t’s been 22 years since Rites of Spring released its debut record, more than a lifetime for Paramore’s 18-year-old frontwoman Hayley Williams. Rites of Spring, frequently cited as the first emo group, lasted for about three years and recorded one album and one EP, establishing what would become a near standard for the genre; many of its most important acts were lucky to make it past their second album. With these punk bands burning bright and dying fast, the music transformed rapidly; emo has gone through enough twists and evolutions during its lifespan to fill a history twice as long. Paramore recalls music only about five years gone—the buoyant, sincere punk-pop of acts like Jimmy Eat World and the Get Up Kids—but for a genre where half a decade can be a third of a lifetime to some fans, five years is almost ancient history. Bands have formed, influenced a new wave of kids, and broken up. Emo has changed enough that music about actual emotions is a rather quaint idea, making Paramore as much a throwback as the vanguard of a new generation.
Riot! is immediately appealing because it focuses on sounds that have been neglected by the genre’s frontrunners. This is an uncomplicated album comprising of strikingly uncomplicated music, entirely lacking in 15 word song titles, Jay-Z guest appearances, and theatrical meta-concepts about performing in a rock band (“Misery Business” concerns a rival for a man, not the music industry). It’s far from a dull retread for old fans who have failed to keep up with a rapidly changing scene, though; Paramore attacks its music with infectious enthusiasm, too straightforward to have such contrived purposes. The youthful surety of “Miracle” is bracing in its clarity; compared to hits about scenes and arms races, “I’m gonna start over tonight, beginning with you and I” is refreshingly direct.
“For a Pessimist, I’m Pretty Optimistic” contains barely a hint of pessimism. The band has no time to dwell on negatives as it charges through glimmering, blissful verses and a gigantic chorus. (Williams is an endearingly terrible cynic; on “That’s What You Get” she wonders, “Why do we like to hurt so much,” sounding anything but despairing.) That relentless assault of sugar-sweet riffs and soaring choruses dominates the first half of the album and beyond, only easing off for the mid-tempo pulse of “When It Rains,” which has the light touch and gentle throb of a Belinda Carlisle hit. While Paramore shares its predecessors’ unabashed sincerity, its music notably omits much of the neurotic self-examination. It’s easy to imagine Williams singing a Jimmy Eat World line like “If you don’t know, honey, then you don’t,” but harder to imagine her uttering it with Jim Adkins’ plaintive vulnerability. Riot! doesn’t suffer for its lack of subtlety, but if the band should develop some later in its career, the results could be even more spectacular.
Impatient power chords and irrepressible power pop aren’t a new combination and at times, Riot! connects the dots so transparently it would seem cynical if the band’s approach weren’t so earnest. A tactic like dropping the guitar out for a triumphant refrain (“Born for This”), for instance, is so familiar its use is nearly traditional. And just when the album strings enough high-tempo rock songs together to suggest a contemplative piano-driven ballad is around the corner, “We Are Broken” arrives with gentle keys and a plaintive chorus, building to a gratifyingly teary climax. Rather than the predictability growing dull, however, Paramore realizes the punk-pop formula with such guileless fervor that it becomes entertaining in itself. The album stumbles only when it’s forced outside its comfort zone; the jaunty acoustic strum of “Fences” isn’t awful, but it’s a misstep on a mostly adroit record.
Punk and its derivatives have always had a not-so subtle affinity for pop music, from the Ramones’ girl group fascination, through the Clash’s disco dabbling and beyond Blink-182’s radio sheen. Trading distortion and dissonance for clarity and melodic precision irritates the purists, but it illuminates an ever-present pop center. Paramore is reminiscent of turn of the century acts on the Vagrant and Drive Thru labels, but, at a time when young pop stars are embracing naked emotionalism and bright guitars, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between Riot! and the better songs from Kelly Clarkson or Avril Lavigne. As punk more extravagantly flirts with pop and pop explores short, sharp rock songs, Paramore finds a comfortable place between the two. That Rites of Spring’s descendants affirm the worth of Jimmy Eat World as well as Ashlee Simpson suggests the lineage is as healthy as ever.
Reviewed by: Jonathan Bradley
Reviewed on: 2007-08-13