Prawn – “Kingfisher”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Scud Running” “Absurd Walls”

Emo revivalists Prawn’s new album is full of light, airy and melodic songs that are often vague in tone but practiced in music. Though it has it’s weak moments, Prawn have been an uniquely line-teetering band for years, and “Kingfisher” only goes to continue it.

A Kingfisher is a bird. Specifically, a type of bright, distinct and goofy looking bird. One that has been known to eat fish. In many ways, a kingfisher is everything that Prawn is not. Prawn is vague and unassuming, at first. Their music isn’t showy, especially for emo. It’s rhythmic and often lucid, blending together into something that’s surprisingly pleasant. So a kingfisher makes sense, as the band spends the album threatening to be consumed by various existential forces (much like a fish getting swallowed up). It’s either ironic or totally fitting that Prawn have spent the last few years hanging out in the limelight of the emo revival. While some (Snowing, teen suicide) made news with almost immediate breakups, and some (TWIABPAIANLATD, the Front Bottoms) strain themselves to make something jarring and original, Prawn have been building their own blend of guitar rhythms and aligning melodies that’s more soothing than it is jarring – something that isn’t designed to make as immediate of an impact at first.

And “Kingfisher” is certainly filled with those interesting melodies. The album starts and ends with strings, that fall away for the eight songs in between. And the album does dissolve into straight rock – happening infrequently enough that it’s a surprise each time. Loopy guitar rhythms are big in emo these days, but Prawn bring it up a notch by relying equally on melodies that are either very repetitive or different throughout. “Prolonged Exposure” is a guitar-heavy track that emphasizes this, as is “Absurd Walls,” where twin guitar rhythms compete in the background, one giving way to sounding like a siren. Prawn have learned to embrace both slower, ambient songs, and louder, rocking ones, and hit every notch in between on “Kingfisher.”

On a lyrical note, the album does get kind of frustratingly vague. It’s filled with typically deep, sad, statements, often opting for philosophical questions about some hypothetical, impending disasters rather than any direct and reflective poetry. Sometimes, like on “Glass, Irony” it can work, with the line “It’s hard to hide in dire straits” shoved to the forefront of the song. Other times, like on “Thalassa,” it gets clunky. “I’m glad you found clarity in ambiguity” is repeated a few times at the song’s climax, a line that doesn’t exactly sound fresh. Some of the songs could’ve used some clarity themselves.

But “Kingfisher” is still a very strong release, one that’s both pleasant and devastating. Prawn are at the top of their game and, even if the top of their game is positioned in the genre’s background, then it’s what they’ve learned to excel in. At times sweet, at times sour, “Kingfisher” is just as good as we’ve come to expect from Prawn.

“Kingfisher” is out tomorrow, 8/12, on Topshelf Records.

The Front Bottoms – “Rose”

 

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “12 Feet Deep” “Jim Bogart”

Leave it to a band like the Front Bottoms to put a reviewer in a tough spot on whether to call these songs “new” or not. Because these songs are freshly recorded. But they certainly aren’t new. The first five tracks that make up “Rose” – “Flying Model Rockets,” “Lipstick Covered Magnet,” “12 Feet Deep,” “Jim Bogart,” and “Be Nice to Me” – are re-recordings of older songs, with “Awkward Conversations” the only freshly recorded one. The Front Bottoms released three albums before their perfect 2011 ‘debut’ self-titled, “Brothers Can’t Be Friends,” “I Hate My Friends” and “My Grandma vs. Pneumonia,” respectively. But all three are only available in the deepest corners of the internet, so buried that even some of their more adamant friends aren’t even aware of them. They’ve played these songs live, though, and they’ve become staples, so they’re getting a proper release in the first of a set of EP’s named after the duo’s grandmothers.

The song with the most remarkable difference is “12 Feet Deep,” always one of my personal favorite Front Bottoms songs. “Because you are water twelve feet deep / and I am boots made of concrete” proved in c. 2010 to be an emotionally impacting line, reflecting a relationship that isn’t healthy but still committed. But in 2014, a more steady drumline and more inspired vocals transform it into a more optimistic and hopeful relationship, without altering any of the words. All throughout the EP, there’s lyrics about school and parents, which still sound fresh in Brian Sella’s non-aging voice. The poetry of early Front Bottoms is more natural; less forced than some of the corny couplets on last year’s “Talon of the Hawk.”

Musically, the band has it more together now than they did then. That’s another added bonus of re-recording – the only real fault of their early albums is some messy music, when they were still learning what they were doing. It’s more refined on “Rose,” though still a little off the rails, of course. “Jim Bogart” ditches the inside-a-box production, and adds trumpet and and a slick little keyboard rhythm to build up to the drum entrance. In one way, the songs feel stripped down on this EP – more confined and controlled, sometimes fewer instruments, and with a better production. But in another way, they feel even more expanded and in your face than they did before – the benefit of a band that’s since settled into a signature sound.

It was a smart idea for the band to release these older songs, revamped. Relative fame, a constant touring schedule (and a namedrop alongside the National and Daft Punk in this NYT article) have had the unfortunate drawback of their youthful, innocently downtrodden lyrics sounding less believable. A decidedly terrible full-length didn’t help that, either. So although the band is reaching a wider and wider audience, their music is sounding less personable and less impacting. These six songs show how youthful and energetic the Front Bottoms really are, and by re-recording them, they’ve proven that they haven’t really changed at all. It’s sad, it’s fun, it’s poetic and easy to relate to, so it’s all you’ve come to expect from them. The only criticism? It doesn’t include “The Cops.” And that’s really a personal criticism. Maybe on a future EP.

-By Andrew McNally

The Front Bottoms – “Talon of the Hawk”

(Photo credit: Property of Zack)

(Photo credit: Property of Zack)

Grade: C-

Key Track: “Twin-Size Mattress”

If you’ve never heard the Front Bottoms’ 2011 self-titled debut, then you might see this, their sophomore album, as a pretty unique blend of borderline-spoken word poetry, acoustic guitar, and beating drums. When this album was leaked by the band, however, the reaction was tepid. “The Front Bottoms” is one of my favorite albums, probably in my top five of all-time. A lot of my friends and I love this band dearly (I’ve even made friends because of mutual love for this band). On the opening chords of “Au Revoir,” a letdown was already starting. Bands often have their sophomore albums suffer from a bland rehashing of their debuts, and the Front Bottoms are no different.

The band – a duo in the studio – created a wholly original type of music on their first album, which is continued here. I can only call it “alt-emo folk-pop.” Their songs rarely feature anything more than acoustic guitar, drums and vocals that are barely sung, yet the band has a taste for making their music seem like it is always about to fly off the rails; like the musicians are about to lose control of their own song (For the best example, look up “The Beers,” their fastest and best song). The lyrics jump from sad poetry to non-described personal experiences frequently, even mid-line. And the poetic lines are often poignant, even ‘cutesy,’ still hitting the listener in the gut harder than they should.

But “Talon of the Hawk” is distinctly lacking. The lyrics are significantly cornier. They feels less poetic and more lame and forced, and the vocal delivery is not as random, with the verses formed into actual rhythmic lines. Musically, the band has never been proficient, as it is not their focus, but they are even less so here. The tracks on their first album are all instinctively catchy. On the second, they are almost all forgettable. Even the production quality, pristine, admittedly, feels better than it should. To their fans, the Front Bottoms are two goofy guys unaware of their own growing popularity, which does not come through on “Talon”s very professional recording style. The album’s only redeeming song is “Twin-Size Mattress,” both lyrically and musically strong. (The song is the album’s leadoff single. A video was recorded which, had I been standing ten feet to the right at a recent NYC show, I would’ve been in)

The album is dividing Front Bottoms fans. Some love it, some are left with a bad taste in their mouths. It is a serious decline from their first album in every way. Those previously unassociated with the band might find it much more intriguing and entertaining than those who ate up their debut. Reactions to pieces of work are, of course, subjective, but they are even more so with “Talon of the Hawk”

-Andrew McNally