Do record labels go through mid-life crises? If so, could Merge Records be going through a phase of reflection and self-examination? Will it begin a frenzied bout of conspicuous consumption by signing Prince to a five-album deal or buying diamond-encrusted yachts for its employees? No, decidedly not. While there have been minor tweaks at the always excellent indie mainstay, I believe these sonic shifts are coming from the bottom up, rather than from a top-down desire to turn back any clocks. That said, The Rosebuds released a drastic about-face entitled Night of the Furies earlier this year. It was an album that pivoted the band’s sound from somber indie pop to electro-rinse, duly collapsing under the weight of Thompson Twins and OMD mimicry. And now label mates and friends Shout Out Louds (who coincidentally provided vocal support on Night of the Furies) are similarly looking into the rear-view mirror of life and fixating on sounds from the 1980s, a time when tapering your jeans with safety pins, dyeing your hair auburn, and pretending to read Wilde was de rigueur.
Having enlisted favorite Swedish export Björn Yttling (the Björn in Peter, Björn and John) as producer this time around, there will be some happy campers claiming that Our Ill Wills' lead-off single "Tonight I Have To Leave It" is this year’s “Young Folks.” But they would be wrong, wrong, wrong. “Young Folks” was so deceptively simple that it was pure genius (whistling, for crissakes!), whereas Shout Out Louds blatantly mine the decade that refused to die, resuscitating it for yet another weak-kneed kick at the can. Sadly, this is the pattern throughout Shout Out Louds' anticipated sophomore release. I unfortunately roll my eyes when I hear the riffs in “Parents Livingroom” (which are eerily similar to many of Johnny Marr’s successive quickdraw chords in “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”) or during parts of the album that sound like Aztec Camera or The Psychedelic Furs or U2 or Oingo fucking Boingo. And it sure doesn't give me pleasure to report that the many instances of Shout Out Louds replicating the distinct, toytown melodies of The Cure (and even vocal inflections of one R. Smith) in sections of songs or throughout a full track are cringeworthy. "Normandie" is the band's "Close to Me" and "Tonight I Have To Leave It" is its "In Between Days" and its "Friday I'm in Love."
You know, I really hoped that I could've said this is really good Shout Out Louds album that, although it wears its influences proudly, is still a fresh and unique recording. Having grudgingly been convinced of Shout Out Louds' chops and eventually won over by their first album Howl Howl Gaff Gaff, I expected Our Ill Wills to be another refreshing take on the tried, tested, and true pop form. Instead, almost everywhere you turn during this album, there is a caution stick forewarning of melancholic melodies and lovelorn lyrics. The upbeat and lengthy "Impossible" will send a protein rush to your cortex, but it will also have you double-checking the CD for the words "Pretty," "in," and "Pink." There is even a song which shares a title with one of the most important guitar pop albums of the 1980s (clue: it rhymes with “Tweet is Birder”).
However, when Shout Out Louds play straight, they sound much like they did on their unexpectedly interesting debut (even if you can still play "spot the influences" on these tracks). “Time Left For Love” jumps about and recalls fellow Swedish pop savants The Wannadies, but it sounds even more like a good Shout Out Louds song. It is an effortless tune that works well because of what it isn't: a rip-off or tribute. Likewise, keyboardist Bebban takes over vocal duties from frontman Adam on "Blue Headlights" and churns out a sweet ‘n’ sour, wistful dish. "Hard Rain," the album's final track, is another piece of pure pop joy. Treading dangerously close to Canadian indie territory (notably, Broken Social Scene), the track is an infectious steamroller of a song with a wonderful coda standoff between Bebban's playful sing-songing and Adam's whispers of "just like a hard rain," before crashing into its raucous conclusion. It is catchy as all get out, and it is a long song too, which makes it even better.
Unfortunately, "Hard Rain" comes way too late to save Our Ill Wills from being little more than a pleasant diversion down memory lane. I half-expect to catch some flack for this review, and I may deserve it: I LOVE indie/guitar/(insert helpful descriptive adjective here) pop music, and I am picking on Shout Out Louds for sounding like some of the best pop bands of all time. Some artists are happy making careers out of accurately aping the legends of yore, and there are a ton of consumers wanting to here just that. If some of you are unfamiliar with any of the dead groups I have mentioned above, then Our Ill Wills may entice and excite you. But I reckon most of you have heard all of this done much better before, and if you haven't, then you are lying (and yes, I am quite aware that The Cure and U2 are not "dead"... I just wish they were). Note to Shout Out Louds: Our Ill Wills is a good pop album. Now go make your own.
1. Tonight I Have To Leave It
2. Parents Livingroom
3. You Are Dreaming
4. Suit Yourself
5. Blue Headlights
8. South America
9. Ill Wills
10. Time Left For Love
11. Meat Is Murder
12. Hard Rain