Monday, June 9, 2014

Gut Feeling: Say Anything - Hebrews

Say Anything – Hebrews
Equal Vision, 2014
Hebrews needs to be held up as a perfect example of when good intentions and great ambition produce incredibly problematic results. Usually an album that succeeds occasionally does so on a song-by-song basis, but Hebrews can go from awesome to awful at a moments notice. A track with a terrible verse can have an incredibly satisfying chorus (“Kall Me Kubrick”) and vice versa. Max Bemis can make his voice sound impassioned and insane (not the good kind) from second to second. It’s just troublesome because you can tell he is very into the words he is spewing. It’s all incredibly personal, but there are WAY too many references to pissing and too many silly lines that make this lyrics sheet feel like a stream of consciousness word salad that Bemis never bothered to whittle into strong songwriting. Bemis’ occasionally grating vocals make the worst lines particularly agonizing, but hey, that’s part of the experience. I guess.

The decision to replace the band’s usual guitars with a goddamn orchestra is a bold one, and while it somehow makes the record less dynamic, it’s at least an interesting move. An iffy one, but points for trying. It definitely sounds like fun was being had, and if this breaking out of the comfort zone helps the band make a better follow-up, that’s fine, but overall Hebrews feels misguided. Or maybe this is just Say Anything. I should probably confess that I haven’t listened to a one of their albums since their breakout 2004 gem …Is a Real Boy and while I wasn’t exactly expecting the music here to match the emo-heavy pop-punk of that album, I think I expected more restraint (I just spent a half hour getting caught up on the band’s singles from the last 10 years and goddamnit, another mixed bag. I particularly liked “Shiksa (Girlfriend)” and thought “Baby Girl, I’m a Blur” was some of the most neutered, watered down shit I have ever heard, which is insane since not only are these tracks on the same album, they’re sequenced side by side). Bemis comes across as a guy with a lot of interesting things to say but lacks a way to articulate the shit in his head in a way that makes it meaningful. It’s obvious he’s a deep dude who grapples with faith, love, new fatherhood, and culture on a regular basis and he’s very endearing, but some of this shit is just embarrassingly bad. He even sings the line “Some say I’ve lost my touch at crafting Say Anything songs” on “Lost My Touch.” The line is supposed to be a stab at the critics, but might be a more personally self-critical.

Now that I’m done pissing in this records mouth (seriously, the references to mouthpissing on this album are infectious), I should note that while Hebrews is a total mess, there are some really terrific moments. Namely Hebrews’ showstopping standout “The Shape of Love to Come” (featuring ethereal backing vocals from Bemis’ wife Sherri Dupree-Bemis, who is all over this album in voice and subject matter as you’d expect) which caught me off guard. Probably because it’s the most restrained track on the record: the one where Bemis really reigns in all of his bad tendencies towards theatricality and gets to the meat of something meaningful. It’s an incredible sweet love song punctuated by huge, melodramatic strings. Another boon for Hebrews is the fantastic array of guest vocalists Say Anything were able to wrangle. Gareth and Kim Campesinos from Los Campesinos!, Chris Conley of Saves the Day, Matt Pryor of the Get Up Kids, Aaron Weiss of mewithoutyou, and Bob Nanna of Hey Mercedes make up a rogues gallery of emo greatness, so that’s a plus, but damnit if they can’t find anything more meaningful for most of these people to do than sing backing vocals. It’s the thought that counts, but the problems with Hebrews are systemic. Still, it’s better to be overly ambitious and fail than to be some soulless alternative rock radio band and even though this record is full of groan-worthy moments, it’s at least an album I can respect.

"Judas Decapitation"

"Nibble Nibble" 

 Stray Observations:

* Given Bemis’ love of theatricality, Hebrews would make a better one man show on Broadway than a music album.
* “American indie rock is a game of pricks!” Ha!
* The orchestral music is actually quite beautiful at times, particularly on “Kall Me Kubrick,” which unfortunately devolves into Bemis saying the word “Swastika” a hundred times with a mouth full of marshmallows. The line “let the Bemis die alone” is just one example of the painful self-awareness that haunts Hebrews
* “She moved to Italy with Johnny Depp/ He swooped in quick on his jet when he left.” Oof.

* Bemis’ biggest examination of his Jewish heritage, “Push,” strikes a nice balance between theatricality and restraint. The song gets a little histronic towards the end, but it’s as forgivable as any of the other faults with Hebrews because at least it’s impassioned.
* Hell, maybe the lack of guitars was the problem all along. The guitars come flooding back in on closer "Nibble Nibble" and they do a fine job balancing the whole affair in a way that I wish the whole album sounded like that song. But I understand. Every band has to do a record that sounds totally unlike their other albums. Destroyer's Your Blues, Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak, the as of yet unwritten album I'm going to write composed of samples of drops of blood falling into a bowl of my own tears. 

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