In Brief: Just about the perfect combination of the first album’s “goofing around with synthesizers” and the second album’s “figuring out how to be an actual band more so than an Internet meme”. The results may not be revolutionary, but HGB makes some of the most intoxicating “power pop” music in existence.
I wonder sometimes if we critics do a disservice to certain artists when we talk about them “maturing”. The conceit in that observation is usually the notion that their music used to be for young people, that it was superficial fluff, and now they’re all grown up, behaving like serious musicians and writing about weighty subjects and what have you. Sure, you’re more likely to find timeless music in the latter category, but then there are some musicians who I think were just meant to sound young at heart for their entire careers. Forrest Kline, the mastermind behind Hellogoodbye, may turn out to be one of those artists – it’s a bit to soon to say, given that he and his revolving-door band are only on their third album. But the one consistent aspect of their ever-changing “power pop” sound is that it’s always fun. Perhaps now that they’ve been a fully fleshed-out band for two of those three albums, it’s more fun than when it seemed like it was just a few guys tinkering with laptops and writing cutesy love songs in the hope of racking up MySpace hits. They’re still all about the cutesy love songs, alongside a strong dose of existentially angsty songs that somehow manage to be too delightful for their own good. And I may tease them for this, but I have to admit, their sound is more addictive now than it ever was. Just as much of it seems to come from the thoughtful adult who wants to carefully consider and lushly arrange these musical thoughts, as the stuff that seems to come from Kline’s inner teenybopper. That’s never been more apparent than on Everything Is Debatable, an album which finds HGB welcoming drum programming and bright electronic sounds back into their arsenal after spending most of 2010’s Would It Kill You? trying to prove they could function as a legitimate band without these things. As solid of a listen as Kill turned out to be, I think I’m gonna have to give Debatable the edge, because there is seriously not a dud track on the entire disc.
Now I’m gonna be honest – for all of its ruminating on love and loss, I can’t pretend that Everything Is Debatable is particularly deep or thought-provoking. At times, the peppy mixture of techno-wizardy, danceable beats, fuzzed-out guitar licks, and pristine string/horn sections seems almost as if Kline is using these things to remind himself not to take it all so gravely serious. It’s the kind of album to soak in when you feel that urge to just abandon your worries for 40 minutes or so. There’s something in the way its songs – mostly uptempo, but occasionally showing surprising restraint – quickly melt into one another, the entire set brimming over with vibrant colors that bring to mind the exploits of some of my favorite power pop outfits from over the years. Recent tourmates Relient K come to mind on several occasions – not that HGB even hints at being pop/punk in any way, but they’ve certainly discovered a passion for crafting smart pop music that RK has all but abandoned in their more recent pursuit of the unchallenging middle of the road. The wall-of-sound approach of indie-electronic acts like Passion Pit comes to mind at times, the happy mix of sounds temporarily masking something more sinister below the surface, though I wouldn’t say HGB’s lyrics ever get as dark. At times a denser Sherwood or Copeland comes to mind, and of course a lot of these bands have been looking for contemporary ways to reiterate their love for classic pop arrangers like The Beatles and The Beach Boys. (It’s probably impossible to mention such influences without setting your expectations unreasonably high, but it’s always nice to know a modern group respects the classics.) I’ve always believed that you don’t necessarily have to be doing some sort of visionary genre-bending to come up with a commendable and thoroughly enjoyable album in a well-worn genre, and Everything Is Debatable is one of those albums that I’d gladly hold up as evidence of doing straight-ahead, candy-coated pop/rock music extremely well.
1. And Everything Becomes a Blur
You’d be forgiven for feeling alarmed at the sudden burst of manic, synthesized noise that opens the album. At first, it seems like a step backward from the band’s previous album. But pretty soon after, the confident strum of an acoustic guitar breaks in, along with joyous group vocals. Throw in some solid drumming that expertly ducks in and out between the bits of programmed rhythm, and the occasional grand ringing of bells, and you’ve got the sort of energy level normally reserved for bands like The Polyphonic Spree. At first, HGB seems to be using this glorious sound to ironic effect, as they tell us, “Of all the friends you made along the way/Every single one will pass away.” But despite the song’s preoccupation with the ephemeral nature of things, it’s not trying to depress us – it seems to be encouraging us to embrace the memories while the people around us still exist in bodily form, creating memories that endure beyond the physical components that will inevitably wear out and break down.
2. (Everything Is) Debatable
The title track packs an absolutely irresistible vocal hook, chopped up and spit out again in such a way that it seems to have merged into the keyboards. Rhythmically, it’s also quite strong, putting the same sort of modern synthpop spin on a disco beat that Passion Pit did on “Carried Away”. I know the name Hellogoodbye will forever remind some folks of the overly cutesy “Here (In Your Arms)” and the twee folk-pop of “Oh, It Is Love”, both of which are songs I’m incredibly fond of despite their goofiness, but I seriously think this one outstrips both in the department of pure catchiness. The fact that this brightly colored dance tune celebrates a bizarre out-of-body experience just sweetens the deal, because it’s such unusual subject matter, the kind of thing that reveals a songwriter more easily inspired by his weird dreams than by any notions of what constitutes a mainstream hit song. Not that most people would notice at first glance, as easy as it is to get swept away in the bright wash of sounds coming out of their speakers. As glossy and hook-driven as it may be, you still get the sense that all of the keyboards and quirky effects and whatnot are being gleefully performed, rather than clinically manufactured.
3. The Magic Hour Is Now
A bit of an abrupt ending brings us into this song before it quite registers that the track has changed (admittedly, some of the segues on this album make it difficult to isolate specific tracks for mix-making purposes), but when the drums kick in, it’s apparent enough. Still upbeat, but a tad more relaxed, this song bounces along as it compares the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nature of a gorgeous sunset to the sort of romance that is best enjoyed while it lasts, because neither party knows how they’ll feel about it years or even months from now. It’s earnest and a bit sad all at once: “I want to feel infinite/But I don’t think my heart’s that in it/I just want to remain in love/Like everybody does.” The keyboards and electronic effects, while still present, aren’t as prominent here, giving the song more of an airy, indie-pop sort of vibe. I hear it and I just want to be on a hilltop somewhere enjoying a beautiful sunset, wanting to burn that image on my memory because I know I can’t drag that special moment out any longer than it’s meant to lost.
4. Swear You’re in Love
The band turns up the melancholy here, leading off with a memorable talkbox effect, the kind where you’re not quite sure if it’s a highly distorted vocal or a guitar. It’s another strong melodic hook, though, the kind that’s just jam-packed with hope and heartache all at once. The guitar licks in this one are distinctly 80s, as if they took Spandau Ballet‘s “True” and just sped it up a bit. Your mileage will vary on whether that’s a creative use of nostalgia or just a ripped-off idea, but I personally enjoy its application in a modern, power-pop setting. (I came of age in the 90s, so I’ll confess to only knowing that lick from P.M. Dawn‘s “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss”.)
5. Summer of the Lily Pond
This song is sort of a crash course in how to incorporate big-band jazz into modern power-pop, in sort of the same way that “Betrayed by Bones” was on the last album, but its application here is a tad more “soulful”, or at least it would be if the song as a whole didn’t feel so rushed. So many of the lyrics fly right by me in this one that I can’t hope to make much sense of its imagery. (Is it just me, or are there a high number of mondegreens here? Did he just sing, “I was wrong about Downton?” Like, are they arguing about the plot of a TV show? I somehow doubt it.) Despite my confusion, it offers a fun little jolt to a mostly synth and percussion-driven album – it’s still quite dense with drums, but it’s nice to have the horn section giving the song a distinct flavor, up to the point where it fizzles out and a trumpet is still blaring into the night as the next track fades in.
6. Just Don’t Let Go Just Don’t
This one makes you think it’s going to be a power ballad with its huge, low-pitched synth intro, as if you’ve suddenly been cast out into the depth of space back in the 1980s. Then they bring in the disco-esque guitar riffs and another strong mix of drum programming and live percussion, and suddenly this thing’s got a seriously kinetic groove going on. Drummer Michael Garzon is on fire here, and I love that the song has they good sense to tack on an extended outro just to give him a little more time to light up the dance floor. Forrest may well be losing his cool, according to these lyrics, describing himself as hanging on the end of a rope held by the woman he loves. The sheer desperation of it is a bit silly, but I’ll take borderline insane dance-rock over sleazy-guy-hitting-on-some-poor-girl-in-a-bar dance-rock any day.
7. I Don’t Worry (As Much as I Should)
The navel-gazing hits an all time high here, as “Just Don’t fades off into distant ambience, gradually taken over by a surprisingly calming piano melody, which beautifully propels this song to its slow-burning climax. I feel like this song was purposefully conjoined to the previous one, the two linked by this idea that “all I do is hold on to you”. But here, Forrest’s outlook here is much more chill, almost paradoxical as he becomes preoccupied with his tendency to not worry enough, as if he’s just sort of haphazardly blundering through life and not considering the consequences until later. It’s definitely a contrast to the clingy personality described in the chorus as it gradually picks up speed the synth melody trying to lure the piano melody into doing something a little more frenetic, while the piano insists on staying the course, a repeating mantra recited against the chaos surrounding it.
8. How Wrong Can I Be
This is the song that I remember the least when the album is over – nothing bad about it; I just don’t find its chorus or its overall melody to be as strong as some of the others. Twinkling synths and a strong bass line make me think this could have been a track by The Killers, though the more introverted nature of it makes me think otherwise. The song seems to be an apology for fighting so fiercely for someone or something that you love, that you end up hurting that very person or cause.
9. An External Force
I love how the magic of the string-and-synth intro to this song tumbles headlong into some of the most frenetic drumming on the album – it permeates this song to the point where Garzon could be mistaken for MuteMath‘s Darren King. It’s appropriate for a song about being taken over by some sort of a power you can’t explain, something that draws two people together in spite of their own common sense. I get this funny mental picture of two people’s arms and legs being tugged like puppets on strings – for some reason that makes me smile. he song has damn near the same effect on my own limbs!
10. Die Young, Die Dumb; Not Soon
The most guitar-driven song on the album almost sounds like one that could have been included on Would it Kill You?, since the slight screech of the electric guitar, and the live drums and handclaps and such, are much more prominent than the keyboards (which are still present, but play more of a supporting role). Since a lot of this album has been concerned with the temporary nature of life and what lies on “the other side”, it’s refreshing to hear the band approaching death with a sense of humor, wishing that someone would die young at heart and ignorant of the fact that they’re about to keel over, but that it wouldn’t actually happen to them any time soon. Much like “And Everything Becomes a Blur”, the point seems to be enjoying the stage of life that you’re in instead of lamenting that you’re not as young as you used to be or that the things you love about life don’t seem to last.
11. A Near Death Experience
“Die Young” fades at the end, so it would have worked just fine as a closer (though admittedly, that would make the album shorter than I usually like albums to be). This song almost feels like an afterthought by comparison – it’s uncertain where the previous song was definitive, reflecting on an unspecified experience in which Forrest apparently came out of a coma or some period of unconsciousness following an injury or illness, and didn’t realize how close to the brink of mortality he’d come. It causes him to realize that he might have never gotten the chance to tell someone he loved her… and just as he’s getting up the courage to say this, he realizes she has no idea what happened to him, and he sort of chickens out: “You didn’t know I felt that way/And I just shrugged it off anyway.” The song goes for slow, bombastic drama, of the type that would befit a song of more epic length – its quiet reflections and its big swells of strings and pounding drums seem weird when limited to a four-minute pop song, its final whispers and weirdly angelic vocals fading out before it feels like they should. This one might have fit into the middle of the album better than the end, but I still enjoy it for the weird misfit that it is.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
And Everything Becomes a Blur $1.50
(Everything Is) Debatable $2
The Magic Hour Is Now $1.25
Swear You’re in Love $1.50
Summer of the Lily Pond $1.25
Just Don’t Let Go Just Don’t $1.75
I Don’t Worry (As Much as I Should) $1.50
How Wrong Can I Be $1
An External Force $1.75
Die Young, Die Dumb; Not Soon $1.25
A Near Death Experience $1
Forrest Kline: vocals, guitar, ukulele
Augustine Rampolla: keyboard, guitar, bass, ukulele, percussion
Andrew Richards: guitar, ukulele, mandolin
Michael Garzon: drums, guitar, vocals, mandolin, ukulele, keyboard
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: