In Brief: Exhilarating blend of classic and modern power pop sounds.
Every now and then a music aficionado like myself finds himself enjoying the music of a group that he knows will be difficult to defend in a review. He knows other groups have done more or less the same thing before, that the group probably won’t win any awards for artistic merit, and most distressingly, that they’re marketed toward a way younger demographic than he would see eye-to-eye with on most things. Yet, there’s something irresistible about the group – or at the very least, about a few of their biggest earworms – that keeps him coming back and curious to see how (if at all) the group will manage to mature over the years. If he’s the self-conscious type, he’ll never admit to liking the group, but if he’s a little more secure with himself, he might admit to those few songs that are a guilty pleasure. Still, knowing that others around him who are perhaps a little better at acting their age would never take him seriously, he’s careful to couch every kudo he gives the group inside a backhanded compliment. Rewind back to about 2007, and this is what I thought of the group Hellogoodbye.
If you’ve heard of the group, then it’s quite possible think of them as “Music for your tween daughter to build her MySpace page to”, which is especially funny now that hardly anyone except for musicians seems to bother with MySpace anymore. Chances are your exposure to them has been through one of two singles, each of which showcase a radically different side of the band’s music: The electronic dance-pop hit “Here (In Your Arms)” or the chirpy, ukulele-driven ballad “Oh, It Is Love”. The former, heard in isolation, would probably lead you to expect a prefab, boy band sort of group, from circa 2002/3 when it felt like a lot of those popular teenybopper acts were trying to reinvent themselves as actual bands and prove themselves to an audience who didn’t necessarily want to hear their rudimentary instrumental or production skills. The latter revealed more of an organic side of the band, though it was still mushy as all hell, so it probably played like an oddball mix of Jack Johnson, Nickel Creek, and what people who have never been to Hawaii think Hawaiian music sounds like. And see? There I go with the backhanded compliments, because I’ve been meaning to indicate that I genuinely liked these songs then, and that I still do now, and yet I can’t seem to resist making fun of them. As it turns out, their full-length debut Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs! (which contained songs about none of those things) fell somewhere in the no-man’s-land that exists between synthpop, indie rock, and folk, with the term “power pop” frequently used to describe the silly but often catchy mixture that resulted from it. It was often over the top, sometimes to the point of my personal irritation when they couldn’t figure out that their little inside jokes didn’t translate well to a wider audience. But buried somewhere beneath the madness, I could tell that lead singer Forrest Kline had an ear for a solid pop hook. I figured the band just needed some time to pick a genre and go with it, and to figure out how to write songs that the larger percentage of the population not consisting of that cute girl who sat in the back of one of their art classes could actually relate to.
After a long hiatus between records, a massive shake-up in band membership that left Forrest as the only original member left standing, and some record label drama that isn’t worth going into, Hellogoodbye was reborn, dropping Would It Kill You? in the late autumn of 2010. Unsurprisingly, it’s a record that would have worked better in the summer, but I suppose when a band’s been waiting that long to get some music out, any release date will do. The pleasant surprise here is that the band’s grown up a bit, easing into a take-no-prisoners approach that is long on zippy sing-along choruses and hyper-driven guitars, and short on anything that might have come from a laptop. Yet, it’s still eclectic. Forrest’s ukulele slips into the punchy pop/rock sound without coming across as a complete genre flip. Programmed beats play a supporting role here and there, while several tracks get the added benefit of supplemental orchestration. The bells and whistles are used as they should be this time around – serving the song rather than becoming the song’s focal point. And sure, the group’s still hung up on starry-eyed tales of young love, so most of it’s just good clean fun. But the passage of time worms its way into the lyrics rather convincingly, creating a record that sounds more carefully thought-out, more multi-dimensional than their old stuff. It ain’t high art – the folks at Pitchfork Media still wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot needle. But for those who don’t mind the sunny melodies and cartoon-y flourishes of vintage Beatles and Beach Boys getting thrown into a melting pot with a punchy, pop/punk sort of spirit reminiscent of Relient K and walloping vocal hooks that might make Jimmy Eat World blush, you might find a lot to love here.
1. Finding Something to Do
We plunge headlong into the jangle-pop here, with Forrest’s lyrics kicking in at literally the first second, as if to indicate impatience and wanting to just get on with it already. With playful syncopation, hyperactive shouts punctuating the verses, and even a saxophone worming its way into the mix, this sounds like a joyous, sunny love song at first glance, with a guy so taken by the image of his girl sleeping next to him in the passenger seat that he dang near crashes his car. But there’s more to it than that – a fundamental question gradually emerges as he considers what will happen when the seasons change and they start struggling to come up with new entertainment options. Are two people really in love with each other, or just in love with all the fun, new things they find to do together? Forrest swears he’ll still stick with her even when things get boring, so the song ends on an up note, but it still makes you wonder if the giddiness of young love is enough to sustain a long-term relationship.
2. Getting Old
The theme of fun things to do running out and starting to get replaced with dull responsibility plays a significant role in this second songs, which backs off on the full-throttle energy to give Forrest room for a few quiet breaks where it’s just his voice and ukulele, while still bringing in catchy guitar licks and horns for a big chorus. A band this youthful can sound like they’re biting off more than they can chew when they muse about the ravages of time from the ripe young age of 25, but then, isn’t that what made “When I’m Sixty-Four” so charming? There’s a sweetness to this one, as Forrest reminds his lover that while they’re both going to grow old and wrinkled and eventually die, their love is based on something deeper than superficial appeal, so he plans to keep her company for the long haul. It’s easier said than done when you’re that young and trying to look that far ahead, but it’s a sweet sentiment nonetheless.
3. When We First Met
This happy, skippy radio single, heavy on the bouncy keyboards and the strum of Forrest’s ukulele, is a near-perfect example of the economical pop song, that gets in, makes its point, and gets out with little fuss, having tons of fun in the process. The quick little drum breakdowns leading into the chorus are a defining characteristic of the song, almost providing more hook value than the chorus itself. And the lyrics, while they drip with nostalgia and are as lovey-dovey as can be, also couch those sentiments in a clever framing device, using the growth of hair as a marker for different time periods in a couple’s relationship. Again, the fear of time passing and things becoming repetitive shows itself, but there’s a sort of assurance that as long as she’s there, life will be so much more fulfilling even when it’s all routine.
4. Betrayed By Bones
The orchestration gets a little more of a showcase here, borrowing more heavily from the Beatles as a cavalcade of horns, synths, and Mellotron puts us in a whimsical mood before settling into an easygoing, acoustic verse. I’m not entirely clear on Forrest’s analogy here – it focuses on the anatomy, as if the muscles and tendons and bones have a mind of their own, causing his feet to move him away from the one he loves. I guess it’s a different take on the fight between heart and mind that a lot of people go through when they’re unsure about a relationship, and he’s apologizing to her for getting caught up in that tension. OK, so it’s a bit awkwardly stated, but it’s a fun song that veers away from the expected musical style, so they still get points for creativity here.
5. You Sleep Alone
The crashing of guitars and drums, and the sudden wail that leads us into this song, remind me of some of the harsher moments like “Homewrecker” that grated on my nerves a bit on the first album. Forrest’s voice is intentionally rough around the edges here, but this song doesn’t exist just to be abrasive – a large portion of it is actually driven by the speedy strum of an acoustic guitar, only bringing in the distorted electric when the fast-paced lyrics need a bit of extra punctuation. There’s some off-key piano and a lot of other fun elements, so even though this isn’t one of my favorites, it keeps the momentum going and does its part to change up the musical mood. The lyrics basically boil down to Forrest lamenting a period of separation when he and his lover aren’t sleeping in the same bed. He’s trying to reach out, but she keeps turning away. Thousands of songs have been written on the topic, so while this one’s not terribly original, it’s certainly one of the most energetic attempts to express that sort of frustration that I’ve ever heard.
6. When We First Kissed
The tone of the electric guitar in this song just screams “sun and surf”. If you think the title’s familiar, you’re not seeing things – but I should note that this song isn’t a clone of “When We First Met”. It focuses more specifically on a single moment in time, when a guy finally gets up the gumption to ask a girl if she feels the way he does. The fated kiss ends up occurring in the front seat of a car (and did you really have to say it was a Rav, dude? You’re not getting paid for the product placement. Then again, plenty of older rock songs have extolled the virtues of specific brands of cars that had emotional significance to the writer, so… whatever.) There’s not a ton of detail to it – just a perfect moment captured in time. The song seems to fly by, gradually bleeding into the dissonant sounds that open the next one.
7. The Thoughts that Give Me the Creeps
The tense, growing sound of random piano keys banging and distorted notes getting stretched like putty creates a bridge between two songs that makes me wonder if Forrest had been listening to “A Day in the Life” one too many times. Once we get into the song proper, it threatens to become a clone of “Oh, It Is Love”, building from the simple, folksy base of Forrest an his ukulele before gradually bringing in the drums cute keyboards and whatnot. But this one’s more like “Oh, What If It Isn’t Love?”, as Forrest proceeds to overanalyze a situation that he should probably just shut up and be happy about – the girl of his dreams sleeping by his side, her actions seeming to indicate beyond a shadow of a doubt that she’s over the moon for him, but his worries about how she really feels keeping him endlessly awake. I guess I can see where he’s coming from. People do a lot of stuff together that the hopeless romantics among us would naturally assume means “I love you”, but the first person who dares to say “I love you” can sometimes send the other person fleeing in terror. Such is modern dating.
8. I Never Can Relax
A fun mid-tempo track kicks in with an overly happy “Doo-doo doo” sort of background vocal, and some reasonably fat bass licks, plus glistening keyboards that kick in later – yeah, this song is pretty much the musical equivalent of ADHD, its melody trying to remain cheery but dipping occasionally into darker hues as Forrest struggles to keep his brain quiet for half a second. Though he’s musing about concepts so broad that they threaten to mean nothing at all, I can relate to his inability to calm his racing mind, because I tend to get it spinning around and processing random, insignificant things when I’m supposed to be doing more important stuff like sleeping. The strings and bells and whatnot make it a more fun trip through his personal paranoia than you might otherwise expect.
My favorite track on the record is also its longest, which ain’t saying much, as it tops out at just over 4 minutes, the extended length being mostly due to the flight of fancy that the synthesizers go on for thirty seconds or so in the intro. When the rest of the band kicks in, it’s a total flashback to the sunny innocence of pop music circa the 1960’s, little string flourishes punching up the mood all the way through. This was a much-needed kick in the pants for me in the middle of a gloomy winter – I couldn’t hear this one and not get a smile on my face. What’s funny about that is that the lyrics sort of betray a song that’s designed for a laid-back day at the beach, all caught up with worries and concerns, as if needing the music to help let go of the hesitation over what to do, say, and think. The girl’s response to her boyfriend’s overactive imagination is too perfect: “Oh, she said, ‘You spend too much time in your head.'” I feel like I’ve been told this by many a girlfriend, but I’ve only ever been in two serious relationships, so I’m probably remembering someone’s reasoning for not wanting to be my girlfriend back in the day.
10. Would It Kill You?
I like how the songs in the back half are sort of built to cascade from one to the next, each one addressing the concerns of the previous one. This one makes a good title track because its question of “Would it kill you just to let it all work out?” is like a message to all of the worries about love being unrequited and age taking away the things we enjoy, telling all those other songs to just take a chill pill. The sunny strings from the previous songs combine with little fun blasts of drums and guitar, sold of bleeding the best qualities from “Coppertone”, “Finding Something to Do” and “When We First Met” into a grand anthem. Despite all the extra instruments and production tricks, I enjoy that they let this one unfold in a sort of messy way – it gives the song more of a “live band” feel than some of the other tracks, which means it’ll probably be a blast of a song for HGB to close a set with before coming back for the obvious encores.
11. Something You Misplaced
The record could have actually closed beautifully with the title track, but I don’t mind having this song tacked on as a coda in the slightest. The resolve to let go of worry is now being applied to that potentially unrequited love, asking whether her feelings for him are something she lost track of or just plain forgot over time, but eventually resolving to the time-honored cliche that if you really love someone, you should let them go and see if they come back to you. While this is as upbeat and perky as anything else on the album, I really enjoy its gradual buildup of energy, seeming like it’s going to be more of a contemplative mid-tempo track at first, but eventually bringing the drums and guitar into overdrive, using the repetitive keyboard melody as a massive earworm to stick in the listener’s head as it fades away into a long tunnel of gradually diminishing sound. It’s a bittersweet ending since it leaves the question unresolved. But you get the feeling that whether he gets the girl or not, he’s learned something huge about himself either way.
While I wouldn’t say that there’s any groundbreaking art or award-winning lyricism here, I think Hellogoodbye has managed to do a lot more with fairly universal themes than a lot of other bands would accomplish. The connections between songs and the overall flow of the album help it to rise above your standard youthful pop/rock fare, and while music this catchy is meant to be immediate and not need any time to grow on the listener, I like that there are some more subtle layers that get revealed as you pay closer attention. It tells me that this band has a little more on their minds than just walloping you with the most obvious pop hooks they can think of. I’m willing to bet the future will hold a bit more restless exploration for these guys. They may never get critical raves for it compared to what others in the indie scene are doing, but I’m looking forward to their further evolution nonetheless.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Finding Something to Do $1.50
Getting Old $1
When We First Met $1.50
Betrayed By Bones $1
You Sleep Alone $1
When We First Kissed $1.50
The Thoughts that Give Me the Creeps $1
I Never Can Relax $1
Would It Kill You? $1.50
Something You Misplaced $1.50
Forrest Kline: Lead vocals, guitar, ukulele
Andrew Richards: Guitar, ukulele, mandolin
Joseph Marro: Keyboard, guitar
Joseph Lemble: Guitar
Mike Nielsen: Drums
Travis Head: Bass
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Originally published on Epinions.com.