Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Fray display monotony on new album

album review

Album: Scars & Stories
Band: The Fray

Since gaining worldwide recognition for their single ‘How to Save a Life’, The Fray have sold millions of albums, garnered comparisons to bands like Coldplay and Keane, and been the soundtrack to many a melancholy TV moment. While fans have embraced their heartfelt music, the band’s radio friendly pop-rock has also earned them (perhaps a tad more than their fair share of) sneers, with detractors panning them for lack of variety and originality. Neither fans nor detractors are likely to change their minds about the group after listening to their third album, Scars & Stories, the follow-up to their 2009 self-titled sophomore release.

With famed producer Brendan O’Brien (known for his work with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and Incubus) at the helm of the project, Scars & Stories marks a decade since the formation of The Fray, and sees the Denver based foursome stick to what they know best: inoffensive piano-driven soft-rock. Comprised of twelve songs, all penned by the band members themselves, the album lets the band display scars and share stories in a 45 minutes long sonic journey. The group has used a wide source of inspiration - much of it gained through travelling to different parts of the world - to weave a dozen stories, which are served through Isaac Slade’s earnest vocal delivery, and ride a wave of sublime tunes and smooth melodies.

The record commences with the soaring lead single ‘Heartbeat’, a tale of escaping adversity and embracing love and life, powered by an uplifting melody and wrapped in a Coldplay-esque aura. An odd story of a boxer (who loses a bout) and his lover follows in ‘The Fighter’, which makes way for the sensual ‘Turn Me On’, the somewhat typical second single ‘Run for Your Life’, the pensive ‘The Wind’, and ‘1961’, a song that seems to reference the Berlin Wall by way of a divide between two brothers. The piano dominates in the aching ‘I Can Barely Say’, a ballad that evokes fragility and longing to return to what once was. ‘Munich’, unpredictably inspired by the Large Hadron Collider, stands out with a strong chorus and thoughtful lyrics. The pace is picked up with the musically heavier ‘Here We Are’, before returning to the more familiar mid-tempo territory for the dreamy ‘48 to Go’, and the beautiful ‘Rainy Zurich’ which features guitarist Joe King on lead vocals (and proves that it wouldn’t be a bad idea for him to take this role more often in the future). The album draws to an ends with the poignant ‘Be Still’, that would be at home in the background of a poignant moment in a television drama, as, in fact, would many of these songs.

The deluxe edition also comes with five bonus tracks, all covers, including Annie Lennox’s ‘Why’, and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Streets of Philadelphia’, and also features an appearance by Emmylou Harris on the cover of her song ‘Boulder to Birmingham’.

As a record, Scars & Stories displays both the band’s strengths and weaknesses. The instrumentation shows growth and is more confident; the yearning in the lyrics is palpable; and the harmonies are limited but effective. But put together as an album, the twelve songs face the same issue as The Fray’s previous work: monotony. The movement suggested by the album’s cover doesn’t make its way to the actual disk, and some of the songs are more than likely to leave you wondering if you’ve heard them before. Scars & Stories isn’t an ambitious record made to reinvent alternative rock and attract a whole new legion of fans. It is a safe record made to share some more standard soft rock with their fans, and it sticks to what the band is known for.

There is nothing wrong with most of the songs in isolation, but put together, there is something oddly non-descript and unmemorable about the album as a whole. The disk fails to offer anything new or different, which is why it comes off as middling, and that is what is so frustrating about the set: that the band seems content with generic mediocrity. Whereas the progression is evident for some other bands - for instance think of the direction that Coldplay have taken on Mylo Xyloto - The Fray seem happy in churning out more of the same. That said, if you like melodic pop rock, then you probably won’t mind the monotony. Even if the album does not make an immediate impact on the listener, it does grow on you with each listen. Multiple spins will give you a chance to appreciate the character of each track, and perhaps the songs will work better as singles than as an album in sequential rotation.

Overall, Scars & Stories is a collection of mostly mid-tempo pop rock ditties that are competent but lack originality. If you give the album a cursory listen, you probably won’t find the tracks to be instantly memorable, but repeat listens will help you get acquainted with each of them. The songs follow a familiar path and retreat to the band’s established nook, making no effort to exceed expectations. But while one side sees this as lack of variety, the other celebrates it as consistency. So if you didn’t enjoy their first two offerings, then Scars & Stories won’t change your mind; but those who have liked The Fray’s previous material will most likely not be disappointed with the new record.

Highlights: Heartbeat’, ‘Munich’, ‘Rainy Zurich’ and ‘Be Still’.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 19th February, 2012

No comments: