If you’re a band from a college town that makes jangly indie power pop in the mold of Robert Pollard and early R.E.M., you’ve got to have a little something special to set you apart, because there’s a lot of bands out there just like you. Middle States, a four piece from Minneapolis, hasn’t quite found its thing yet. The band’s first full-length album, Happy Fun Party, has a smattering of hooks and a few songs that tug at the heartstrings, but taken as a whole, something about it rings hollow.
The title of the record, the band says, is meant to be ironic, and if Happy Fun Party were a four or five song EP, using only the album’s more wistful songs, then it could work. Singer, songwriter and guitarist Wes Morden, guitarist Ben Glaros, bassist Peter Fleming and drummer Craig Gallas are all veterans of the Minneapolis music scene, so they’ve probably all wanted an escape from the party before, and songs like “Straight to the All or None” and “Friday Night” convey that.
On “Straight to the All or None,” Morden strains his voice into an aging punk boy creak reminiscent of Paul Westerberg. “No Curse No Drunk No Fight,” about trying to reign in juvenile behavior to win back a girl, captures what its like to be getting a little older but still playing a young man’s game and dreaming a young man’s dreams. The title’s intended smirk is nowhere more apparent than on “Friday Night,” which turns playing in a local band into a daily grind. (“Home from work, get back in my car / Downtown at the club, no place to park / Sound check, the monitors ain’t right … It must be Friday night“).
The album isn’t, however, a four or five song EP, and the rest of the songs neither follow suit with the title’s intended tone, nor reach their full potential in their own right. Some show promise, like the power pop intro to “Synthesize,” the British Invasion style guitars on “Warlocks of Ari” and the Beatlesque harmonies sprinkled throughout. But most of them tend to ultimately fall flat.
Opener “In Charge” starts off with the always exciting drum stick count off, and goes into a vocal and guitar only intro that sounds like something out of Matthew Sweet’s better works, but then the chorus takes a page (or a few chords, as it were) from a Kings of Leon song, and just never really makes it work.
The worst moment on the album is when the band delves into politics with “Thought Control.” True, this album was released when W. was still in power, but he was a lame duck and all signs were pointing to someone who believed in science replacing him. It’s a shame too, because the song’s guitar riff and Nirvana-inspired bass line aren’t bad.
No matter how many bands take a crack at it, there will always be a place in this world for poppy rock bands inspired by the likes of the Replacements and the Kinks. It’s just a timeless sound. But when it lacks focus and urgency, it can also be an interchangeable sound, and on Happy Fun Party, Middle States unfortunately lack both. More embracing of the pain, and fewer attempts to cover it up with an ironic smirk, could help them find their thing.
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