Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Growing up doesn't always make better music

By Jon Jacobs

February 12, 2008 | It seems every snot-nosed-brat-punk band that gained popularity during the turn of the century's obsession over blink-182-style-pop-punk has, at one point in time, decided they need to "grow up."

Usually, this means signing to a major label, dressing in over-priced, skintight clothes and enlisting the help of uber-producers who add a touch of pop and electronic elements and making choruses layered a mile deep.

Sometimes, this attempt works. (See blink-182's self-titled album, Sum 41's Chuck, or Green Day's Grammy-winning American Idiot.) But more often than not, these endeavors are met with distressing failure. (See every album Good Charlotte has made since 2002 or New Found Glory's last two installments) It is in the footsteps of the latter group that the latest release from Montreal's Simple Plan finds itself.

With their most recent album befittingly self-titled Simple Plan, relative latecomers in the pop-punk world, decided to compensate for their late 'growth spurt' by enlisting not one major producer, but three. Hip Hop producers Danja - protégé of 'Timbaland' - and Max Martin add some flavor with electronic beats, church organs and some bells and whistles throughout. Leaving Dave Forman famous for his work with both Grammy-winning Evanescence albums ­ to fill in the gaps with densely layered guitars, stereo delay and string orchestrations aimed at tugging on those emotionally fragile heartstrings of ours.

As with all self-titled albums, Simple Plan showcases the band attempting to redefine itself by tackling broader topics, and craft songs that encompass a more mature sound. Unfortunately, not all bombardments hit their mark. In fact, more often than not, they fall embarrassingly short.

The album kicks off with When I'm Gone, opening with bells and a hip hop beat that almost makes you sure you accidentally received the wrong CD. Even after vocals begin, it sounds more like a boy band worthy quasi-rap than a pop-punk band. The chorus luckily shows the band returning to the form the band had created a name for, with big vocal walls and catchy one-liners such as "You're gonna miss me when I'm gone."

With the 80s rock inspired Holding On, the opening guitar-riff so closely resembles Joshua Tree -era The Edge that you find yourself digging through your old U2 records to find which song they plagiarized. Even the production techniques resemble The Joshua Tree with the brian eno-esque otherworldly backdrops over a subtle bass and drum line that turn into full blown emotionally indiscreet choruses.

Lyrically however, the song lacks the prudency and intimacy that Bono's songwriting delivered in 1987, with lines such as: "In the night there's a fire in my eyes. And this paradise has become a place we've come to cry. When I open your letter, the words make it better. It takes it all away. It keeps me holding on." Singer Pierre Bouvier's attempts deep moving lyrics throughout the album, but it still manages to feel like their coming from a teenage boy who's angry with his mother.

Simple Plan isn't an album completely devoid of worthy music, just mostly so. The albums overly lush production is, more often than not, distracting and unnecessary. However, sometimes it adds a pleasant extra backdrop to the songs, as with the second track, Take My Hand -- easily the best track on the album -- Where we find a densely layered, hastily executed track that shows Simple Plan at their best; fast choruses backed with catchy vocal lines.

Sadly, most of the time Simple Plan doesn't stick with the aforementioned formula that made their previous albums successful. They seem to want to sound like a boy band during their verses and a rock band during the choruses. And frankly, it gets annoying. Songs like Your Love is a Lie, and Generation genuinely sound like The Backstreet Boys; and if you're wondering if it's boy band in the entertaining, sardonic way. No, it's not.

It is in this vein that most of Simple Plan plays out; overlong, overproduced and potentially annoying. During the moments of experimentation the band falters and drowns in their unfocused ambitions. It is primarily in the moments where the band returns to form that an enjoyable listen follows.

Simple Plan isn't awful, but it's awfully close.

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