Bad Books side project yields one of year's purest albums
Bad Books’ ‘II’ is the purest album you’ll hear all year.
At the Chimes, sometimes we use our Arts and Entertainment section to critique the musical and cinematic juggernauts of today from the perspective of a fellow student. Other times, we highlight films and artists that deserve your attention and would otherwise fly below the radar.
This is the second thing.
Bad Books is the collaborative side project of alternative-rock band Manchester Orchestra and indie rocker Kevin Devine; you may have caught Devine on tour earlier this year opening for Biola favorite mewithoutYou. Bad Books is an experimental alter-ego for both participants, whose primary musical outlets stay more-or-less within the confines of their genres. Alternative-rock wunderkinds Manchester Orchestra are a pseudo-hardcore act with arena rock bombast; Kevin Devine is a progressive acoustic-rock songsmith.
The serendipitous collaboration has borne fruit for the second time with “II,” now streaming on consequenceofsound.net. The album’s street date is Oct. 9.
Please stop what you’re doing and go listen to it.
I don’t want you to read my words as much as I want you to hear to this album.
Not because it’s great — it is. Not because I like it so much — I do. But because how this album came to be is the way more music should be made.
New record shows sonic progression and experimentation
Bad Books’ eponymous debut was a quality album that leaned more toward Devine’s acoustic, balletic side of the spectrum. Manchester Orchestra frontman Andy Hull is as capable as anyone on a lilting guitar ballad, but “Bad Books” was slow in pace, if not outright boring.
“II” brings still more adventurous sonic texture to the table. Twinkling pianos, sampled drum beats, whistling, vintage fuzz — a palette of sound this diverse ought to yield a sloppy, inconsistent album. But it doesn’t. Instead, we’re treated to a bevy of songs that fall anywhere between a Breaking Benjamin-like emo strain heard in “Friendly Advice” to wintery, Bon Iver-esque minimalist pop as on “42.” Yet none feel out of place.
Hull’s and Devine’s voices mesh seamlessly; the contrast between Devine’s smooth, nasally indie crooning and Hull’s even smoother, nasally-er and indie-er crooning is subtle, but profound. Tight harmonies with a steady flavor throughout are a highlight.
So it sounds good. The lyrics are good. The album is diverse in both taste and tempo — all good. But the best part of the album is the way it was made.
“We take the songs very seriously but we let ourselves loosen up about the results in a way that’s different from either of our more personal projects,” said Devine in the press release ahead of “II” and its supporting tour. “In a weird way, that allows for us to go certain places we might not go on our own.”
Side project is a chance for band members to expand themselves
Bad Books is six friends breaking away from everything that might moor them — expectations of labels, fans, their past successes, even the constraints of genre and convention — and just writing the best music they can. No pretentions, no formality, just music.
The result is a pair of well-established acts visiting places both sonically and spiritually they couldn’t otherwise go. Lyrically, Hull and Devine go to deeper and more vulnerable places than they’ve ever ventured.
As a side project, it will never have the constant identity, momentum and perspective that will be making Pitchfork’s top however-many albums lists. And that’s OK.
It is still the most consistent, rewarding and daring hyphenated rock album since Brand New’s 2006 critical darling “The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me,” similarly pensive and even more surprising.
Because, sometimes, the side dish is the best part of the meal.