Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Fray - Helios

Back around the time that the Fray released their third studio album, 2012’s fantastic Scars & Stories, I remember reading a review that lambasted the band’s music and suggested that the Fray might do well to recruit outside songwriters like so many of their mainstream contemporaries had done. I thought that was a terrible idea. Part of the charm of Scars & Stories was that it was a truly collaborative effort. Seven of the 12 songs were written by all four band members, with the other five tracks being penned by the core songwriting team of frontman Isaac Slade and bassist Joe King. Slade and King had also written the bulk of both How to Save a Life – the band’s hit-filled major debut album – and The Fray, their impressive 2009 sophomore effort. Both discs were enjoyable throughout, with four or five stunning highlights elevating them above other mainstream radio fare. However, with the collaborative mentality of Scars & Stories, it seemed as if the Fray had finally found their comfort zone. Suddenly, every song was a highlight, from the subdued piano ballads to the edgier rockers, all the way to the U2-sized arena anthems. I felt proud to include the album on my top 30 of 2012 list because it truly felt like the album where the Fray were ditching their mainstream trappings and embracing truer artistry and song craft.

Unfortunately, that expectation proved false. Not only does Helios, the fourth album from the Fray, fail to live up to the promise of Scars & Stories, but it also seems to willfully unlearn every lesson that was learned on its predecessor. Instead of sticking with the full-band songwriting method, the Fray adopt a heavy and disconcerting reliance on co-writers here. As if the band had read that Scars & Stories review that I so heartily dismissed back in 2012, Helios has 11 songs and all of them have at least one outside collaborator. From Busbee, a hack who does most of his writing for former American Idol contestants, to Reliant K's Matthew Thiessan, who killed his own band's album with gluttonous co-writes last year, Helios reeks of outside interference. Given the nature of the modern pop music industry, the Fray's decision to bring in songwriters for hire may not seem that bizarre. But for a band that has never given a single writing credit to anyone outside of its inner circle, the decision to go full speed in the other direction is jarring and completely illogical. This album just feels like a major step back for the Fray, and it's tough not to blame the co-writing sessions - or the scatterbrained nature of the songs they produced - as the source of the decline.

Part of the problem is a de-emphasis of the piano rock sound that has always been the Fray’s bread and butter. For the first time ever, there’s not a piano ballad here, and while that may be the band’s attempt at subverting expectations, it’s also symbolic of how off center they sound throughout Helios. On Scars, producer Brendan O’Brien was working to help the band adopt a more rock-focused sound (as evidenced by the album’s propulsive lead single, “Heartbeat”). On Helios, O’Brien is is unceremoniously replaced by Killers producer Stuart Price, who seems to think that the solution to breaking the Fray out of their piano rock vein is to layer their songs in synthesizers and other studio gloss. Don’t get me wrong, I love Price as a producer. I think he’s helped the Killers to construct some of their most powerful and sonically splendid songs. But he’s the complete wrong choice for the Fray, his atmospheric pop production making the earnestness of songs like “Our Last Days” and “Break Your Plans” – otherwise solid pop-rock tracks – sound cheesy and overwrought. “I wish I had I had cheated/At least that’s a reason: I’d understand why you’re leaving now,” Slade sings at the top of the latter, surrounded by unnecessary synthetic strings and layers of ambience. The desperation of those lines would make much more sense in a stripped-down piano setting, but Price’s heavy-handed maximalism makes them sound almost laughably stupid.

Price’s pulsing pop production is consistently the biggest problem with Helios, but there’s not much that could salvage some of these songs. Most of the album’s biggest failures come in the mid-section, where Slade betrays good verse writing with a dull and generic chorus (“Closer to Myself”) or turns in one of the most boring, redundant, and derivative pop songs he’s ever written in an effort to match up with Price’s Coldplay-sized orchestrations (“Hurricane”). The rousing guitar breaks and powerful hook of “Keep on Wanting” are slightly better, recalling the momentum and grandeur of "Munich," a Scars & Stories highlight. A more guitar-oriented sound is also found on lead-off single “Love Don’t Die,” a song that received a muted reception when it released to radio last October, but which sounds positively vibrant in this context. The song is easily the catchiest on the album (thank hit maker Ryan Tedder, who co-wrote and produced the track), with a kick-stomp beat, a shout-along back-up vocal hook, some dynamic work from guitarist Dave Welsh, and a charismatic lead vocal from Slade. When I first heard the song last fall, I hoped that Helios wouldn’t follow in its stylistic footsteps. It didn’t, but as it turns out, this record would have gained a lot from adopting the song's no-nonsense pop rock vibe.

As is, there’s an awful lot of nonsense here, most egregiously on “Give It Away,” which is unquestionably the worst song the Fray have ever recorded and one of the worst songs you'll likely hear anywhere this year. Produced like the band is shooting more for the club floor than for the dramatic television codas they have soundtracked in the past, “Give It Away” is the sound of an already mainstream pop band somehow managing to sell out. In the realm of bizarre jump-the-shark moments in recent music history, the song lands similarly to “Put Your Hands Up,” the horrid attempt at a “dance track” from the last Matchbox Twenty album. Sonically, however, “Give It Away” is more like a Maroon 5 wannabe track, sounding as soulless and overproduced as the bulk of M5’s last album, Overexposed. I even had to check the album credits to see if that was Adam Levine singing the song’s chorus. It’s not. I’m not sure if the song would be better or worse if it was.

Luckily, not all of Helios is that bad. Opener “Hold My Hand” begins with an echoing, octave-up piano loop that recalls Mat Kearney’s “Ships in the Night” from a few years back, generally making good use of its titanic production values throughout. Meanwhile, the last three tracks all find varying levels of success in what they try to do. “Wherever This Goes” boasts a refreshingly minimalistic arrangement, relying on little more than stomps, handclaps, and Slade’s voice to drive the proceedings. “Shadow and a Dancer” suffers from overproduction woes similar to “Break You Plans,” but overcomes them with a wistful lyric that recalls a faded summer love. And the excellent “Same As You” might be the album’s best track, with some nice cello plucking on the chorus that allows the song to be grandiose and climactic without succumbing to the same misplaced bombast that plagues most of the record.

However, even on those songs, it feels like the Fray aren’t quite reaching their potential. For as much as people write these guys off for being generic torchbearers of the mainstream rock scene, they actually explored some really interesting thematic territory on Scars & Stories, from the brooding boxing-as-love metaphor of “The Fighter” to the two brothers separated by the Berlin Wall in “1961.” But where the Scars & Stories songs were inspired by world travels and built from band-wide collaboration, the Helios songs return to the same generic well of ideas we’ve all heard a million times before. With O’Brien at the helm, this record might have turned out as a decent if unspectacular follow-up to one of the best “radio rock” records of recent years. With Price involved, it’s easily the worst album the Fray have made so far, a clear crisis of identity and direction for a band that only recently seemed to be coming into their own. That’s a huge disappointment, and even though there are some solid songs here, I’m hopeful that next time around, these guys will kick Price to the curb, ditch the outside songwriters, go back to full-band collaboration, and come up with a record even better than Scars & Stories. If they continue down their current path, though, then I'm not sure how long I'll keep listening.

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