Friday, April 27, 2012

Rock And Roll Is Still Alive! Blue October Creates It With Approaching Normal

The Good: Decent instrumental work, Good lyrics, Generally good sound
The Bad: Shorter than I'd like, Somewhat repetitive vocal sound.
The Basics: A good rock and roll album, Approaching Normal by Blue October provides a sufficiently complicated sound to please most listeners.

My wife becomes easier to shop for with each passing day. So, for the winter holiday, I was very happy to present her with the album Approaching Normal by Blue October, an album she has been looking at since it originally came out in March. I swear, every time we went into Barnes & Noble, she would pick it up, shake her head at the $18.99 price tag and set it back down. Well, thanks to the holiday and the internet, I was able to present her with the coveted c.d. for our winter celebration. Since then, Approaching Normal has been in high rotation and I decided it was time to review this album, which I have now heard a good dozen times.

I generally like the album, which is definitely rock and roll and thus is very much what my partner was hoping for, as both a fan of Blue October and of rock and roll in general. And as one who is open to all forms of music, I quickly found the rock and roll on this to be fairly direct and familiar. The "familiar" aspect comes more from the fact that my partner has been playing Foiled (reviewed here!) pretty much since the minute we met and as a result, I've heard a lot of Blue October. Approaching Normal is in no way a departure, so fans will likely be pleased. As one who likes very few primarily male bands, I found myself enjoying the energy and angst of the very direct rock and roll sound of Approaching Normal.

With twelve tracks, clocking out at 48:10, Approaching Normal is very much the musical sound and vision of the band Blue October. The songs were all written by members of the band; in fact, most were written solely by lead singer and guitarist Justin Furstenfeld. The quintet plays all their own instruments and provides all of the main vocals as well. In fact, the only element of creative control the band appears to have ceded is producing and neither the band nor any member of it is responsible for any of the mixing or production. That said, one imagines they are generally pleased with the rest of the album as they controlled so many other aspects of it.

This is, in many ways, the archetypal modern rock album, which includes songs that are up-tempo and loud ("Say It," "Jump Rope") and slow, quieter rock ballads ("Blue Does," "Picking Up Pieces"). In general, this is an up-tempo album and those looking for something that is catchy as the first single on the radio, “Say It,” are likely to be disappointed. “The End,” for example, is an angry and angsty track which is just disturbing. And while “Weight Of The World” is thematically angsty, it is much quieter in its opening and more emotional misery presented in a musical form than cacophonic, like “The End.”

Instrumentally, Approaching Normal is a very typical guitar, bass, drums combination, though the band shakes it up a little through Ryan Delahoussaye. Delahoussaye plays violin, mandolin, and keyboards and this adds an added layer of production to many of the songs which makes the album sound quite a bit richer than other, similar, bands. Songs like “Been Down” sound more full and complete in the instrumental accompaniment than other mainstream rock and roll bands. That said, there are problems with the instrumentation and it is clear that the band is derivative of itself. "Should Be Loved" sounds like "Say It" and "My Never" opens sounding a lot like “Congratulations” off “Foiled.” This is not a bad thing necessarily, but while Blue October does not sound quite like anyone else, they do sound like themselves (much like anyone who has heard a Nickelback can recognize Chad Kroeger’s vocals almost instantly).

Vocally, Justin Furstenfeld has a strangely split vocal presentation. He alternates from quiet or melodic – “Should Be Loved” is actually beautifully performed – to scratchy and angry (“The End” is basically shouted out). Furstenfeld’s vocals are generally in the tenor and baritone range and he is articulate on songs like “Kangaroo Cry” and even makes the repetitive lines of “Say It” sound good. The only place on the album where the backing vocals and harmonizations with Furstenfeld are noticeable or overwhelm his voice are when schoolchildren join in on “Jump Rope.”

Lyrically, the album is more complex than most rock albums today. In fact, for the first time in a long time, I found myself listening to a song that used a decent level of metaphor such that listening to the song and reading the lyrics actually brought me an entirely different interpretation of the song. That song was “Kangaroo Cry” and while the song sounds like a break-up song, it reads like a strong, humanist perspective of an antiwar song. With lines like, “We've lost respect for decency / When one can turn our world into an ant pile / We run circles, no direction do I see / The dust has blinded you, the dust has blinded me . . . And you choose to break our families / Tell me you've used all precautions known / And I'll stand beside the ones who stood alone / How long will we have to sing until you finally bring our sons, our daughters home" ("Kangaroo Cry") it is clear the band has something to say and a generally clever way to go about saying it.

This is, however, not always true. While singing about life and change, they become somewhat monotonous when they sing "Now your older and the weight is on your shoulder, / Makes the world a little colder. / No more hiding in the old day, / Be strong, / Don’t you give up hope. / It will get hard, / Life’s like a jump rope. / Up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down, yeah, / ‘Cause it will get hard" ("Jump Rope"). The song gets monotonous with the repetition and while there are few songs I enjoy repetition on, I did not get sick of the repetition in "Say It."

As well, even on human relationships, the group clearly has something it wants to say. On "Weight Of The World," one of the songs that earned the album its Parental Advisory sticker, the band tackles fear quite well. With the lines "There's voices there to dare me, / My father's here to scare me / And My mother she sits beyond the door she's / Curled up crying on the floor, / Look at what her son's done. / When the weight of all the world's gone wrong. / Wrong again. / Gone f-ing wrong again" ("Weight Of The World"), Blue October ventures into a psychological area many rock and roll bands will not venture into: singing about fear more than love and loneliness. And it works to help create a good overall album.

Anyone who like rock and roll music will find Approaching Normal a great investment as the lyrics and sound are fairly fresh and the album, despite being short, holds up over multiple listens very well.

The best track is "Dirt Room," the low point is "The End," which is just unpleasant to listen to.

For other rock and roll albums, please visit my reviews of:
10,000 Days - Tool
Cex Cells - Blaque Audio
The Best Of The Doors - The Doors


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index page for other albums and artists whose work I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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