April 21, 2005

American Hi-Fi: Hearts on Parade

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Once, there was hope for American Hi-Fi. With the assistance of modern music Renaissance man Butch Walker, the quartet of Brian Nolan, Drew Parsons, Stacy Jones and Jamie Arentzen stepped in to fill the void that Nirvana had left. Or so their self-proclaimed “post-grunge, punk-pop, alternative rock” label seems to say. Unfortunately, their third album Hearts on Parade is yet another forgettable, shallow and dismal failure: a victim of modern pop.

There’s a lot of criticism I’ve got for Hearts on Parade. I’ll begin with the music, a predictable blueprint of key changes and standard progressions. Let’s take “The Everlasting Fall,” which begins with an innocent enough six-chord verse. There’s nothing wrong with this, other than the fact that every other mediocre band like American Hi-Fi has used the same template of descending half-steps. The chorus will sound to you almost exactly like every other chorus from other identity-less bands like Matchbox 21. After a few go-arounds, American Hi-Fi brings us the bridge, switching to a minor tonic that can’t figure out whether it’s actually minor or not. Without any decent segue, the band changes abruptly back to another verse. Perhaps to show us their sensitive side, blaring guitars are traded for a few seconds of electronically-processed vocals, synthesized strings and a folksy acoustic. At first glance, “The Everlasting Fall” may seem like it has a complex and musically-rich structure, except when you realize that the other ten songs follow the exact same pattern.

The drumming doesn’t do Hearts on Parade any favors either. Although frontman Stacy Jones grew up a percussionist, Brian Nolan takes over for this album and in the process adds nothing innovative to the rhythm section. Instead, Nolan favors the standard “snare-snare-high hat” and the occasional cymbal crash. When he tries to add a little flavor by drumming slightly syncopated on “Baby Come Home,” the result is an offbeat song that is all over the place in terms of tempo. When the drums are supposed to be the backbone, it helps if a beat can be maintained.

Fortunately, bassist Drew Parsons remains the saving grace of the quartet. Whether it’s with arpeggiating or harmony, the bass is something to pay attention to. Parsons takes what’s usually a boring melody and gives it complexity, often making it up entirely on his own. When he needs to play a supporting role, he can, but more often than not, the one making the biggest contributions for the group’s originality is the quietest member of Hearts on Parade. It’s truly unfortunate that not one, but two strumming guitars playing the exact same thing hide the album’s one respectable aspect.

Lead singer Stacy Jones’ voice sounds like he’s trying far too hard to be Mick Jagger. He often highlights the last syllable of each line, but the result is an awful “ah” sound reminiscent of the way Midwesterners like myself say words like “paper” or “album.” While the band tries to cover up a lack of vocal melody with three or four tracks of Jones’ caterwauling, the lack of talent is still overpowering.

The biggest failure of this album, however, is not the musicianship but rather the lyrics. To put it bluntly, they are simply the tritest, most unoriginal words I’ve ever heard recorded. A quick glance at the song titles points us in this direction — when you start with garbage like “Maybe Won’t Do,” “Geeks Get The Girls,” “We Can’t Be Friends” and “Baby Come Home,” the result more times than not is going to be garbage.

There’s so much to criticize it’s hard to pick the choicest parts for this review. First, there are couplets that never should’ve been put to paper: “Nobody really knows the pain/ But everybody knows your name” or “Some call it love/ I don’t know what you’re thinkin’ of.” It’s almost as if Stacy Jones took the most common pop words and then tried to find the vaguest rhyme possible, all in an effort to say nothing.

Even when songwriter Jones tries to tell you, baby, just how shitty he’s been feeling, he can’t even say it without backing down a little bit: “Since you’ve been gone I kinda fell apart” or “I think I know how you feel/ Looking for something that matters.” Well, did you or didn’t you fall apart? Is this one of those break-ups that will hurt for years to come or only for a few hours? Until you can tell us what you really want to say and have the music to make your emotions sound halfway decent, I’d recommend not stepping into the studio at all.

Archived article by Elliot Singer
Sun Staff Writer