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I Know Nothing Stays the Same

On Pop Music and Artistic Identity

10/22/14

Reinvention is a tricky subject for me.

I love it when a band flips its own script and tries something new. I love being surprised by music, and hearing a band known for one thing fully committing to something else entirely is one of the best of those surprises. And yet, I also appreciate consistency – I like artists who establish an identity, and then play with that, leaping through different styles. Elvis Costello is probably the gold standard for that kind of thing. He started playing rockabilly and punk, but has delivered solid work in country, folk, jazz, orchestral balladry and a host of other styles. He can commandingly collaborate with Allan Toussaint, Burt Bacharach and the Roots, and still sound like himself.

So it’s a difficult balance, and it requires a true confidence in one’s musical personality. As much as I like L.A.-via-Chicago quartet OK Go, it’s not really a balance they’ve been able to maintain. They burst onto the scene as a cheeky power pop band, then hired Franz Ferdinand’s producer to helm their more… well, Franz-sounding second record, Oh No. And then they thoroughly dived into Dave Fridmann’s trippy electro universe with 2010’s Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. Three records, three completely different-sounding bands. The most consistent thing about OK Go is their elaborate videos, so it’s no surprise that they’ve become known more for their YouTube presence than their music.

To their credit, they seem to have realized this. The band’s just-released fourth album, Hungry Ghosts, is just a quick hop from the sound of Colour instead of another massive leap. The band has once again retained Fridmann, and while this record is less of a head trip, it does make use of the producer’s trademark electronic frippery. The band does have a drummer, Dan Konopka, but it sounds to me like he makes few appearances on this record. Main songwriter Damian Kulash has toned down the Prince influences here, settling on 12 short, sharp pop songs. While this record doesn’t have the same jaw-dropping sprawl as its predecessor, it is more concise, more focused and more fun.

I’m particularly pleased with “Obsession,” with its dirty Achtung Baby guitars and shifting percussion, and “I’m Not Through,” which glides around on a silky beat, faraway vocals and punchy strings. “Bright As Your Eyes” is sunny and joyous, with some 3-D guitar effects, while “I Won’t Let You Down” is a delirious dance floor anthem, ready for your wedding reception. (Perhaps a wedding reception with a giant Rube Goldberg machine as a centerpiece?) Things wind down with the starry-eyed “Lullaby,” and after 11 songs of blipping beats and slathered synths, the simple acoustic foundation of that song feels almost revolutionary.

Hungry Ghosts is a mostly effective pop record, a nice attempt to fit Kulash’s old-school songwriting in with Fridmann’s studio insanity. It works well. It feels like a very small step away from Of the Blue Colour, but it also feels like OK Go trying, for the first time, to establish just what kind of band they are. It’ a nice sign that they want to be known for the music they make, and not just as that band with the treadmills and paint. A few more records like this one and they’ll be in danger of actually being consistent.

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Jukebox the Ghost is another band that has reinvented itself, but not necessarily for the better.

In 2010, the Washington, D.C. trio unleashed Everything Under the Sun, an absolutely brilliant pop album. Extraordinary songs, incredible arrangements, pounding piano, not a single moment of it mired in cliché or mediocrity. It shot for the sky, got there, and then just kept going to the moon. I worried that I might have been overrating it, but I listened again recently, and it’s just as tremendous as I remember. It is pop music unbound, without limits. And it seemed like the band could do anything from there.

What they decided to do, alas, was simplify. 2012’s Safe Travels is a really good record, but in comparison with Everything, it’s much smaller and less interesting. And now here is Jukebox’s self-titled album, which completes their evolution to a streamlined pop band. To their credit, they truly commit to this – they’ve made a strong, glossy, infectious piece of work here, and every song works. Ben Thornewill’s piano is center stage, and though there are no flights of fancy here, no moments when the band uses these songs as jumping off points for something brighter and greater, they acquit themselves well. Their transformation into a smaller, more modest pop band has paid dividends – I enjoy ditties like “The Great Unknown” and “When the Nights Get Long” more than some of the more ponderous moments of Safe Travels, and this record is quite a bit more fun.

Still, I’m not sure this is much of a step up. Not much separates a pretty little thing like “Long Way Home” from a lot of the acoustic pop music you can hear anywhere. Lead single “Sound of a Broken Heart” is fun as all hell, and I don’t really need more than the giddy woah-oh chorus, but I still remember when this band would give me more. As usual, the second half outdoes the first – I’m a big fan of “Hollywood” and “Postcard,” two of this album’s most convincing piano-bangers, and the almost otherworldly gospel song “Undeniable You” is captivating. Album closer “Show Me Where It Hurts” is tender and lovely. Everything here works. I’m not sure why I’m complaining.

It’s just that Jukebox the Ghost used to be a special band. Well, they’re still special – it takes huge amounts of skill to write goofy yet compelling little pop songs like these, and to create a record so appealing out of them. But this brand of special doesn’t thrill me the way this band used to. There’s nothing really wrong with the synth-pop of “The One,” for example – I like it, I hum it, it makes me want to dance around like a moron. But it doesn’t strike me as something only this band could do. Jukebox the Ghost is another good record that only pales in comparison to where they’ve been. If the goal was to make an accessible, infectious, truly enjoyable little record that might turn more ears their direction, then mission accomplished. I just wish they didn’t have to lose so much in the process.

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If the theme this week is establishing a musical identity, Andrew McMahon has it nailed.

Following his stint fronting rock band Something Corporate, McMahon brought his sense of melody and strong songwriting to Jack’s Mannequin, where he established his sound. McMahon writes smart piano-rock songs, gussies them up with keyboards (and occasionally guitars), and sings them in a strong, clear voice. McMahon is what happens when a Drive-Thru Records artist grows up and discovers who he is. (See also: Ace Enders.) Since taking the reins, he’s never sounded like anyone but himself.

All that is a way of saying that even though his new project Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness has a brand new name, it still sounds like him. The guitars are pretty much gone, replaced with more synths and programming, but if you liked his songs and his voice, you’ll like this. From the first moments of “Canyon Moon,” I was wrapped up in this record. McMahon’s tunes have always evoked a particular nostalgic feeling, like capturing those last fleeting moments of youth, and on this record, he manages to do that while also writing about what it’s like to be an adult.

“Cecilia and the Satellite” is particularly touching – it serves as a look back at important moments in McMahon’s life, but it all points forward to the moment when he meets his first child. “For all the things my eyes have seen, the best by far is you,” he sings, and yeah, there’s something in my eye. It’s just a great, great song. The darker side of that same point in his life is explored on “See Her on the Weekend” – McMahon sequestered himself in a cabin to create this record, and would only see his wife once a week. It’s full of tiny details: “Cell phone is dead and she’s calling, message box is full…”

And yet, when I hear something like “Driving Through a Dream,” I feel like I’m 17. It’s exactly the kind of song that reminds me of being younger – not my actual young man’s life, but a more idealized one that exists in my head. “The night is long, the road is longer, you say you sleep better when I’m awake, I’ll stay awake for you…” Something about that just makes me swoon. For some reason, McMahon’s keys-only production only adds to that feeling. This record draws me in more than any he’s made. Even the lesser songs, like “Halls,” do it for me.

Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness is, at its core, a modest record of fairly simple songs. But there’s something about it, something that McMahon has brought with him all the way through his career, an emotional honesty that I completely respond to. I won’t be naming this one of the best records of 2014 – it’s really small and simple, and it does have a few lesser tracks – but it might be one that I return to most often. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness is still Andrew McMahon, thank goodness, and just hearing his songs again makes me smile.

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Next week… man, so many options. Come back in seven to find out. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.