Taking Back Sunday
n his review of Where You Want to Be, Stylus editor Todd Burns wrote, "let's start from the proposition that Taking Back Sunday is emo. And not just emo, but the purest, most virulent strain of the stuff." Well, it's still the most accurate thing ever written about them, but let's also assume that emo as we know it today (please keep your Rites of Spring out of this) is actually the 2000's answer to '80s pop metal.
In addition to inspiring unflagging loyalty from MTV, both have artistically fungible bands given the important and lucrative task of being popular music for popular kids who fancy themselves as unpopular. They achieve escapism through magnification; the parking lot culture of the '80s was presumably about the kids who wanted to get drunk, get laid, and get the fuck out of wherever they had the misfortune of being born. The bands of the time were also about the same thing, but on a more blown up, hedonistic level that inspired the mainlining of Jack Daniels and the construction of underground orgy rooms.
But more importantly, the similarities are in the sonics. Listen to some of the high watermarks of the genre; Jimmy Eat World's Futures, A.F.I.'s Sing the Sorrow, and Where You Want to Be. Mutt Lange wouldn't turn his nose up at these guitar sounds. And when done correctly, the right anthem will get you to wail along against your better judgment, overwhelming you into realizing it's best to either submit or get the hell out of the way. Taking Back Sunday should realize that with a pin-up boy frontman in Adam Lazzara, a New Jersey homebase, and rock candy hooks, they were always closer in ethos to Bon Jovi than Fugazi, and Where You Want to Be had more than its share of slippery when wet anthems ("A Decade Under The Influence," "Little Devotional"). But while TBS stood head and shoulders above their Garden State brethren, it wasn't so much for what they had as for what they lacked (i.e, Brand New's meta obsessions, Saves The Day's unchecked wimpiness, Thursday's ice grill). Taking Back Sunday made state-of-the-art emo, but no real impression about what made them tick.
"Where you want to be" still seems like a question for the band more than a statement of purpose, because Louder Now tables the discussion of whether they will embrace their arena destiny or disappear into the basement for cred that never really existed. The band has been vocal in their praise of new producer Eric Valentine for his work on the Queens of the Stone Age albums, which seems misguided at first. As is the case with Gordon Raphael and The Strokes, Valentine gets a great sound that probably works for only one band. The leathery riff that opens "What's It Feel Like to Be a Ghost?" is the closest the band ever gets to QOTSA, but their influence shows in Taking Back Sunday's lean towards meat-and-potatoes rock. Though lyrics like "I'm an addict for dramatics / I confuse the two for love" are dead giveaways of emo, a lot of the signifiers of the last album have been curtailed: the scripted screaming guy/singing guy vocals have merged into a Wolf Parade-esque free-for-all, the token acoustic number isn't hilariously overwrought (or even the sixth song), and drummer Mark O'Connell has patched up his abusive relationship with his kick drum. It's actually kind of a shame, since O'Connell's sixteenth-note thumping often served as a nice display of chops when the rest of the band emptied out its shallow bag of tricks.
The unease isn't quelled with the album's onset, since compared to the exhilarating one-two punch that opened Where You Want to Be, "What's It Feel Like to Be a Ghost?" and "Liar (It Takes One To Know One)" are too restrained and workmanlike to make a real impact. The best thing Taking Back Sunday have going for them is an ability to manufacture adolescent piss and vinegar for three and a half minutes at a time, and their weakest songs chafe at this; "My Blue Heaven" and the closing "I'll Let You Live" accomplishes what "…Slowdance on the Inside" and "New American Classic" did before them, proving that Taking Back Sunday would be mercilessly boring if they trafficked in slow songs.
What Taking Back Sunday didn't tell you about Valentine is that he also produced every Smash Mouth and Good Charlotte album you've heard to date, so the band wasn't leaving the studio without radio-friendly unit shifters. "Makedamnsure," dodgy title aside, does what Taking Back Sunday does best: unleashing the 18-year old in all of us that found empowerment in being frustrated about nothing and everything at the same time. If you've got no interest in that sort of thing, knock that grade up there down a few pegs. But those looking for weapons-grade radio rock will eat this up, as well as the Pinkerton-style teenybopper "Twenty Twenty Surgery." And while the "darker follow-up to the breakthrough album" angle was an unavoidable cliché for Louder Now, Taking Back Sunday does their part by giving the more aggressive workouts a stronger sense of purpose. Past stabs at hardcore (or fast screamo) had plastic fangs, but the vicious "Error: Operator" and "Spin" are given real teeth.
It's hard to say whether Louder Now is a better album than Where You Want to Be, since it's another situation where the whole is never greater than the sum of its parts and its impact is restricted to when it's actually playing. Taking Back Sunday have it in them to be a premier power-pop act, but they almost seem apologetic for cashing Warner Bros. checks. It remains to be seen whether this is true with popular emo, but in pop-metal, longevity and humility were inversely related. Their indecisiveness is best illustrated by "Up Against (Blackout)"; the hop-skip-and-a-jump hook is cleaner and brighter than anything in their catalog, and yet it will stay awake at night pining for a better tune to attach itself to. As is, it's anchored by a horribly mismatched Sunny Day Real Estate waltz in the verse. But maybe as was the case with pop-metal, "albums" weren't the objective, so much as a few ace singles and album tracks that hold serve, which is Louder Now in a nutshell. Really, does anyone hold it against Hysteria that "Don't Shoot Shotgun" never pops up on jukeboxes?