In Brief: I’m guessing Almería won’t sit well with long-time Lifehouse fans, but I consider it a welcome reinvention for a band who desperately needed a change.
You’ve gotta hand it to a band who demonstrates the willingness to obliterate its old sound and try to rebuild its identity from the ground up. Particularly when that old sound has proven to be an easy avenue to commercial success. Think of the name Lifehouse, and what comes to mind? It seems a lot of folks still regard them as a one-hit wonder who scored big over a decade ago with the precision strike of a heavily spiritual and insanely catchy blend of post-grunge and pop, and who have been slowly melting the two genres into an increasingly nondescript pool of mush ever since. Back at the turn of the century, when the tough-posturing “bros” were all listening to Creed, their girlfriends were probably listening to Lifehouse. I say that with a measure of self-deprecation, because I was pretty big into both bands at the time, but while my enjoyment of Creed has diminished to “Yeah, they had a few good songs”, I can still go back to No Name Face and recognize it as a solid album, one that may have not done a lot to transcend its genre trappings, but which generally features strong enough songwriting and vocal performance on the part of Jason Wade to get away with belonging to a genre that is now a bit of a dead horse. Their massive popularity fell off quick with Stanley Climbfall – a cluttered, noisy experiment of an album that I actually liked quite a bit but that seemed to turn off a lot of their fans. Then they lost me with their lethargic self-titled disc while gaining back some fans on the mushy ballad-loving end of the spectrum with “You and Me”. Subsequent albums were largely a rehash of the most pedestrian aspects of their sound – Who We Are was catchier than such a paint-by-numbers album had any right to be, and by the time the bland Smoke & Mirrors arrived in 2010, it was pretty clear that it was time for a change. Adding programmed drums and vocorder effects wasn’t the change anyone was really looking for, so I figured at that point that Lifehouse would just continue to play it safe. (Well, aside from “Nerve Damage”, a bluesier song which stuck out like a sore thumb on Smoke, but which would have fit in wonderfully here.) So I’m quite surprised to say that Almería, the band’s sixth album quietly released in the waning days of 2012, finds the band making some remarkable and risky changes.
For starters, look at that album art. It’s green, and it depicts cowboys locked in some sort of a Mexican standoff. It’s easily the most whimsical thing to grace a Lifehouse cover since that creepy smiling figurine on No Name Face – ever since then, it’s all been washed-out colors and unimaginative band photos the should have been left at the top of press releases. If this Western imagery leads you to expect a bit of country influence, then you’re sort of on the right path – I’d say it’s more rootsy and bluesy than straight-up country, but Lifehouse has definitely discovered a bit of an affinity for twangy grooves on this album. I’m certainly not going to pretend that they’ve suddenly become virtuosos on their instruments or that this album captures some sort of a raw one-take performance with everyone in the same room at the same time with no overdubs or anything. It’s still a polished pop album with the bells and whistles you’d expect from a studio band. But, having finally done away with the unexciting buzz of grungy guitars strumming one unimaginative power chord after the next, there’s finally room for a bit of acoustic fingerpicking or slide guitar or even a legit electric guitar solo that sounds way more old-school rock than grunge to shine through here. Drum loops play a minor role on a few tracks, but the album’s sound never approaches the point where you forget that these guys are a band. It seems the the primary ingredient in most of these songs was a simple riff or melody that could be looped and improvised upon over the course of a song. This approach works beautifully for everything from a pretty pop duet with Natasha Bedingfield (of all people) to a roots-rock throwdown with Peter Frampton (of all people!!!) Occasionally this approach to making music can get repetitive, and strains of the band’s old default sound do start to show through. But overall, Almería gives me the impression that spur-of-the-moment riffing and other ideas that might be considered unorthodox for a mainstream pop band became the building blocks of each song, making it the first Lifehouse album where no two of them feel too much alike. It’s their shortest album, at only ten tracks long, but in a way, it’s their most colorful and engaging one, beating out Stanley Climbfall in the experimental department without ever being off-puttingly weird.
Where Almería doesn’t quite register as a guaranteed win is in the lyrics department. Wade’s lyrics (often written in collaboration with producer Jude Cole) are as sensitive and heartfelt as they always were, and the departure from Lifehouse’s usual grunge pop setting sort of frees his vocals from a lot of the unwanted Scott Stapp comparisons. (I’ve always felt that he was far more talented in that department than you’d expect from a singer in this genre – it usually took a strong ballad to bring out something more than the expected growly angst, though.) There’s still a sense that he’s being deliberately vague and trying to make his words relatable to as many souls as possible, which brings with it the unwanted side effect of bogging down a song in repetition or failing to live up to the colorful setting that the band has created for it. Some of these songs have really strong melodies, yet due to Jason’s reluctance to put much of an exclamation point on most of the sentiments he’s expressing, a chorus that could have ranked among the band’s best anthems instead just seems to listlessly loop back upon itself, or else a song that’s been steadily gaining momentum for a few minutes falls into a weird sort of dead zone because he forgot to write a bridge. Seeing what the band creates out of the minimalistic ingredients that most of these songs are built on is part of the fun, but not so much when the band’s ruminating on the same snippet they started the song with and Jason isn’t doing his part to really bring the point of a song home for us. This unfortunately means that listeners who preferred Lifehouse’s alt-rock sound are going to hear a lot of “slow” songs and start to tune out, while folks like me who like to listen for the intimate details of a song will be intrigued at first and then grow slowly complacent over the course of most of these tracks. Almería is great mood music – the kind that would make great company for an unhurried drive through the desert. But it only reaches a few points where it’s truly exciting music, and while I find it to be an admirable album for the most part, this aspect is what keeps it from being a fully convincing rebirth for the band.
1. Gotta Be Tonight
This first song has the sort of workmanlike beat to it that makes me wonder if Lifehouse joined a chain gang. (And if so, are they lifers? I’m sorry. I just had to.) Maybe I’ve just got an overactive imagination, but in any case, the stomp-and-clap beat and lyrics about putting your head down and doing your best to stay focused and make it through some sort of tough trial do a great job to unveil a new image for the band. I think they’re even sporting a dobro on this one, which is very un-Top 40 of them. The mix of rhythmic and folksy sounds, complete with vocal samples that sound like the sort of old field recordings Robert Randolph & the Family Band used on their latest album, is unexpected and refreshing. The song loses some small points for being a tad repetitive – but it’s one of the lesser offenders in that department.
2. Between the Raindrops
Interesting choice for a lead single here. It’s definitely one of the lighter, more adult contemporary songs on the project, and it’s a pleasant duet with Natasha Bedingfield – not exactly current-day star power, but there’s some appeal to the oil-and-water mix of her voice and Jason’s. It doesn’t work as well as, say, Kendall Payne‘s vocals on “Trying”, but this is one of Jason’s best songs in terms of vocal performance, so I can let it go. It starts with subdued fingerpicking on the guitar and the very light thumping of drums – a recipe that reminds me quite a bit of Andrew Peterson‘s “Dancing in the Minefields”, which I’m sure is a coincidence. The song similarly tackles a relationship going through hard times, though not as specifically – metaphors involving raindrops and earthquakes and so forth are used as obstacles that a couple can only skillfully dodge if they stick together. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but it’s sweet, and the chorus has the sort of galloping, heroic melody that makes the song incredibly memorable. There’s a bit of steel guitar that becomes into the end, just to bring this lighter pop song into the “spaghetti western” sort of world they’ve created for themselves on this album. But despite the big chorus, the song remains mostly uncluttered – there’s some swelling strings and other background ambiance behind the chorus, but it still feels surprisingly stripped down for a single.
3. Nobody Listen
There’s an up-tempo sense of lightness to this one – the drum programming makes it feel almost danceable, but it never goes into “hot & heavy all-night rave” mode. It’s definitely one of the least organic pieces on the album – it’s more of a smarter reflection on the synthesis of alt-rock and programmed pop that didn’t work out so well on Smoke & Mirrors. The texture of it is where I have to commend the band for not piling on the typical pop or rock arrangement – once again the ingredients are minimal, mostly revolving around the programmed drums and later the live ones, as they come tumbling in on the chorus with these big, echoing booms, giving this fast-paced song the feeling of being all alone in a cold, dark universe despite its catchy tempo and melody. The lyrics seem like Jason’s typical existential angst at first, wondering about the big questions of who we are and why we’re here and so forth, but the twist is that the song isn’t so much about these as it is about the myriad of voices all competing to offer answers and to drown one another out. “Everybody talk and nobody listen, nobody listen, nobody listen”, he drones somewhat bitterly in the chorus, and this would be a great opening line to a hard-hitting point that he unfortunately never makes. Once again, repetition rather than expansion is the rule, so it reduces a song that could have made a statement into a pleasantly toe-tapping bit of armchair philosophy. It’s still one of my favorite songs on the record, but the spots where they could have tried harder with it are really glaring.
This is where you’d expect the rock factor to finally kick in, after hearing the downright mean guitar riff that starts it off, which reminds me of a muscle car getting revved up. It seems to be one of Lifehouse’s rawer songs, and it really stands out on an album where the electric guitar is generally used more for texture than for straight-up riffing. Unfortunately, Rick Woolstenhume‘s drums are pretty much on auto-pilot here, keeping the song coasting at a medium pace, never really gaining any more momentum past its promising start. This is a damn shame considering how alive the previous song felt because of him – but at least there’ll be a catchy chorus to save the day, right? Well, sort of. Jason’s feisty declaration of “Today is moveon, moveon, moveon, moveon, moveon, moveon DAAAAAAYYYYYYYY!!!” sounds like the sort of thing that would get a big rock anthem fired up, but once again, it’s his inability to flesh out anything beyond that one line that hampers the song (even in the mininal verse lyrics – though I do like the surrealness of the phrase “The sun doing cartwheels in my eyes”). I can’t really look to the rest of the band to save it, either – lead guitarist Ben Carey pretty much bunts his solo during the bridge, and by about halfway through the track, you’ve really heard all that it has to offer. Come on guys, what are we supposed to be moving on FROM?
5. Slow Motion
Here, a very slow, almost disembodied song (you were expecting what from the title?) is likely one that will get slagged by longtime Lifehouse fans looking for something a little more energetic. Interestingly, it has a contrast of fast and slow that seems to turn the previous song on its head – the electric guitar is fingerpicked like an acoustic, while Jason plays an actual acoustic (perhaps even a 12-string) for rhythm, and this establishes a slow pace even though it requires some fast fingerwork from Carey to get that exotic riff right, with its hammer-ons and pull-offs. There’s a vague tinge of Eastern mysticism to it – I think I’m even hearing a sitar in the background. Jason sings in a lower tone of voice at the beginning of it, as if meditating, and the whole thing makes me picture a caravan of nomads trekking across some faraway desert. Jason seems to have a knack for writing songs about feeling disoriented by the very nature of time and space itself, not even recognizing the universe he’s in… and this is definitely one of those songs. Surreal lyrics such as :The days are upside-down” and “My hands feel just like an ocean” add to my impression that this song was more of a stream-of-consciousness experiment – just ruminate on that riff for a while, let the other band members paint around it as they see fit, and don’t overthink or over-compose it. There were a few similar experiments on Stanley Climbfall (“My Precious” comes to mind), but this one beats any of those simply because it paints in such beautiful, exotic colors.
6. Only You’re the One
This is the one track where they seem to completely abandon their new experimental edge and revert to their old ways. It’s a mid-tempo love song, not really grungy at all – much more like the poppier love songs on Smoke & Mirrors. I can’t really name anything about it that isn’t formulaic – I can feel how far they’ve drifted from their early days due to the heavy supporting role that synth plays despite the song going for a big “power ballad” type of chorus. At this point I’m used to so many Lifehouse choruses that try to jump out at you with the same sort of heart-pounding urgency as “Hanging by a Moment”, that they don’t really do much for me if the verse doesn’t build to it in some interesting way. Since the mood here is very synthesized and sterilized, even their best attempts to spruce it up with echoing acoustics and high production values don’t really make it memorable. Jason’s devotion to someone who plays a unique role in his life does still come through in his vocals, but it bugs me that a melodically strong chorus, but its attempt to drive home a hook by ending the chorus where it began leads to a doubly awkward grammatical construction – “Only you’re the one that…” In order to not leave that sentence hanging, he’d have to follow through with the second line of the chorus again, which doesn’t work when he’s trying to transition back to the verse. Plus I don’t see any reason to switch the words around instead of saying “You’re the only one”. Unless talking or something like Yoda he enjoys.
7. Where I Come From
Another glistening acoustic number shows up here – Jason might have been singing about raindrops earlier in the album, but the quick, shimmering pattern of notes that comes pouring out of the two guitars here makes me feel like golden coins are raining down on me. Despite being mellow, this song moves at a surprisingly brisk pace, tricking the mind into thinking of it as a “slow song” because it doesn’t march right up and announce itself by way of a big, booming chorus. They sort of build to that gradually instead, and so for about half the song, it feels like it could have been a stripped-down performance of a song that was once more electrified. That illusion falls away once the drums and strings and stuff really kick in on the second chorus, but it still doesn’t settle for default sappy pop mode at that point. As much as I’ve bagged on the band for defaulting to the sort of mushy love songs we heard just one track ago, it’s remarkable how well that same mushiness comes across when they make some effort to work magic with the instrumentation. It was truly a mistake for this song’s chorus to include the line “Looking back, you were the only one” right after a song based around that very same vague sentiment. But the central idea in this one is that despite all of the disorienting wandering (either physical or emotional) that he’s been doing, someone in his life is a grounding presence – whenever she’s around, it feels like home. I still find myself wishing Jason had bothered to write a bridge, which is probably the biggest blunder he commits on most of these songs. I like that other subtle instrumental elements like the piano and some electronic sounds work their way in during the break between two choruses, but it usually bugs me when you’re 1/2 to 2/3 of the way through a pop song and you’ve already heard all of the lyrics that you’re gonna hear.
8. Right Back Home
This is, hands down, the most genuine and flat out fun rock song that Lifehouse has come up with since the early days. They’ve had some good angsty ones – see “The Joke” and “Nerve Damage” – but there’s a sense of runaway joy to this one that I haven’t felt from these guys since I first heard “Spin”. And this one is nothing like any of their old material – it unabashedly borrows from blues and country traditions, immediately pulling me in with a sassy slide guitar lick and then kicking into high gear with a shuffling drum beat. This one mines the history of rock & roll for all its work, pulling in legendary guitarist Peter Frampton for a smokin’ duet. Charles Jones, a bassist known for his work as a sideman for Robert Plant among other things, also adds to the old-school energy here. You wouldn’t expect a band who got its start long after alternative rock had become pop to mesh well with these influences, and it’s definitely true that Jason is getting schooled in both the vocal and guitar solo departments, but shoot, those two sound great harmonizing together. The lyrics are mostly there as a framework to build this lively jam session around, so they’re nothing profound in and of themselves, but when I hear these guys singing about being lost and alone out on the road and the realization of how they’d lost themselves bringing them back to the place where it all started, I can’t help but feel that it’s a bit of a mission statement for Lifehouse, perhaps even an apology for spending the last several years mostly painting by numbers. In any event, even if neither Lifehouse’s old or new sounds seem like they’d appeal to you in general, do yourself a favor and give this song a listen. It will pleasantly surprise you.
I guess this is the closest Lifehouse gets to a straight-up country ballad. You can hear a slight bit of twang in the acoustic riff, at the beginning of it, though at that point it still seems closer to mellow rock, until the pedal steel gives it away later on. I actually enjoy the melding of the two genres – I’ve heard some alt-country acts do this sort of thing really well, and while I can’t say that Lifehouse’s take on it is revelatory, it’s a pleasant change from their norm once again. Despite having a slow, dusky sort of melody, it’s a song of sweet, unwavering devotion, pledging to break down the psychological walls that prevent a person from receiving love. The musical mood here is like a long, peaceful sunset. I do find myself wishing there was a little more to this on in terms of the drums or some other instrument for the pedal steel to interact with, perhaps melting into a long, lazy coda a la Over the Rhine, but it’s still pretty good for what it is.
Now the sun has set and the stars are slowly coming out, and we end the album with this soft piano ballad. Honestly, I have a weird relationship with Lifehouse’s piano ballads. There really aren’t that many examples of this in their back catalogue, but whenever they do them, I feel like they tend to settle for really basic chords and melodies – see one of their oldest songs, “Storm”, which really had to grow on me. (The lyrics here even reference making it through a storm with someone by Jason’s side – I can’t help but wonder if that’s an intentional call-back.) Interestingly, my assumption that it’s just simple piano chords and the bare truth turns out to be partially false, since the band does manage to pull a slick key change and bring in a choir for one final outpouring of emotion in the bridge. If any song on this album really needed a bridge, I guess it was this one, which would be completely dull and unremarkable without it. Still, I wish Jason and co. could have dreamed up more compelling ways to change up the status quo during some of the other songs that seemed to wear out good musical ideas by overplaying them. I seriously doubt that the band is ever going to come up with an album closer that rivals the beloved “Everything”, but at least they manage to end the album on a graceful note here – this is probably the most I’ve cared for any of the closing songs on a Lifehouse album since Stanley Climbfall‘s “The Beginning”.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Gotta Be Tonight $1.50
Between the Raindrops $1.75
Nobody Listen $1.25
Slow Motion $1.25
Only You’re the One $.50
Where I Come From $1.25
Right Back Home $2
Jason Wade: Lead vocals, rhythm guitar
Rick Woolstenhulme, Jr.: Drums, percussion
Bryce Soderberg: Bass, backing vocals
Ben Carey: Lead guitar, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: