Built Like Alaska
emember when the whole Modesto music scene blew up a few years back? Me neither. Apparently there is one; Built Like Alaska are part of it, and Autumnland is their debut. Grandaddy are the scene's best-known ambassadors. Built Like Alaska sound like Grandaddy, who I suppose must have provided the blueprint for the whole scene. According to BLA's label bio, the band "takes [the comparisons] in stride."
"People who think we actually sound like them aren't listening to the music very attentively," quoth singer Neil Jackson defensively. I stand by the comparison, and I take Mr. Jackson's criticism of my listening skills in stride.
Allow me to describe one of their songs. If you've heard the album, you can try to guess which one. It's got distorted (but not too loud) guitars, and a low-rent keyboard playing the melody line over them. The progression is based around mostly minor chords, and anything major is followed by a dominant seventh, so don't get too comfortable, bub. Despite this, it doesn't sound overwhelmingly gloomy. Even the pessimistic lyrics can't bring it down, because the singer is gently pushing his quivering tenor to the top of its range, sounding humbly resigned to his unspecified fate without wallowing in it. The song is short, but by no means simple. Why settle for just a verse and a chorus when there's plenty of room for a couple of bridges and a coda? All in all a pleasant four minutes, with plenty of melodies and unexpected changes to hold one's interest throughout.
Here's the problem: that's not one of their songs, it's all of them. Well, to be fair, they really have two songs: the mid-tempo guitar one described above, and the piano-led slow number, of which there are maybe four or five on Autumnland. Furthermore, the band's sound isn't particularly unique. It's likable enough, and for the first half or so I rather enjoyed this album. But once you've heard the first few songs you've heard them all, and by the end I was just waiting for it to be over so I could start writing the review.
BLA have more than enough musical ideas to fill an album, they just don't quite know how to employ them very effectively. There's not a single three-chord number here; most of them have more than three chord progressions. Each song is stuffed with enough melodies and parts for at least two simpler songs. This is not a criticism, by the way. I don't fault the band for "over-writing/-arranging" or anything like that, in fact I think it's one of their strengths.
The problem is that the songs' sections tend to blend into one another under unimaginative instrumentation. The fuzzy guitars play the chords, while the clean guitars and the keyboards (mostly the latter; if the band has a secret weapon it's keyboardist Susane Reis, whose simple and effective melodies give BLA the closest thing to a signature sound) play the lead lines. But there's generally little sonically to distinguish one part from the next, and as a result one doesn't notice the complex changes. Similarly, the songs as a whole tend to blend into each other. I mistook the opening of "Almost the Earth" for a kick-in on the previous song, as they were in the same key and had a similar tempo.
Jackson's (I assume they're his, as he sings and they seem rather personal) lyrics don't help much. They're not bad, just little more than serviceable. He's definitely a glass-empty kind of guy, one who associates the blooming of springtime with allergies and finds the dark cloud behind every silver lining. "Spends his days laughing," he sings in "Dirtymouth," a promising enough start. "And laughing means feelings / And feelings mean angry things." He's a bit too cryptic to be a total bummer, though. Hopefully his worldview will expand a bit once he gets what he needs to say about (his parents', perhaps?) divorce, a topic that seems to dominate at least a third of the songs here, off his chest.
Again, BLA have a lot of good ideas, and are clearly serious musicians. The way the piano and organ harmonise in the opening of "(I Want a) Happy Home" is excellent, and shows the amount of work that goes into the arrangements. You might listen to "Allergies and Lust" several times before noticing that the urgency in the verses, in which the lines seem to trip over each other trying to get out, derives from the fact that the song switches to 3/4 time for a few bars. And when the rhythm guitars strut a little, as they do in "Heavy Foot," their presence is far more effective than when they stick to the usual monochromatic strumming. Details like this are enough to make think BLA have the potential to develop a strong individual style. I probably won't listen to this album much once I'm done reviewing it, but I will be looking forward to their next one.
Reviewed by: Bjorn Randolph
Reviewed on: 2005-03-29