“Enthusiasm is the mother of effort, and without it nothing great was ever achieved.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I do love a good epigraph. Also, I like ironic juxtapositions. Incidentally, this is a review of Neon Trees’ new album, Picture Show.
My associate, darling Matthew, assured me he would become ill if I chose Picture Show as my best album of the week. The proof is in the pudding:
I am a good friend, if one prone to passive antagonism, so I “tried” to find an album that I enjoyed more in any context. Aside from the already-claimed Yann Tiersen, it was a lot of dreary, uninspired, folk-ish pablum. This album, though, is something different.
See, I adore the idea of Neon Trees as a poppy dance-punk band. I want to be in one of those some day. I like frontman Tyler Glenn’s hair. I liked their debut album, Habits, but just like the rest of civilization, it was mostly for insta-classic “Animal.” I’ll be the first to admit that the rest of that album is a little underwhelming, if inoffensive. And I think that is Neon Trees’ Achilles’ heel. When they hit the mark, they shatter it. But, as if exhausting themselves on two or three songs, the rest of their output tends to be a little underwhelming, if inoffensive.
But they try so dang hard. And I like to award effort.
Picture Show, to this reviewer, shows how much promise the band possesses and how much talent and showmanship they have to work with. Ultimately, though, the album falls prey to a lack of good instincts. It’s like Mitt Romney. On paper, he is the best you could ask for in a politician. His resume (no doubt printed on subtle, off-white, thick paper with a watermark) is impeccable. He is a handsome son of a gun. He has no idea how people behave or what they want to hear. And our Provo, Utah-based quartet has the style down pat. They have the right idea of what their sound should be. They have yet to figure out how to isolate their occasional lightning into that darn bottle.
But those aesthetics — oh! those aesthetics. “Moving In the Dark” gets things rolling admirably, complete with an ominous organ and outer space synths filling the background out. It’s 80s pop-rock from beginning to end. I’m sure the band has listened to their fair share of the Romantics and Cheap Trick. But in a good way. “Teenage Sounds” is a great companion piece, though I’m always skeeved out by twentysomethings singing about being teenagers (I will be your teenage dream tonight, Ms. Perry, glad you asked). “Mad Love,” is a sweet little number, despite the unspectacular vocals from drummer Elaine Bradley. Next to Glenn’s Mick Jagger-like strutting, her voice fades away.
Frustratingly, it’s obvious that the band or its management KNOW what a good pop record sounds like, because their selection of lead singles is always impeccable. On Picture Show, it’s “Everybody Talks,” which deserves all the airplay it gets. It’s fun, it’s rollicking, it’s fresh, it’s got hooks for days. The video, too, is one of my current favorites. I expect a long life for it in commercials and movie soundtracks for years to come. There are worse things than that.
The real rock star on Picture Show is “Weekend,” which, if I was 18 again and a freshman in college, I would have hip-thrusted to in my dorm room until I broke something (furniture and/or bones). As an undeniable sucker for songs about youthful, reckless abandon, “Weekend” panders to the stupid kid in everyone. A crisp guitar riff from Chris Allen drives it forward, Glenn is in ideal expressive form, and Bradley’s drums keep things moving. And, because Lady Gaga and Clarence Clemons taught us all how to love again, there is an extended saxophone feature. The song has flavors of Boys Like Girls (but … in a good way). Put your shame away for four minutes and 35 seconds.
In its midpoint, Picture Show takes the Depeche Mode exit off the 80s pop highway, with a few dark, slinky, synthy numbers. “Lessons In Love (All Day, All Night)” transforms its melody into a melancholy piano solo at the end that segues uniquely into the menacing “Trust,” a successful display of tonal range from the band, which is followed by the similar “Close to You.”
From there, Picture Show loses almost all of its steam. “Hooray For Hollywood” starts off nice, but it is unquestionably one of the most embarrassing things I have ever heard by the end. You know Madonna’s spoken word shout outs in “Vogue”? Did you ever want to hear that, but with dead celebrities instead of silver screen icons, for no apparent reason? Maybe with a crescendo of chanted “Amys” and “Whitneys”? Neon Trees wanted you to hear it. Of all places to drop the album’s title, the band chose this ill-advised number, whose lyrics bear a passing resemblance to a signature on an IMDB message board post.
“I Am The DJ” doesn’t require an explanation of how banal it is, because it’s called “I Am The DJ.” Things pick up a little bit for “Show,” with lyrics like, “How’s that for devotion, baby?/No one here still believes in ’till death.'” Equipped with some Phil Collins-era drums in the breakdown and a Gin Blossoms-esque tambourine, it’s a brighter spot in a mostly aimless back half. As an aside: No fewer than three songs feature the concept of devotion in their lyrics. I see through your brainwashing attempts, Trees. I’ll have none of it.
It’s hard not to appreciate the genuine effort on Picture Show. Neon Trees cares. They want to be a singular, iconic band. They are truly giving their all here, striving to craft pop hooks and New Wave-influenced flavor. The lyrics are never generic, so to speak, but they aren’t quite the poetry I think the band imagines them to be. But Picture Show is a step in the right direction. It’s not a sparkling masterpiece, but it’s full of piss and vinegar.
(1) “Moving In the Dark”
(3) “Everybody Talks”