Excellent production and a shift in style make for a stellar second LP
Let’s start by going back nineteen months in order to move forwards, back to the first line of Haunted to be precise, the first track on Young and Heartless’ 2014 full-length debut LP. ‘She is losing all her religion’ frontman Jeremy Henninger sang, in a way reminiscent of the opening line of Brand New’s Sowing Season – ‘Was losing all my friends.’ Across the rest of The Pull of Gravity Young and Heartless sounded like a band not quite able to escape the influence of similar bands such as Brand New or Jimmy Eat World, and although not necessarily a bad thing it held their sound back somewhat. At the end of the year The Pull Of Gravity, for me, was one of the most underappreciated releases of 2014, and after listening to its follow-up Stay Away it’d be criminal if a record this good was to follow suit.
If The Pull of Gravity was weighed down by influence, Stay Away takes steps to carve out its own path instead, and it marks a welcome progression from the Pennsylvania four piece. As all good sophomore records should, it builds on its predecessor in the right places, and sees the band tone down their sound in order to hone it. Where their debut was brash, Stay Away is melodic, packed with summer-ready songs sonically, still carrying the lyrical burden listeners have come to expect from the band. It makes for a solid balance, straying from the more cathartically emotive nature of their past releases and onto something catered moreso for the radio without necessarily restricting itself by appealing to this medium. Young and Heartless, it would appear, have come of age, not quite as young, and not quite heartless either – these songs have heart, and they have it in abundance, it’s just harder to spot this time around, protected by a brighter exterior. As the band themselves said on their new direction, “[Stay Away] is an emotional rabbit-hole, and writing it as well as listening to it now, we continually find ourselves in a different place than we expected. It complements our past, but as a whole it was a radical change in our songwriting.” It is a change, but ultimately it’s a change for the better. Songs such as Punch Drunk (LOA) and Nightwalking are electrifying once the respective choruses kick in, building steadily during sultry verses and then kicking in at exactly the right moment. From a songwriting perspective Stay Away is more than content to take its time in order to deliver something substantial, weaving its way upwards and reaching glimmering peaks which capture the best of indie-rock – those self-affirming instrumental highs such as those featuring in the final chorus of the title track, Jake Lepley’s drumming excellent. It’s one of the many instances littered with little instrumental touches which really add more to the songs, keeping things stay varied even though the record follows a somewhat linear structure.
It’s true of Stay Away that the instrumentals do a lot of the work, most of it actually, and I would’ve liked to hear Henninger push himself further on several tracks vocally. At times his delivery comes across as lackluster, and although they often fit with the mood of the songs, he doesn’t also come across as well as his band-mates do. Bad Brain sees him strain, but he rarely rises to the point of shouting, which certain songs seem to beg for. In this regard toning things down doesn’t work quite as well, but elsewhere tracks such as Noise Creep come off golden, the melodic vocals really complementing cruising instrumentals. The result is a track which sounds effortlessly cool, and ‘cool’ seems fitting to assign to the majority of songs here. Kids finds residence in Los Angeles, ‘policemen dancing’, and it’s easy to imagine Stay Away splaying itself over Venice Beach and its boardwalks, kicking up sand as seas lap against shores. The chorus of Night Walking is the sound of hitting warm water, Strange Lows the sound of pleasant submersion, and as a whole it’s intoxicating – a blissful sort of record with darker edges than are initially visible. It seems to see the world through tinted sunglasses, casting shade over a California soundscape.
Another thing that Stay Away has going for it in admirable abundance is stellar production, sounding incredible. The main issue I had with The Pull Of Gravity was that I felt some individual elements got lost in the mix, but this definitely isn’t the case on its follow-up, which was produced by none other than genre staple Will Yip. Oddly enough, the last review I posted (Say Anything’s I Don’t Think It Is) critiqued Yip’s production, but I can’t fault it this time around. Stay Away is as pristine an alternative record as you’re likely to hear this year, and it really complements the more positive instrumental tone, smoothly polished to near-perfection – noticeable early with the stellar and exceptionally balanced first track Fevers. Play the record loud, and Stay Away stirs goosebumps. Play it low and let it seep, thick and friendly ambience leaking outwards, soothing but not too much so. Softer songs such as Misery on Misery stir up comparisons to the last Foxing record, haunting and melancholic, a night song led by darker keys. This fifth track helps to break the record up sonically, very different from the rest on offer here, aside from perhaps The Blinds, which is fuzzy and somewhat futile in addition. It seems to serve little purpose, more experimental than Stay Away ever needed to be – I’d recommend skipping it and moving on to the excellent Strange Lows instead.
Seeing as I started this review by talking about first lines, lets talk about last lines as we near its end. Towards the close of twelfth track Kids Henninger repeats the words ‘I can’t get past this feeling, is death the only option? To be young is to be lonely.’ It’s a fairly bleak ending to such an optimistic sounding record, but it feels fitting, a reminder that Stay Away isn’t always going accompany midnight swimming and beach volleyball games. Kids itself is a very strange track to listen to whilst reading along to its lyrical content. ‘There, no one really loves you’ it proclaims, ‘we’ll fake it to make it.’ It’s easy to forget about the darker lyrical content given the way the record sounds, but browse through the lyric sheet and you find similar harsh truths. The title track opens with the revelation that ‘my crowded heart is full of shadows’ while Nightwalking addresses a ‘night-walker’ ‘kissing those weekend boys’ before the final confession that ‘I know I said I’d fix you, but I did it wrong.’ There’s some real depth to the despairing lyrics here, a constant juxtaposition between how Stay Away presents itself, and what it has to say it. Maybe the band are faking something positive to make something better, but in this way the record is deceptive, and pleasingly so. If you want something introspective, then listen, but if you want a good time then just listen. It’s that kind of release, in that there’s something settling beneath the surface, casting shadows over the seabed. It means that Stay Away succeeds on several levels, and it makes for one of the more interesting releases of 2016 so far, not quite as safe it may initially seem. It’s also a record I’d highly recommend, not one to Stay Away from. Instead, dive in and find something to enjoy, there’s plenty.
Listen to: Noisecreep / Punch Drunk (LOA) / Kids