*Army of Me*
Washington DC-based Army of Me have been around for quite a while and, after a litany of EPs, theyâ€™ve finally managed to get a full-length album together. I saw them perform in their hometown, where they played a thoroughly charming opening set for Mae, and kicked the butts of their then far more popular co-openers The Spill Canvas. Their debut is, like many debuts, a retread of several of their previous releases (thus we know out of the gate that it isnâ€™t going to be a cohesive concept album or, in all likelihood, make any serious, ten-track point). But considering Army of Meâ€™s strengths, 1) thatâ€™s not a bad thing, and 2) itâ€™s not necessarily what they would be looking to do, anyway.
Songwriting frontman Vince Scheuerman doesnâ€™t come off as an indie _artiste_, but there is something peculiarly magnetic about his songs (that mirrors, I might add, his earnest, unassuming stage persona). The opening of opener â€œPerfectâ€ is about as tepid as they come, with forgettable lyrics to match, but when Scheuerman sings â€œone day, Iâ€™ll be perfect, Iâ€™ll be / So extraordinary, I will take your breath away!â€ we instantly believe him. And when a sensitive, pretty (and Iâ€™m resisting the temptation to say Coldplay-ish) guitar riff joins his smooth vocals, itâ€™s all over.
â€œRiseâ€ immediately struck me when I first heard it live, and the recorded version encapsulates everything I love about this band. It also, Iâ€™ll admit, plays to every musical weak spot Iâ€™ve got, namely acoustic guitar licks, tight harmonies, and I-IV-V chord progressions. For the first minute, itâ€™s nothing that youâ€™d blink if you heard it on a Top 40 station played by say, Simple Plan. The intricate folksy guitar work that seems appropriate is missing, but Schuermanâ€™s strong sense of melody and confident singing (especially when his bandmates join him in stacked harmony singing, â€œRise, rise, rise!â€) is just delightful. Small, but exactly what itâ€™s intended to be.
â€œRiseâ€ is also a good point to talk about Army of Meâ€™s place, if they have one, in the world of music made by Christians. Iâ€™ve never seen the band ever refer to themselves as a â€œChristian bandâ€ or be really associated with anyone who does, but lyrical themes and subtle scriptural imagery (or not so subtle, as in â€œMeet You at the Mouthâ€) make it indisputable. On â€œRise,â€ for example, Scheuerman sings â€œI was lying in the gutter, crawling in the streets / now the servants are all sitting in the most distinguished seats.â€ He expresses, in one line, what it takes Aaron Shust entire albums of clichÃ©s to get across, and even does it with a deft reference to scripture that is intellectually acceptable and artistically appropriate.
Lest I get too into enjoying the sound of my own voice gushing, I will remind that Army of Me is indeed a young, radio-friendly alternative rock band and little more. _Citizen_ is nothing that hasnâ€™t been done to a fault on rock radio, but it clings to a sensitivity that makes Army of Meâ€™s take on the pop-rock track considerably more memorable. And on a surface level, they manage not to sound too much like anyone else in their league. Magnetic melody pervades not only Scheuermanâ€™s vocal lines, but also every note played by lead guitarist Brad Tursi, who can make his strings weepily react to Scheuermanâ€™s singing with an at times heart-wrenching subtlety (see â€œBetter Runâ€). He does energetic just as wellâ€”â€œHow Longâ€ wanders closer to Yellowcard-like radio territory, but Tursiâ€™s work makes an unsurprising song one that Iâ€™d actually listen to again.
â€œMeet You at the Mouthâ€ is interesting for its clash of identities, this time between Scheuermanâ€™s conventional, pop-appropriate singing and the rest of the bandâ€™s chance to mix up the repertoire. I wonâ€™t get Radiohead-comparison-happy, but Tursiâ€™s soloing sounds much more like something off The Bends than it does Mae (which _Citizen_ faintly mirrors). Itâ€™s an intriguing glimpse into the bandâ€™s very apparent artistic intelligence and perhaps a nod to some good influences, but putting Vinceâ€™s voice through a filter doesnâ€™t quite meet the need for a less-conventional vocalist to complete the left-of-center romp.
And falling too squarely in the center is where _Citizen_ â€™s fault lies; it consistently clings to formula even as it recognizes the need to branch out. These songs do the formula well, but as a collection theyâ€™re ultimately grounded by it. As a set, mid-tempo drags and becomes sluggish, monotonous; tracks fade together and become forgettable. Iâ€™ve never heard a band pull off that sort of dazed disinterest as well as the Fray, and, late in the record, Army of Me floats down slowly, dangerously toward Frayishness. Theyâ€™re more interesting, though, and this album should stay in the player a lot longer than How to Save a Life ever hoped to. Citizen is a satisfying if not exciting debut, and bears the marks of a band that might have it in them to become great. I guess in the sea of young men playing alternative rock, a little genuine earnestness goes a long way.
David Sessions is the editor of The CCM Patrol.
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