Armed to The Teeth
The theatrical boon of suburban culture has usually been grafted onto pop rock for better or worse, explicitly or implicitly. Think about it; you have in front of you a mosaic of characters who all try to subsume their flaws, their carnal thoughts, under the guise of a specific socioeconomic etiquette. The music, in comparison, often portrays the same quotidian posture with 2/4 verse-chorus-verse romps that are outwardly copasetic and uncomplicated. But the outstanding musicians have managed to present the discrepancies between peoples' farcical public projections and their bubbling insecurities. See, suburban music—while, yes, sounding flaccid and dull—can occasionally rise above its mechanical limitations by playing with the tension that already inheres in the characters they describe.
But suburban music is also limited to a specific range, and once it attempts to assess The Big Questions explicitly rather than through abbreviated narratives then its limitations are illuminated. Tommy Walters, former Eels bassist and primary member of Abandoned Pools, made a perfect suburban album with 2002's Humanistic. There the lightly distorted guitars and Walters's falsetto pulled you in and an unthinking listen wouldn't yield much to admire. The album unraveled like a story, however, and beneath its tales of unrequited high school affection lay a far more nefarious, disconcerting body (at one point during "Sunny Day" a voice chimes in saying, "You can serve God and man no more effectively than by getting rich"). What it lacked in outward nuance it made up for amply with hushed undertones.
Armed to The Teeth has, prima facie, the same body type: contagious riffs, an expressive vocal performance, and melodies that just beg to be hummed at full roar. Interspersed throughout are stuttered orchestral harmonies ("Renegade," "Goodbye Song") and the album differs only slightly from their debut through its decidedly more muscular performance for most of its duration, a surprising fact since the band has been reduced to a trio after lineup changes last year. Sometimes that change is registered sonically however—the thin, underwhelming performances of "The Catalyst" and "Sooner or Later"—but never to the effect of ennui or torpor in performance. It's a better album than Humanistic on mechanical terms, so on a superficial level it passes muster.
Yet to grant the album positive marks for accomplishing the expected is folly, and we're here to watch a drama unfold rather than admire the actors' attire. The problem with Armed to The Teeth is threefold: first, Walters seeks to adduce that the music he makes is fit enough to adequately tackle major issues like the decay of public morality divorced from the suburban narrative. While admirable in a sense, every aspect of the music he makes is suited almost exclusively to that type of narrative, and deviations from that lens ("Armed to The Teeth" and "Tighter Noose" especially) are grating missteps. The former is a naked upbraid against corporate excess while the latter, strangely enough, attempts to explicitly filter personal depravation through an unambiguous, loosely suburban allegory ("You're so weak/Beat up a Geek/Makes you complete").
Second, the pieces that seem like apt vehicles to present his themes ("Hunting," "Renegade") are instead left to linger in a World of WYSIWYG rather than infusing the characters and stories with more complicated substructures as he did on the debut. They end up being merely sonic carapaces emptied entirely of any substantive detail and propelled by nothing less than a chugging guitar and chorus at certain times. While it may grab you initially, the songs are so slick, so pop rock through and through that there are no substantive emotional or thematic signposts on which to hang.
Third, Walters is simply less explorative in this session. Humanistic was typified by forays into solid pop aesthetics (“Ruin Your Life”) while here pop is merely some necessary appendage. Not once does he consider amplifying or deemphasizing one aspect or the other (pop or rock) to create eccentricity. What emerges overall is an album that’s heavy so often that the weight is always anticipated; an album made indistinguishable by its own dedication to muscularity in all respects. Sadly when this happens suburban music gets reduced to theatrics rather than an entertaining theatre.
Release date: September 27, 2005
Label: Universal Records
Rating: 6.9 / 10
On the web: http://www.abandonedpools.com
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