The Broken West: “Now or Heaven”
One of the most quietly bizarre albums to arrive in 2008, the sophomore album from California power pop band The Broken West is immediately striking for how different it is from its predecessor, but it might take a few listens for fans to realize just how risky and unexpected it really is. With their first album, I Can’t Go on, I’ll Go On, the band seemed poised to become one of the biggest and best power-pop bands of the last several years; it had enough big, crunching guitars and sing-along hooks to earn its favorable comparisons to Big Star and New Pornographers, but it also bore some latent country-rock influences, manifest in the occasional flourishes of organ and barroom piano. It was the kind of opening chapter that seemed to promise a talented band who was capable of playing within a certain framework, but adventurous enough to subvert the formula and open up whole new horizons once it got its footing.
And of course their second album, Now or Heaven, does just that– but not in the way anyone expected. This isn’t a further cultivation of their country influences, nor is it an expansive, genre-enlarging exercise in power pop. On the contrary– this isn’t a power pop album at all. The pop’s still here, but the power is almost completely gone, as the band has turned its guitars down low, abandoning their arena-ready power chords in favor of a much lighter, moody sound that’s more about simple melody than fist-pumping hooks. But it’s not just the guitars that have been turned down; the drums, too, have been radically subdued, even to the point of being completely abandoned on some songs in favor of laptop-style drum loops and synthetic beats.
So needless to say, many fans will miss the raw power of the group’s debut, and bemoan The Broken West’s transformation into a slick, tasteful, radio-ready pop group. But make no mistake– this band hasn’t become the new Matchbox 20. Actually, you could draw parallels between The Broken West and a couple of veteran rock bands. Like Supergrass, The Broken West isn’t afraid to blend their more popular influences with decidedly less hip ones, like Elton John and even The Police. They have fearless, sophisticated taste that’s unbound by genre considerations or estimations of what’s cool and what’s not. And, like Weezer‘s seminal album Pinkerton— albeit a dramatically more polished, less rocking version of Pinkerton— they’ve cleverly subverted expectations by making what is essentially a singer-songwriter record. Indeed, if one didn’t know any better, it would be fair to assume that this was essentially a vehicle for lead vocalist Ross Flournoy, whose clear vocals and straightforwardly romantic, nostalgic melodies are front and center throughout the album, with his bandmates essentially acting as his supporting musicians.
Which, again, isn’t going to win the band a lot of cheers among fans who preferred them rocking hard and fast, but patient listeners will be rewarded with a very lovely, memorable album that’s marked by careful, sophisticated craft, an elegant and stylish pop album that gradually reveals the multiple layers of sound in is compositions and the richness of its words and melodies. It’s subdued, to be sure, but rocking hard is obviously not the point here; this is the band’s attempt at making a moody, late-night pop album, one that’s sensual and romantic and tinged with sadness and regret, and, as such, they’ve succeeded marvelously. Now or Heaven is a slow-burner, to be sure, but its songs are uniformly strong, and the production is designed to lull you in and reveal its virtues over time, which is exactly what this fine– and sure to be misunderstood– album does.