solos sprinkled throughout the song. Some clever couplets work their way into this fanatically excited song, too: “My girl pray the rosary/Before she take down the powers of bigotry/She walk close, with the Holy Ghost/And she’s haunting me.” Your mileage may vary, but if you think you might meet your dream girl at a right-wing protest rally, this is probably for you. If you’re looking for a reason to dock these guys a few points for sounding like a “Christian band”, then you’ll probably have a field day with this one. I fall somewhere in between.
One last power ballad – I think these guys have done reasonably well with these throughout the album, having enough to break up the flow but not so many that this ever departs from feeling like a genuine rock record. It helps that, despite the slower rhythm of 6/8, the guitars still have a bit of fire to them, and the band puts enough “oomph” behind the vocals to make a clear distinction between “midtempo” and “mediocre” (the song fitting the former description, but not the latter). Some have taken a glance at the title and taken a few lines from the first verse about cold shores and rain and assumed this one’s an ode to the TV show LOST. Which would be awesome if it were true, but seriously, is that the first time you guys have heard the word “constant”? I think it’s a fairly direct song about God, who has been described in a great many songs (as well as the Bible) as, you know, CONSTANT. it’s another example of something that Christian radio would probably love, but the band doesn’t have to totally dumb it down for that to work. (Take a gander at the line “The foxes have holes but the king has no place for his head”. That line could have fit perfectly into numerous songs on The End Is Not the End.) The song hits the “sweet spot” for me when it reaches the bridge and does one of those ascending chord sequences (probably C-D-E or something like that, then slipping back down again) that manages to slay me every time. These guys have a knack for writing bridges that lead back into the final chorus with great anticipation.
12. Burn Me Down
This one’s kind of a weird note to go out on – it’s more of a groove-based rocker than the barn burner you’d expect them to close with. (Then again, did “Field of Daggers” seem straightforward in its first minute or so? And did anyone really see “Angels in Top Hats” coming?) It’s an interesting inversion of the typical power pop approach, in that its verses are more guitar-driven, while the chorus scales the sound back to the more relaxed sound of just the drums and bass. In case you had any doubts left about where these guys are coming from lyrically, the line “There’s a spirit fire growing inside me/Burn me down, burn me down” oughta clear it up, as well as the fanatical shouts of things like “Revelation!” and “Eternity!” that punctuate the song. if you’re not paying attention, these might seem like Christian buzzwords just for the sake of dropping the buzzwords, but I feel like there’s more to it than just that. The whole album’s been revisiting a story in several tracks, which goes from the simple pleasures of living for oneself and making a heck of a lot of trouble in the process, to maturing beyond the confines of your little neighborhood and becoming about something way bigger than yourself. Closing it on a fervent, hollering-to-the-heavens sort of prayer like this makes sense in context. That said, I almost feel like this song could have benefitted from more of a suitelike approach – it goes through its sections of verse/chorus, then more of a “dreamy” sort of bridge, a final chorus, and then a killer breakdown of percussion and guitar at the end. It would all benefit from a bit more extended playtime to really build us up and blow us away, so I feel like they’re at an odd crossroads between progressive rock tendencies and the desire to keep things lean & mean. That big payoff at the end definitely needs to go on a bit longer. You might not be expecting the album’s denouement to come so fast if you aren’t actively watching the tracklisting to see that you’re on the final track.
And then, tacked on right after the sudden final note, there’s a soft, acoustic reprise of the chorus from “Disappear”, tweaked to give it a tiny bit of hope amid the darkness. This perhaps ascribes some extra thematic importance to the song, since it’s weird to bookend with a piece of a song that already showed up kind of late in the album.
Following up an album as musically and thematically brilliant as The End Is Not the End couldn’t have been an easy task, so I commend these boys for mostly sticking with what they knew and delivering a satisfying, albeit not as fully connected, set of songs on Suburba. They’re definitely at a crossroads where each album leads them to be a little more outspoken about their faith, which Christian music fans will generally like while others will probably sit on the fence, weighing the pros and cons. I’m fine with it because they haven’t shoehorned overt references into songs that don’t need ’em to get their point across, but I do have to say that it’s a gift to be able to straddle the line between two markedly different audiences, and to do it while being true to oneself. So I hope that in the future, they either cut the heavy-handed stuff seen in tracks like “Independence Day for a Petty Thief” and “She Mighty Mighty” or at least find a better way to give it some context. Some will say the same about spiritual love songs like “Salt in the Sea” or “Constant”, I guess – I could see the temptation to write carbon copies of those because it’s the simplest way to please the CCM audience. This group’s either got a lot of misunderstanding ahead of them, or a lot of temptation to just please one audience. Here’s hoping they continue aiming to surprise both of them.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Love Is for the Middle Class $2
So Far Away $1
God Save the Foolish Kings $1.50
Salt in the Sea $2
Independence Day for a Petty Thief $.50
Somebody Knows $.50
She Mighty Mighty $1
Burn Me Down $1
Tim Skipper: Lead vocals, guitar
Colin Rigsby: Drums, backing vocals (studio recordings)
AJ Babcock: Bass, backing vocals (studio recordings)
Jared Rigsby: Guitar, backing vocals
Eric Newcomer: Bass, backing vocals (live shows)
Josh Dun: Drums, backing vocals (live shows)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.