Artist: Colony House
Album: Leave What’s Lost Behind
In Brief: The young band’s third album finds them taking risks and stretching their musical horizons, but not always putting their best foot forward. They established themselves as such great entertainers with the boisterous live band sound of Only the Lonely that it’s kind of a bummer to hear them backing off from it a bit here.
2019 was a strong year for the band Colony House. While they didn’t put out any new material that year, they were still going strong off of their 2017 release Only the Lonely, and drawing more and more fans into the fold with their energetic live performances that the sound of that record had captured so well, thanks to a well-deserved opening slot on Switchfoot‘s Native Tongue tour. I decided to attend one of those shows on the strength of Colony House’s reputation as a killer live act, and I wasn’t disappointed. I didn’t fully realize until that night why the two bands were such a good fit for each other, but it became quite obvious to me watching them perform back-to-back. Both bands have two brothers at their nucleus (Jon Foreman and Tim Foreman for Switchfoot, Caleb Chapman and Will Chapman for Colony House), have a background in the Christian rock scene but an audience that extends well beyond the confines of it, and their frontmen are both born entertainers who will run themselves raged to keep an audience excited. It’s a simple formula, but it worked exceedingly well that night, and knowing that Colony House was cooking up some new material for 2020, I was pretty excited to see what they had to deliver to their now-expanded audience.
The first few singles offered up as a preview of the record in 2019 were… not promising. Don’t get me wrong – they weren’t bad songs. By all account, they were very catchy and entertaining, and fit the personality Colony House had cultivated for themselves thus far. But despite their anthemic nature, these songs felt very much like the work of a studio band rather than a live band. Don’t get me wrong – Only the Lonely had its bits of programming and keyboards and overdubs, but for the most part, the focus was on the huge, loud, organic sound created by four guys in a room together. It had a consistency in its tone and vision that only backed off at the very end. These new singles hinted at a bit more experimentation with electronic drums and keyboards to augment the band’s core sound – it was more forward thinking than the radio-friendly pop/rock gradually melting into adult contemporary heard on their 2014 debut When I Was Older, but it also felt like the band wasn’t presenting as clear of a sense of identity this time around, just sort of blowing wherever the wind took them in terms of their style. I decided to withhold judgment until January, when their third album, Leave What’s Lost Behind, was released in full – one of the first records of the new decade that I looked forward to hearing, especially after giving the band such high marks in my Best of the 2010s countdown.
With a few months behind me and my initial reaction to this album, I can say that it’s… satisfactory. I wish I were more excited about it, but it’s not at all bad. For all of the different directions they went sprawling out in, Colony House is still a band that likes to work with recurring themes and bring a story full circle, and you can hear that in the (admittedly very broad) motifs of wandering, feeling lost, looking for guidance, and longing for love throughout the otherwise disparate songs on this album. At its core, many of these tracks are still up-tempo, crowd-pleasing rock – but they take a few more twists and turns than expected. Perhaps the biggest surprise is how ballad-heavy the record gets about midway through, not really letting up until near the end. Sure, they throw in the occasional upbeat performance to spice things up, but by that point it feels almost perfunctory, as if the mellower stuff was where they felt they could really let the songwriting shine. You might confuse a few tracks with each other lyrically thanks to some of the repeating ideas, but you probably won’t confused any of them musically. This “stylistic roulette” approach feels like they borrowed a page from Switchfoot’s playbook, as it’s what led to my mostly subdued feelings about Native Tongue a year ago. Switchfoot at their best is a great band to be influenced by, but at their most mediocre, they’re a band without much of an identity other than the constant desire to be upbeat and life-affirming, and to see some of that rubbing off on Colony House when they had such a strong sound going for them on their previous album is a bit disconcerting. Still, there are a fair amount of positive surprises to be discovered on Leave What’s Lost Behind, so let’s dig in and see what we can unearth.
1. Looking for Some Light
The piano chord that rings out suddenly, like a lightning bolt heralding the arrival of rain in a dry desert, was certainly a different way to kick this record off than I was expecting. The piano, strings, and some big drum sounds are important elements of this anthem, which I have to say is quite elegantly produced by Ben Shive even if I miss the more boisterous sound of their last record. And that’s not to say there isn’t some solid rock energy here, because there absolutely is – excellent guitar solo in the middle eight, and plenty of opportunities for the audience to join in thanks to the big group vocals singing “Come on! Come on!” The idea behind this song is a pretty basic one – that we’re all just sort of stumbling around in the dark trying to find whatever light source we can, and this should put us on a level playing field that unifies us, rather than giving the person who’s found a little more light reason to judge the person still feeling their way around in the dark. It’s not a terribly deep song – you can call most of the feel-good lyrics before they happen, and I have a hard time taking the whole “sing it like a soldier” bit seriously. But there’s no denying that this one’s a crowd pleaser. It might pale in comparison to a good half of Only the Lonely, but it’s probably the best thing this album has going or it.
2. Runaway Pt. 1 (Love Has a Limit)
One rather puzzling decision that the band made on this album was to have these rather slow mini-ballads that quite noticeably break up the flow – they’re meant to be parts of a conversation between “a runaway and a porter at a train station”, according to statements the band has made about them, and they depict a person running away from something they’ve done that they figure is unforgivable. I don’t feel like they add a whole lot of narrative thrust to the album when split up like this, and even though each one is only about a minute long, I feel like the record is coming to a screeching halt each time one of these comes up.
3. Leave What’s Lost Behind
The band really doubles down on the Switchfoot-isms with this track – there are moments when I can just imagine Jon Foreman eagerly shouting some of the lyrics to this one instead of Caleb Chapman. The rock energy is there – the song has a strong sense of momentum to it that reminds me of Switchfoot’s “If the House Burns Down Tonight”, just without nearly as strong of a hook or melody. At times, it almost feels like Caleb randomly veers into shouting the lyrics instead of singing them because he couldn’t quite land on a melodic hook, and then there are some “whoa-oa-oa”s thrown in as backing vocals that seem like an obvious attempt to patch that hole in the song. It’s a bit of a mess, but it’s an entertaining mess, and it certainly demonstrates the band’s flair for showmanship. The lyrics explore the idea of what it feels like to be constantly driving at breakneck speed away from your past, constantly reinventing yourself, and never really settling down. At some point, the lack of a foundation really starts to get to you, and I think that’s where the shouting voice comes in, trying to disrupt the constant motion in order to talk some sense into the runaway.
4. Original Material
The album’s single is hands down the most fun track on the album – it reminds me of a few songs like “1234” and “You Know It” from Only the Lonely that were unabashedly cheesy, but such a blast to listen to that I realized I didn’t care. This one definitely caught me off-guard the first time around, because it’s got more of a dance-rock sort of flair to it, pushing the programming and keyboards and the “Na na na”s to the forefront more than I’m really comfortable with knowing how excellent of a live band these guys are. Caleb has a weird affectation to his voice here, that reminds me a little bit of Jason Wade from Lifehouse on the rare occasions when he’d break out of self-serious heart-on-sleeve mode and do something slightly more goofy or self-deprecating. The lyrics depict a man doubting his own ability to stay sane in a world constantly pressuring him to be this and do that, and his response is to kick against all the expectations and cry out “I want to be original material for once!” It’s certainly different for Colony House, though I have to admit I gave this song a bit of side-eye due to the notion that they were doing anything truly “original” here. This is pretty much every “young guitar-driven rock band momentarily gets the lust for shameless pop crossover success” track ever, and the music video with the papier-mâché heads makes it painfully clear that what they really want to be is Arcade Fire. Still… I’ve gotta admit that I can’t stop listening to it. It makes me smile. Maybe that’s enough.
5. El Capitan
The wanderlust continues on this weirdly fused-together rocker, featuring an upbeat, bouncy verse and a slower, more anthemic chorus. I’m not sure the two fit together, but the band pulled off surprise mood and tempo changes even in some of their big singles like “You & I” from he last record, so it’s not like this is unprecedented. Caleb describes the desire for constant motion and exploration as a sickness with no known cure here, but he also rather sweetly declares that “I would climb up El Capitan for you”, making it clear that there’s a real motivation behind all the derring-do. El Capitan is (for those not in the know) a mountain rising 3,000 feet above the floor of the Yosemite Valley – its sheer granite face is one of the many reasons that the park is a mecca for rock climbers from all over the world, since climbing it from that approach is no small feat. This is a good idea for a song, and it’s fun to hear the band go off of the usual 4/4 grid as they navigate the sudden twists and turns, but I also get the nagging feeling when it abruptly ends that the song is only half-finished.
6. Why Even Try
Ready for some ballads? There’s a whole onslaught of them at the core of this record – perhaps one too many, but I’ll try not to hold that against this particular song. This one feels like a few of the ballads from their first record in terms of how it pulls off a slow build to a big climax. You think it’s just a mellow piano tune at first, then gradually the drums and guitars start to emphasize the syncopated rhythm, and before you know it you’ve got another huge refrain ringing out into the night sky: “So why-y-y-y do I-I-I-I even try-y-y-y?” This one had to grow on me at first because it’s more about the slow swell than the strong momentum I’d normally expect from the band. The mood of this one gradually moves from defeatism, believing you’ll never change and thus it’s not worth putting any effort into it, to reassurance as he’s reminded of his hope in a higher power, and he realizes that trying to resist the change that will ultimately take place within him is futile. He can become a better man; he just can’t do it on his own. I admire the message, even if I think the route taken to get there is a bit of a bait-and-switch. Still, this is a stronger song than I had initially given it credit for.
7. Runaway Pt. 2 (Love Is a Compass)
I guess this time we’re hearing the voice of the porter who is tired of carrying the runaway’s (presumably metaphorical baggage). He’s trying to remind the runaway of a moral compass that will point him home. Instrumentally, they’ve swapped out the acoustic guitar and piano for a string arrangement. I guess I wouldn’t mind this as a reprise of a complete song from earlier in the record, but I’m still not keen on hearing this song only in little snippets.
8. Where I’m From
The third single released threw me for even more of a loop than “Original Material” did, because this one is very minimalist, with just keyboards, finger snaps, and some sparse drum programming at the outset, with more of a soulful bent than I’d have expected from the band. I really didn’t like this at first; now it’s one of my favorites strangely enough. You’d never confuse Caleb Chapman with a soul singer, and I don’t think that’s what he’s aiming for, but I like that there’s just that hint of melancholy in both his vocal delivery and in the song’s chord progression – again, it’s a nice deviation from the usual tight 4/4 rhythm and the generic four chords of pop. This feels like a very personal ode to the Chapman’s home and their loving family, and I love the little details in the lyrics such as “the scent of cedar, the taste of citrus on my tongue”. They deliberately avoid the big chorus here, and yet this one is still incredibly satisfying to sing along with in its own quiet way. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the fuzzy guitar solo that breaks in during the middle eight. It reminds me of Muse‘s song “Madness” and how it drops an idiosyncratic solo into the middle of an otherwise very robotic track. Colony House is doing a similar thing, but starting from more of an electro-soul base, and it’s definitely a huge outlier for them, but I think they pulled it off quite well.
9. Take It Slow
This is where it feels like the band realized they had too many ballads in a row, and they self-consciously threw in a rocker just for the sake of changing up the tempo, without giving a whole lot of thought to the content of the song. For the first half of this one, it’s a perfectly enjoyable rock jam, plenty of shouting and live band energy just like the Colony House I know and love, a lot like some of the late-album tracks on Only the Lonely that weren’t too lyrically deep, but definitely a lot of fun to listen to. Pretty generic lyrics about fighting for your life, trying to keep your inner child alive, stuff like that. Then it takes a hard turn somewhere around two minutes in, resulting in an awkward outro section in which the group chants “Na-na-na-na take it slow!” over and over again. It’s corny as hell, and I don’t even get any ironic enjoyment out of the way it subverts my expectations. they just keep doing this until it fades out, never returning to finish the aborted half-song that they started. It’s infuriating. Easily my least favorite thing on this album, and for that matter on all three of their records thus far.
Colony House continues to test my patience here by pulling the tired trick of making a new recording sound old. You know how it goes – reduce the volume, make the recording sound tinny as hell, warp the sound a bit here and there so that it sounds like it’s coming from an old cassette tape… yeah, I really don’t like how this one starts off. As love ballads go, I’ll admit to being impressed at how the group manages to surprise me by changing up the instrumentation as the song gets fleshed out, so I’m willing to forgive the clunky intro. As lyrics to love songs go, though… I can admire Caleb’s attempt to compose an ode to his wife, and I figure every singer who spends weeks and months out on the road with a spouse at home holding down the fort owes them this sort of song, just on principle. but all I’m really getting here is that she’s unforgettable, she’s the most beautiful girl in the world… pretty standard stuff that sounds like it could have been written about any girl in the world, aside from the specificity of her name. So, not a lot of points for creativity in the songwriting department here.
I’ve definitely got ballad fatigue at this point. I’m not going to say that this song and “Why Even Try” share so many similarities that I can’t tell them apart – Colony House is being quite deliberate about returning to some of the same ideas from different perspectives, and having some of the same lyrical snippets pop up in different songs (they reference “Looking for Some Light” at one point here), and I have to admit that it helps to sell this set of songs as a package deal rather than as 10 or 11 disparate ideas. They have a song about not trying and it’s mirrored by a song about trying. I can respect that on some level, even if I feel like a lesson was learned in “Why Even Try” and now we suddenly have amnesia. This song isn’t really memorable for me until near it’s climax, when a wave of electronic sound washes over it, and suddenly the keyboards and vocals and drums are all digitized, and it’s actually a pretty neat effect due to how unexpected it is. A cool studio trick doesn’t make a great song in and of itself, but my ears perk up all the same, probably because I know it means this slower segment of the album is almost over.
12. Runaway Pt. 3 (The Weight)
Just one more interlude to finish up the runaway/porter conversation. At this point the runaway is begging the porter to carry his bags just a little farther for one more tip. I guess the melody has changed a bit from the first two iterations of this song? I genuinely don’t care at this point.
13. The Hope Inside
I have to say, this is a strong finish. Definitely my favorite finale out of the band’s three albums thus far (and the last two both ended on good songs – just understated ones). They went for the slow build once again, spacing things out in the opening verse but gradually bringing in an up-tempo rhythm that gives the record a feeling like it’s gleefully sprinting toward the finish line. This i one those songs that attempts to tie together nearly every other song on the album, and I suppose that’s easy to do when you’ve been dealing with very general ideas like looking for light, finding hope inside, knowing when to slow down and give yourself a break, etc., throughout an entire record. But I like how this song is essentially the runner focusing on his heartbeat and his burning lungs and realizing he’s got a passion deep within him that cannot be silenced, but he also can’t keep living his life with the pedal to the medal if he wants it to be along, healthy and happy one. Singer/songwriter Jillian Edwards, who just so happens to be the wife of drummer Will Chapman, shows up to sing part of the bridge section, and by the time the song wraps up it’s pretty clear that Colony House has pulled off a deft balance of kinetic energy and gentle grace. Like some of Switchfoot’s anthems that are trying to chip away at the grand questions of what it all means, Colony House is trafficking in some very general, high-level ideas here with the hopes that it will be universally relateable. What they might have lost in originality and individuality, they’ve gained back in their uncanny ability to make the listener smile with songs like this one.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Looking for Some Light $1.50
Runaway Pt. 1 (Love Has a Limit) $0
Leave What’s Lost Behind $.75
Original Material $1.25
El Capitan $1
Why Even Try $1
Runaway Pt. 2 (Love Is a Compass) $0
Where I’m From $1.50
Take It Slow -$.25
Runaway Pt. 3 (The Weight) $0
The Hope Inside $1.50
Caleb Chapman: Lead vocals, guitar
Will Chapman: Drums, percussion
Scott Mills: Guitar, backing vocals
Parke Cottrell: Bass, keyboards, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: