Let’s be frank – indie rock very rarely does any kind of actual rocking. Any band I can think of who has ridden that tag to some semblance of mainstream notoriety (Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie, The Decemberists, The Shins) might have a bevy of guitars at their disposal, but that doesn’t mean any of them are trying to channel the Led Zeppelin zeitgeist, as Jack White is wont to do. No – indie rock is more about tenderness than testosterone, and so long as there is a Nickelback or a Hinder sitting atop the radio rock charts, the genre will continue to prize sad sack sensitivity over swaggering masculinity.
Andy Hull – of Atlanta’s Manchester Orchestra – wouldn’t be faulted if he had ended up crafting the same sort of beautifully fractured jams as his compatriots; anyone who willfully admits to a Smiths/Morrissey phase during a prolonged period of adolescent alienation is ripe for the sort of willowy introspection that has given rise to the likes of Bon Iver and The Antlers in recent years. But Hull chooses to purge his demons in a more palpably cathartic manner, amidst the crush of electric guitars, thunderous drumming and a visceral yawp that probably puts undue pressure on blood vessels. Those who paid attention to the band’s hype-worthy Mean Everything to Nothing back in 2009 have an acute understanding of this admittedly delicious kind of rage, and though highly unoriginal, it was overwhelmingly refreshing to hear an artist exorcise his pain the old fashioned way.
Two years later, the five-piece returns with Simple Math – a concept album which, according to Hull himself, examines perennial hot button topics like marriage, love, religion, and sex. Again, not exactly revelatory material, but Hull has a gift with prose that turns even the most banal observations into striking reflections. Take for instance, the understated opener, “Deer,” in which Hull plaintively sings, “Dear everyone I ever really knew / I acted like an asshole so I could keep my edge on you.” Such candor is even more pronounced when the only things competing with it are gentle acoustic strums and wistful piano countermelodies.
After this, Hull and Co. return to the business of rocking, a job which they clearly relish. “Mighty” makes an audacious u-turn from “Deer,” where snarling distortion and chugging rhythms accentuate the confrontational atmosphere of Hull’s words: “Look straight in the eyes of the hopeless / you can’t swing if you don’t use your arms.” The track is also the first of many to employ a string section – a move that works in moderation but becomes trite by album’s end. “April Fool” employs similar tactics, as defiant guitar riffage and snappy percussion from drummer Tim Very form the backbone for formidable declarations from Hull like, “I’ve got that rock and that roll!”
Yet in terms of intensity and brute force, nothing on Simple Math comes close to “Virgin,” a song that brings about the unholy union of blood and crucifix imagery with piles of guitar sludge and the angelic timbres of a children’s choir. Employing a group of sprightly youths to sing on an indie rock record is, at this point, sort of like asking a keyboard player to join your synth-pop band. Given its pervasive use in recent times – Peter Bjorn and John’s “Nothing to Worry” and Passion Pit’s “Little Secrets” immediately come to mind – the choir’s novelty is minimal, not to mention there’s something completely unnerving about listen to pre-adolescents sing lines like, “We built this house with our hands / and our time / and our blood” over an apocalyptic tumult. Still though, there isn’t a catchier song on this record.
Though Simple Math favors elephantine gestures, there are still occasionally whimsical moments that dilute the doom-laden atmosphere. “Pensacola” starts out in pseudo-New Wave territory but concludes in the manner of a raucous barroom sing-a-long, with the band inciting the crowd: “Alcohol / dirty malls / Pensacola, Florida bars!” And though the title track lacks any kind of comedic bent (Could a line such as “I want to rip your lips off in my mouth,” be taken humorously?), it’s a noteworthy cut for eventually embracing a more hopeful milieu, with vibrato-heavy strings and soaring wordless vocals that take the place of the group’s trademark guitar and drum attack. Two songs (“Pale Black Eye” and “Apprehension” have an aesthetic quality well known to Wilco fans, where ragged vocals, tremolo-affected keyboards, and twangy guitars comfortably reside.
Simple Math, as Hull reminds us on the titular cut, is not so simple. True enough – if Manchester Orchestra was as accessible as they appear on paper, they probably would’ve inked a lucrative deal some time ago. Though those instinctive desires to rock out are satiated time and again on Simple Math, the band is not nearly as forthcoming – “Virgin” notwithstanding – with the sort of earworm melodies and pedestrian lyrics that put hard rock acts like Daughtry and 3 Doors Down at the top of the charts. Thank God.