The Good: Good messages, Some decent tunes, Clear progression from the first album, Harmonizations
The Bad: Overproduced, Some very specific, late, allusions
The Basics: The sophomore album of Flobots, Survival Story, continues the band's social activism, with a bit less clarity than on their debut.
In an effort to put my current sense of political ennui in perspective and move on from my frustration, I made Flobots my August Artist Of The Month. Flobots is a somewhat obscure choice to focus on for a month - or what's left of it - but just because a band has a limited breakout in the marketplace does not mean their works do not have merit. Fight With Tools (reviewed here!) is one of the strongest full-length debut albums I've yet reviewed and the group continued to produce beyond the one album, so I felt they were worth study.
While I am only on their second album, Survival Story is pulling me in the direction that Flobots is a band that has not yet hit its full commercial potential because they were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. I can completely understand how much it sucks to be at the right place, right time, with the right message . . . only to discover that the vast majority of the world is facing another direction and it is impossible to get their attention. Survival Story begins with "Cracks In The Surface" and there is immediately the feeling that Flobots missed its window of relevance. For sure, the issues the made Hurricane Katrina from a natural disaster into a profound failure of government institutions and human decency remain largely unfixed in the United States, but "Cracks In The Surface" is a poor lead to an album that wants to present anything that is not part of the current news cycle.
Survival Story is an album comprised of a dozen songs, clocking out at 51:04. All of the songs are written or cowritten by members of Flobots. The Flobots sextet provides all of the lead vocals and play the bulk of the instruments on Survival Story. The only major credit Flobots do not receive on Survival Story is in production, but it generally appears to be the album the band intended to make.
The instrumentation on Survival Story is predictably diverse, which continues Flobots's experimental nature. Songs on Survival Story sound different from each other and yet the album manages to come together well, so it does not just sound like a random collection of singles of different genres. The straight out rock and roll sound of "Cracks In The Surface" opens Survival Story, but few of the songs try to stay neatly within a single genre. "The Effect" would be a pretty straightforward rap, save that it includes a viola. "By The Time You Get This Message..." is very straightforward, simply rock and roll; fortunately, it is immediately followed by the violas and more sweeping sound of "Airplane Mode." The straightforward rap of "Whip$ And Chain$" plays off of the balladlike vocals that open "Good Soldier." And those who complain that the songs on Survival Story are too much of a departure from those on the Flobots debut album, there are tracks like "Superhero" and "White Flag Warrior," which help ground the album with some sense of familiarity.
Arguably one of the biggest differences in the sound of Survival Story versus Fight With Tools is in the way the vocals are produced. On songs like "Infatuation," there are clear production elements being used like echo and the effect is occasionally distracting. Moreover, several songs have the vocals drown out by instrumental accompaniment and production elements. In contrast, the strong feminine voice of Mackenzie Roberts explodes with a very natural and raw quality on "Defend Atlantis" and in the opening of "Good Soldier." Brer Rabbit raps mostly clearly on Survival Story and when his vocals are not being sublimated to the instrumental accompaniment, Jamie Laurie's vocals are generally good and articulate.
Survival Story illustrates a thematic progression from Fight With Tools. Flobots sing about new issues like global warming on "Defend Atlantis" and the blend of human emotion and corporate greed issues on "Infatuation." There is almost a musical storysong quality to the argument "That was as far as the tide came in / I remember the starfish and the wails of the sirens then / We replaced the tridents, embraced Poseidon / And discovered ourselves living on an island / We flow like water across the lost city / Chalk prophecies and washed off graffiti / In continents / Trade off for payoff" ("Defend Atlantis") that makes the song both relatable and original.
Like "Handlebars" on Fight With Tools, Flobots explore consequences on Survival Story with "If I." "If I" is a smart storysong that provides biographies for members of Flobots and explores how their environments shaped them. With lines like "If I hadn’t grown up in the 80’s / Experiencing the various things that made me / Would I still be standing center stage / Trying to innovate new ways to demonstrate? /If mommy daddy hadn’t turned off Mork and Mindy / To inform us divorce was pending / Would him and me have spent these 23 years in a frenzy / Moving back and forth with such forceful energy" ("If I"), Flobots creates a surprisingly powerful anthem about themselves and the universal nature of consequences in the world.
"Whip$ And Chain$" is a very typical Flobots song in that it boldly decries the power of corporations while using a number of clever allusions and references. The song blends the universal - "We pay into easing these pains / 'Cause the history is difficult / Wish the results could be flipped like reciprocals / Allow me to renumerate aloud the typical rude awakenings of the drowsy consumer base" - with the incredibly specific "Strange fruit I roll up in my Ford Taurus / Emissions I wont pass like Gandalf at Moria" ("Whip$ And Chain$") with somewhat mixed results. There are a few dated references, though largely Flobots attempts to make statements that would outlive 2010 (when the album was released).
Survival Story might lack the initial impact of Fight With Tools, but after multiple listens, the album is generally a decent one. Flobots has something to say and, objectively considered, it is both more creative and successfully-executed than most works on the market.
The best track is "If I," the low point is the unmemorable "The Effect."
For other works from former Artist Of The Month artists, please visit my reviews of:
Ten Love Songs - Susanne Sundor
Useless Trinkets: B-Sides, Rarities, and Unreleased 1996 - 2006 - Eels
Endless Forms Most Beautiful - Nightwish
For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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