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Album Review
Simple Math

Simple Math
by Manchester Orchestra

Sony Music

Review Date
4th October 2011
Reviewed by
Chris Jamieson

Kids’ choirs. Was there ever a time when they weren’t creepy? Here’s what I don’t get. Kids are cute, innocent and harmless, but get together a chorus of them and suddenly the rascals will have you running for the hills. This is exactly what these little monkeys have been deployed for in Manchester Orchestra’s third full-length Simple Math. Following ‘Virgin’s lyrics about building houses with blood and crucifying fire, surrounded by booming guitars, allows the kids to really nail home the fact that some epic shit is going down. But, with that, Hull and co have almost overdone themselves. On the whole the track is good enough, and this is certainly the peak of the album’s over-the-top nature, but this overindulgence plagues Simple Math throughout.

The problem here is there is such a strong desire to make every track epic or cathartic which works as a stigma for the band and as a result their delightful charm, their sense of fun, their rock n’ roll attitude, and, almost, their individuality are slowly fading. These are Manchester Orchestra’s most appealing strengths, and they should play to them. Just listen to when they do: ‘April Fool’ doesn't take any prisoners, beginning almost immediately with a feisty guitar riff and in no time Hull lets himself become completely absorbed by his own lyrics, screaming and delivering those special moments that were so frequent on Mean Everything to Nothing. It’s catchy as hell, furiously fired-up, packed with attitude, as Hull simply puts it, “it’s got that rock and that roll!”.

But “that rock and that roll” is just too infrequent a visitor on Simple Math to reach the bar set by their previous effort. That’s not at all to say that this album is at all bad, or a failure. There’s just a niggling sense of underachievement. ‘Mighty’ could be a deliciously destructive track, but the over-the-top orchestration, and ending leave it second fiddle to a track like METN’s snarling ‘Pride’. Then take ‘Leave it Alone’; a decent track which had the potential to rival ‘I Can Feel A Hot One’, but it falls short with yet another melodramatic string section. Too frequently on Simple Math is there a sense of over-calculation, over-indulgence and the over-dramatic.

I don’t blame Hull for wanting to create something special. The honesty in his lyrics is incredible; a commitment to confession which borders on the religious. So of course he’s going to want to create music that he thinks justifies the level of emotion he’s pouring out. In ‘Pale Black Eye’, with heart-wrenching regret Hull delivers the line “God damn I’m tired of lying / I wish I loved you like I used to”, knowing full well the wife who the lyric is about is going to hear it. But then the music itself just develops into this blockbuster kind of sorrow, with its manipulative strings and choir-like ‘woos’, and the sincerity so evident in Hull’s voice evaporates from the music surrounding it. It’s all so frustratingly dense and that it’s no wonder ‘Leaky Breaks’, the album’s closer, sounds so exhausted (which, funnily enough with room to breathe) is one of the album’s best tracks.

Of course, there are moments when they strike that perfect balance of the epic, the enjoyable, and the sincere, and no more so than on title track ‘Simple Math’. Here, the band makes the full transition from ‘easy to like but impossible to love’ to ‘impossible not to love’. The song writing is wonderfully crafted, progressing slowly but remaining thoroughly engaging, like watching the sparks of a fuse burn before the bomb goes off. Essentially, it’s a song that manages to take these new elements that have been so uncooperative and implement them perfectly into the band’s sound, taking them that one step further to greatness.


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