Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Incubus proves less is not more with latest album

Since emerging from Calabasas, California in the early 90s, alt rockers Incubus have developed a reputation for taking a different musical approach on every record.

No two Incubus discs are the same, they used to say, and I suppose you could argue that's the case today. But on their more recent records it seems like they're just looking for a different way of doing the same thing.

Once, Incubus was cool because they stood out from the crowd. When they were first getting big, circa late 90s and early 2000s, nu metal was the big thing. Those days it seemed like the "vocalist" for just about every band was some asshat wannabe rapper wearing a red baseball cap, backed by a clueless guitarist who did little but chug away on his E string.

Incubus wasn't like that. They put their focus where it mattered: on composition, musicianship, and writing. Plus they had a vocalist who actually could sing.

At some point something changed. Up through Morning View, just about every song felt like a cohesive band effort. You could listen to each track and hear the influence each guy had on it.

But starting with A Crow Left of the Murder, there were several songs where I couldn't honestly say that was the case. Crow was front loaded with several pop hits which highly emphasized the role of the lead singer. But Incubus has always sounded best when the talents of each band member is being fully utilized.

Too bad that rarely happens on If Not Now, When?

Incubus has opted for a very mellow, stripped back sound to accompany a set of straightforward hook driven pop songs. Instrumentation is minimal; there's an extremely simple drum beat on almost every song, along with maybe piano or keys.  Guitar fades into the background so seamlessly you'll barely notice it's there.

This is easily Incubus at their most one dimensional. Their past albums spotlighted a variety of styles, but here there is very little diversity or variety from track to track. There's nothing wrong with having pop songs at a middling pace with bass, drums, and vocals, but it becomes an issue when that's all you do.

But it can't be all bad, right? After all, these guys have the mighty Mike Enzinger on the six string. I'd be hard pressed to think of another guitarist with a play style resembling anything like what he does, and I can't picture Incubus without him.

But the shame of it is, is that you barely get to hear him on this record. I had to check the booklet just to make sure he was actually still even in the band. His signature sound is MIA on the first three tracks, and it isn't until "Thieves" we get a reminder he's still here. Even so, it's just a fleeting riff here, a simple pattern there. He's got a nice solo on "Adolescents," but by then it's too little too late.

It doesn't help that every song sounds like it was written for a 16-year-old girl. "Promises, Promises" features some dopey drivel about Brandon finding himself or some shit, "Thieves" sees him mumbling some gibberish about a god fearing white American, and on "Friends and Lovers," we get to witness Boyd's moving argument that being a friend and a lover is totally a-ok.

Now before you typecast me as some dreadlocked, herb smoking Incuphile who hated everything after S.C.I.E.N.C.E. consider that I liked much of the writing on their later albums. Yes, it's not just that the writing is bad on this album, it's even a downgrade from their more recent material.

Take a song like "Dig," for instance. It's a thought provoking tune that measures the complexity of human relationships and emotion, all while cleverly wrapping it in a double meaning based on the word dig.

"Agoraphobia" is a song based on a sensation of constant fear and panic which managed to tap into your emotional circuitry in a way you wouldn't think. The best line on If Not Now, When? features Brandon getting mobbed by some freaky chick in a black hat and thigh highs.

There are some positives. "Isadore" is a nice breezy song with a cool melody. The rhythm section gets its chance to shine on "Switchblade," which features a rippling bass line and a groovy, propulsive drum beat that ever so slightly reminds us of Incubus's funky roots.

But the real gem is "In the Company of Wolves," which truly does sound like something Incubus has never done before. It starts off with a type of 70s prog folkish riff. Then when the vocals come in, you'll wonder if the band changed singers. But no, you'll quickly realize, it  is Brandon, singing at the top of his octave range, which we've rarely heard before.

It gives off kind of a 70s-ish "Behind Blue Eyes" type of vibe. Things get even stranger in the second half, when the song builds up to a fuzzy, noise type crescendo, with the effect of an emotional catharsis.

And that brings us around to Brandon. For the most part, he does a fine job on this album. The issue is that he has to carry it all on his own, due to the way the music is arranged.

Surely there will people who would like this record. If you're a fan of pop music, or if you like strong male vocalists, If Not Now, When? might be right for you. Specifically, if your ideal Incubus track is something like Paper Shoes, Dig, or Mexico, this album might be a good investment.

But there's another brand of Incubus fan out there, the type that likes the funky zany shit; the type that likes to headbang to "Blood on the Ground" or "Light Grenades" while also having something catchy thrown in.

In my mind, I can visualize what I think they were going for with this stripped back approach. Probably a quiet, intimate record along the lines of Phil Selway or Nirvana Unplugged. But the in your face pop vibe makes that nigh on impossible to pull off.

Brandon is no longer the same guy who tried to call AAA but his card was expired. And as I said at the beginning, the past few Incubus records have been a slightly different way of doing the same thing - repackaging pop hits. It's just that If Not Now, When? drives that point home like none other.

Score: 55/100

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