Monday, October 3, 2011

"Life was just happening..."

Switchfoot - Vice Verses
lowercase people records, 2011
Four stars

It's a funny thing: I never think of Switchfoot as one of my favorite bands, and I never anticipate their new releases with the excitement that I await so many of my favorite albums every year, and yet, they're undeniably one of the four or five bands that really got me into music in the first place, and every single record they put out is still getting played by me years later. I bought The Beautiful Letdown at K-Mart on an impulse buy based on how much I liked "Meant to Live" and especially "Dare You To Move" (still one of my favorite radio singles of the 00s). It was probably the 6th or 7th album in my collection, and quickly became one of my favorites. It had the singles, some great mid-tempo rockers ("This Is Your Life," "Gone"), some chilled out jams, destined for my summer soundtrack ("The Beautiful Letdown") and a pair of ballads that I played over and over again ("On Fire" and "Twenty Four"). Throughout my musically formative months that made up the fall of 2004, I discovered a handful of new artists and albums that are still among my favorites today, but The Beautiful Letdown held over from that summer, continuing to make a strong impression on me every single time I listened.

When the band dropped the follow-up, Nothing is Sound, in the fall of 2006, it became for that season what The Beautiful Letdown was two years earlier. I still consider that record to be their best: a terrific collection of songs from start to finish, free of a single misstep, and full of the kind of catchy mid-tempo rock and heartfelt balladry that the band had carved out for themselves on it's predecessor. The next record, entitled Oh! Gravity, never hit me the way the previous two had, and caused the band to fall off my radar until lead singer Jon Foreman released a terrific set of acoustic EPs (one for each season) in 2007 and 2008. Looking back, Oh! Gravity is as classic a Switchfoot record as either of the others, albeit a little less accessible on initial listen. Their 2009 release, Hello Hurricane, dropped halfway through my first semester of college, and reminded me why I loved this band in the first place: their sound was comfortable, like an old friend, their songs were almost always something I could relate to, and the hooks were often irresistible.

The problem I had with Hello Hurricane, which kept it from being near the top of my end of the year list, was that it had flow and consistency issues. The band seemed to have developed a desire to write more aggressive rockers, and those parts of the album ("The Sound," "Mess of Me" and "Bullet Soul"), ended up boring me a bit, and felt a bit jarring next to the gentler material. It was a shame too, since that album had possibly the best track in the band's discography to that point: the anthemic, U2-esque opener, "Needle In Haystack Life," which was easily one of the five best songs of that year.

Two years later, Switchfoot is back with Vice Verses, which they've made pretty clear is supposed to be "the best thing they've ever done." While I'm not sure it takes that title, it's still their most consistent effort since Nothing is Sound, and, true to Switchfoot form, has some truly terrific standout tracks. The band's desire to rock a little harder hasn't waned since Hurricane, as it opens with three of the loudest songs here, with crunchy guitars and distortion galore. This time around though, they don't sound boring or out of place. The riffs are bigger, the hooks better, and Jon Foreman sounds as terrific as ever. Of this opening trio ("Afterlife," "The Original." and "The War Inside"), "The Original" hits the hardest. offering the biggest, most infectious riff on the entire record. "Restless" is the kind of mid-tempo ballad that made me fall in love with this band at the first place, and is a contender of the title of best track on the album. "Blinding Light" has an explosive chorus that is one of the album's biggest, while "Selling the News" is notable for it's politically charged lyrics and Jon Foreman's vocals, which are spoken word on the verses and sung on the chorus. 

Jon Foreman laments a life that has lost it's spark on "Thrive," a mid-tempo ballad that opens sounding like something from U2's most recent record, but builds to a chorus and an emotional bridge that would have been right at home on Hello Hurricane. "Dark Horses," the first single, is this album's "Meant to Live," a big rock song with a big riff, while album highlight "Souvenirs" is the "Dare You to Move," a big earnest piece of pop-rock with soaring vocals and guitar accents that recalls the best moments of each Switchfoot record: "Needle" off Hurricane, "Awakening" from Gravity, "Golden" off Nothing is Sound, and the aforementioned anthem from Letdown (which was also on that album's predecessor, Learning to Breathe). By the time the record reached that song on my first play through, I was in love. As with every Switchfoot album (with the exception of Sound) there are a few moments here that aren't as strong as others, but Jon Foreman's ability to churn out at least one or two legitimately perfect pop-rock songs every time out (along with a slew of consistently good material) has made them a band that I return to time and time again, and a band that I think probably does rank among my favorites. By the end of "Souvenirs," I was also thinking about how Switchfoot is a band I've followed longer than most, whose music has been a big part of my life from the summer before 8th grade all the way to my freshman year of college, and finally to now.

Vice Verses closes with a true one-two punch. First is the title track, a gorgeous song, featuring some of the best lyrics on the album, and a beautiful vocal from Foreman. The production is also notable, using an "echo" effect as the song goes on to give the feeling that it is getting further and further away. It almost feels like a closer, in the same vein of "Red Eyes," "Daisy" or "Twenty-Four" from past albums, but "Where I Belong" takes things out instead, and it does so in epic fashion. Marked by a choir of "woah-oh" backing vocals, the song has the same anthemic crescendo that marks a lot of the band's best material, and it builds into the finest album closer this band has put to record. It's the kind of closer that bands use to end live sets years after the fact, the kind of song that can fill clubs, auditoriums, or stadiums, and it hits just the way it's supposed to: it makes you want to turn up the volume."I still believe we can live forever," Jon Foreman sings, at the chilling peak of the song's swell; I'm not so sure he's right, but a song like this might just be able to.

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