Yellowcard first made waves in the punk-pop scene with their 2001 album One For the Kids. The band quickly gained underground fame, spread with the notation of being "that band with the violinist." But what was really noteworthy was the immense potential they displayed on that album. From start to finish, it glowed with the intensity of bands like Saves the Day and The Ataris, but with increased musical ambition. Even the acoustic ballad "Cigarette" revealed a band seemingly ready to take on modern rock.
I remember that album well in large part because of when I discovered it: just as I was starting college. Getting lost in it was a rite of passage among my group of friends, signifying that we'd accepted a new era of music that would prove to be personal, powerful, and of a high level of quality. The band's 2003 breakout, Ocean Avenue, presented a bigger sound, as well as a handful of killer singles: "Way Away," "Only One," and the title track. Despite the enhanced production, the album's layout was similar: a slew of intense, sing-along tracks punctuated by strong, meaningful ones (such as "Believe," a poignant tribute to the heroes of September 11th).
After an extended absence (during which the band's founder was dismissed), Yellowcard have returned with Lights and Sounds, an album that seeks to build upon the success of Ocean Avenue. However, the record is largely hit-or-miss, due to several unremarkable tracks that feature stiff lyrics and fairly generic instrumentation. In addition, the album suffers from an over-ambitious concept that is never fully realized. The band appears to have been taken over by the very thing they set out to conquer: modern rock.
After a short piano into, the album is kickstarted by the title track, the rousing first single that bears a resemblence to the first single from the last album ("Way Away"). The track details the trials and tribulations of being just another band in the large music scene. "Make it new/but stay in the lines," vocalist Ryan Key quips sarcastically. Ironically, the track is really nothing new, and could've been interchanged with nearly any track from Ocean Avenue. Not bad by any means, the track merely fails to take steps in a new direction.
From there, the album trails off a bit. Likely single "Sure Thing Falling" features the stiff chorus, "I've been up late writing books/all about heroes and crooks." Sure, it rhymes, but it also sounds incredibly forced. Slow-moving track "City of Devils" rhymes "I" with "I" (again) and "why," for yet another silly chorus. Forcing your lyrics to rhyme is often an obvious and excruitiating move, at least for the listener.
Fortunately, the album does feature a handful of very good tracks, mostly located in the middle of the record. "Rough Landing, Holly" is a fast, infectious tune that you'll mumble along to until you figure out the lyrics. Sean Mackin's frenetic violin playing makes a key appearance in this track, though it is largely subdued in other tracks. "Martin Sheen or JFK" is a solid track is a great second half. The guitars die down to reveal a quiet drum beat and a beautiful violin serenade, allowing Key to evoke serious emotion with simple words: "I could sleep/but when I wake here/you'll be gone/and you're my air."
The best track on the album comes in the form of "Waiting Game." Found at the nucleus of the album, "Waiting Game" is a mid-tempo ballad with a huge chorus similar to "Only One" from Ocean Avenue. More than any other track, it really pulls together the things that made their previous releases great: simple yet strong lyrics, solid instrumentation, and emotive vocals. The remainder of the album is largely unremarkable until the pre-closer, "How I Go."
Featuring background vocals from Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, "How I Go" is a father-to-son exchange that seems oddly inspired by the film Big Fish, though I suppose the message could be universal. "Son, I am not everything you thought that I would be," Key sings, "But every story I have told is part of me." It would've worked well as the closing track, but the album opts to go out with "Holly Wood Died," the hard-rocking, guitar-soloing end to the story. Despite the different styles, the tandem works, though a piano outro takes away some of the bang.
The "story" in question deals with the character Holly Wood, who is name-checked in two of the titles, but isn't clearly referenced within the lyrics. According to their official website, Wood is many different characters, including "a hopeful L.A. actress" and "the city of Hollywood personified." It's tough to call this a concept record when the concept seems like it was tacked on during the marketing process. Without the title cues and the website, you would never even know about it.
There is, however, an anti-war theme that is mentioned a couple times on the record, most notably on the track "Two Weeks From Twenty." The song contains the fictional tale of Jimmy, a solider killed in Iraq shortly before his twentieth birthday. Despite an interesting blues guitar solo and a bit of trumpet, the track fails to find coherence. Key tries to hit notes well outside his octave with painful results, and the story isn't terribly compelling until near the end. Holly Wood also makes an appearance in this track as Jimmy's girlfriend. According to the website. You wouldn't have a clue, otherwise.
The album suffers from the over-ambitious concepts at play. It seems like the band was trying to make their own version of Green Day's American Idiot, but I fear they have neither the cohesion or clout to pull off such a venture. Canadian songwriter Matthew Good once wrote, "Ambition is a tricky thing; it's like riding a unicycle over a dental floss tightrope over a wilderness of razorblades." If you achieve your ambitious goal, the results could be monumental. But if you fail, the results may simply be messy.
Unfortunately, Lights and Sounds is a messy record, featuring more so-so tracks than solid ones. Only near the middle of the album does it shine, and it's not nearly enough for a full recommendation. While ambition is both important and necessary for a band to move forward, the over-ambitious nature of the record has affected their style of music, moving away from the pop-punk they once redefined. Those looking for great pop-punk would do better with the recent releases by Cartel and Anberlin. If Yellowcard can manage to score another hit with this album, we can only hope they'll refine their focus a bit for the next record.
(I wrote this for my college paper, The Flyer. It won't go to press for well over a week, so if you can please leave a comment or critique, it would be greatly appreciated. I can still make corrections if necessary.)