Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Album Review: Wildlife - ...On The Heart

Album Rating: B
Some things in life just are. Whether you like or hate them, they’re so central to everything that goes on that you’ll have to deal with them. ...On The Heart, Wildlife’s sophomore release…isn’t necessarily one of those things, but the part of the body it’s named after is, and its qualities define both the strengths and weaknesses of the album: whatever your thoughts on the group, this album, or the heart happen to be, you cannot be blasé about any of these things. This album isn’t easily describable, in any case. It demands to be felt before it can be evaluated.

In theory, the band’s approach to songwriting is straightforward: get as many people out of their seats as possible. This is stadium rock, first and foremost, boasting a buzzy, immediately gratifying sonic muscle. That said, there’s also plenty of cribbing from the indie playbook, with simple but poetic lyrics (wielding just enough weight to have you puzzling over them for days) and surprisingly twisty song structures lurking just within: for the most part, Wildlife has a good grasp on how its tendency towards experimentation and its more mainstream aspirations can complement each other.

Following a brief opening interlude, "Born To Ruin" kicks things off. It’s absolutely undeniable, a four-minute mass of twisted guitars, elementary-school playground clicks and clacks playing counterpoint against thundering slabs of drum, and a simple but engaging refrain that Dean Povinsky sells the hell out of. Unfortunately, the band can’t quite bridge the gap between the emotional frailty of its lyrics and the bombast of its music every time. "Bad Dream" aims for grandeur but falls victim to a forgettable chorus that repeats one line over and over but never makes it amount to much. Like its titular conceit, it’s striking in the moment but dissipates fairly quickly afterwards. The jaunty "One For The Body" picks things right up, though, utilizing the quiet verse-LOUD chorus dichotomy to great effect: Povinsky’s performance in the chorus shines, carrying just enough urgency to sell the track.

Though it’s a shame the band doesn’t slow down more often, the one time it does shows it’s more than capable of broadening its emotional and musical scope. "Don’t Fear" sees the band settling down a little: the hushed, sweeping track evokes the intimacy of The National bolstered with some more heft. Some of the album’s meatiest lyrics are found here, and perhaps one little line in the middle can sum up the whole of …On The Heart: "Don’t fear your heart, dear, when it’s saving you from disappearing." The way the orchestration swells following that bold declaration is telling of the band’s philosophy, as it’s tinged with sadness yet ultimately redemptive.

While …On The Heart’s first half is packed with some of the most memorable anthems you’ll hear this year, in its subtler (if just as loud) second half, Wildlife experiments with ways to integrate other influences into that sound, with varying measures of success. "Dangerous Times" answers the age-old question of what bagpipe-laden disco-rock would sound like with drum rhythms that are almost danceable and synths that bleat like a robotic lamb. It packs a pretty hefty emotional punch, too, celebrating the aimless confusion of youth so unapologetically that old men all across North America will be eyeing their lawns for days to come. It’s in moments like these where the band is at its strongest, when it’s knocking down the barriers of good judgment and making a space for everybody to get wild.

Other times, the ways Wildlife puts things together is so baffling that all I can really do is shrug and at least try to make my notes legible. "Bonnie," for instance, could very conceivably be a Tim McGraw single were it about half the tempo it is on this album: it’s fast, loud, and melancholy but never sad. It almost sounds like that friend everyone has, the one who’s always there for you but still has enough left in him to heal himself. I like all of those things, but I have no idea how to quantify them in musical terms, other than jotting down vaguely sexual phrases like "stabs of strings" or "ooh-ooh-ooh-oohs." Digression aside, not every track here is spot-on, and frankly, it’s difficult to even make a judgment on quality at times—that said, this is Wildlife stretching its arms and reaching for higher fruit, and that in itself makes …On The Heart’s stranger second half worthwhile, if not exactly superb.

Two of …On The Heart’s strongest tracks are saved for last. "Lightning Tent" is perhaps the album’s most definitive track, though it only begins with a hazy campfire guitar and gang vocals before pounding toms ease the track in and build towards the explosive chorus.  "The past is just a fringe we burnt down, behind us, when we left this town," Povinsky yowls, and while the song’s piano-forte structure is the same structure utilized throughout …On The Heart, it’s never as effective as it is here. There’s something absolutely primal in the way his voice absolutely burns, just as he’s burning his past down and moving onto something better: the surprisingly sunny closer "Two Hearts Race." "When two hearts race, they both win," Povinsky sings approximately a hundred billion times, just to make sure everybody’s clear about how this story ends. Subtle it is not, but after eleven songs of turmoil, the sentiment is more than earned, and the band pulls out every trick in its songwriting playbook to make sure every listener will leave taking something away from the experience.

Ultimately, what that something is will depend on the listener, but it will be something: …On The Heart, though not perfect, is never hollow. It veers from maddening highs to baffling lows, the two poles almost inseparable at times. It’s unabashedly sentimental, and that’s both its strongest and its weakest point. It’s so bent on moving you that sometimes it trips over itself. But for all its foibles, Wildlife does the organ it named its album after justice: its latest is compelling, rousing—and most of all, vital.

Artist Website

1. If It Breaks
2. Born To Ruin
3. Bad Dream
4. One For The Body
5. Don't Fear
6. (Arrythmia)
7. Dangerous Times
8. Guillotine
9. Bonnie
10. (Pulse)
11. Lightning Tent
12. Two Hearts Race

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