Tooth & Nail Records has a reputation as a trendsetting label with an uncanny ability to unearth unheard talents and bring them to an indie-rock audience hungering for something more than the latest single from the newest Nickelback clone. But the dirty truth is that for all of the innovative artists Tooth & Nail has introduced to the world, they have produced twice as many who are derivative of more popular artists— including their own labelmates. This explains, for example, the stream of emotional, ambient bands emulating The Juliana Theory and Further Seems Forever, and the copycats of the 80s-esque synth-pop-rock revival led by the likes of Anberlin, Emery, and Mae. That overly recognizable sound has a new incarnation— Detroit-based Search the City.
Unlike Tooth & Nail newcomers Ivoryline, Secret & Whisper, and A Dream Too Late, this debut is catchy, fairly self-assured, and exhibits a clear sense of direction rarely possessed by new bands. But despite the high quality in production values, Search the City has one big problem: Anberlin. A Fire So Big sounds, in its entirety, like it was recorded by that now-veteran Florida rock act, down to the similarity in the timbre of the vocals between lead singer Josh Frost and Anberlin’s Stephen Christian. Search the City seems to have probed Anberlin’s work to create a musical template for this album, as they use many of the same styles of rhythms, chord progressions, guitar riffs, layering, and song structures.
Even the album’s song titles are reminiscent of Anberlin: “The Streetlight Diaries” ; “To The Moon For All I Care” ; “Clocks and Timepieces” ; and my personal favourite, “Ambulance Chaser” . (As a side note, what happened to brevity being the source of wit in naming songs and albums? Has anyone tried to pinpoint when titles became exercises in rhetoric rather than refinement? Should we blame The Juliana Theory and their album Emotion Is Dead for this development? I really want someone to look closer into this issue before we end up with twenty-five-word-long song titles becoming the norm.)
The similarities do not end with musical and titular emulation. Search the City’s songs are disconcertingly comparable to the lyrical and thematic material developed by Stephen Christian and company. Take some examples from the opening track, “Son of a Gun” : “we were thick as thieves; just like a thief you stole the best of me” ; “you know you’re sharp, but sharp just doesn’t cut it anymore” ; “I’ve got secrets too.” Or from “Ambulance Chaser”: “if you’re going down, I’m going down with you.” Or from “Talk Is Cheap and I’ve Got Expensive Taste”: “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” This sort of punnery and wordplay— the constant use of metaphor, the manipulation of connotation and denotation of words, and the ever-present search for purpose and identity through clever juxtaposition of purposely vague terms— contain more than a passing similarity to Anberlin’s work. This is downright creepy, Single White Female-style musical stalking.
It should be noted in argument for Search the City that Anberlin took five years to release an album that was this polished and ready for release. Their 2002 debut Blueprints for the Black Market featured two unforgivably inappropriate pop-punkish entries, and a few too many “doo doo doo doo” bridges to be truly acceptable. 2004’s Never Take Friendship Personal took a big step forward in album composition, though the title did contain an egregious grammatical misuse of an adjective (personal used in place of the proper adverb personally— I’m an English teacher, after all). It was not until the third album, 2007’s Cities, that they really hit their stride and released an album that was solid from beginning to end (and, save for one relatively minor error in repetition of a possessive adjective on the otherwise gorgeous “Inevitable”, grammatically sound). Anberlin’s hard work and originality has paid off with a devoted fan base, a spot on this summer’s Warped Tour, and respect from the industry for their pioneering of a unique and innovative sound ! that has now been shamelessly copied by Search the City.
Listeners are left with one simple question: is A Fire So Big the Heavens Can See It worth listening to in and of itself? The answer, unless you are a huge fan of Anberlin and cannot get enough of this style of music, is no. Although this is a well-paced album that features some strong songs, clear vocals, well-established musicianship, and some interesting musical and lyrical twists, it is unfortunately grounded by imitation and redundancy.
Derek Turner is a freelance writer in Caronport, Saskatchewan.
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