There are a few inflectional variations on the phrase, “I can’t complain,” that drastically alter its intended meaning. If stated with a glib, upbeat sense of irony, it can usually be translated to something like, “I am doing quite, quite well, and I’m happy that this opportunity to bask in my many successes has arisen.” Conversely, a hurried, defensive delivery reveals the bitter crest foaming over a deep sea of denial. There are endless variants, of course, but these two examples are most pertinent to the record that I am reviewing today.
After a few listens, there isn’t a whole lot to pick apart with regard to As Tall As Lions. The compositions are packed with palatable melodies and lots of tasteful instrumentation. The performances are tight, the sounds are clear and well-balanced, the lyrics are innocuously emotive and vaguely self-loathing and the band has a defined, consistent aesthetic that it executes quite well. To that end, they’ve really got the faux-britpop thing down: quiet and/or nicely plodding verses that set up robust, melancholy-yet-uplifting choruses, a seamless falsetto, the sturdiest rhythm section that Pro Tools can quantize, and a cornucopia of miscellaneous guitar-and-keyboard based textures to fill in any sonic gaps in the mix. In short, it sounds really good, if you’re into that sort of thing. Frontman Daniel Nigro winks at you from the booth, secure in the knowledge that his band has produced a perfectly listenable product. Indeed, they’ve got nothing to be salty about.
That being said, this album is far from unassailable. When someone tells you that they can’t complain, it’s rarely because they actually have nothing to complain about. More often, they are just not inclined to pour over the agonizing details of their misfortune, or they’d rather not admit that anything is wrong. As Tall As Lions sound similarly guarded. The recordings don’t leave much room for idiosyncrasy, save for the sound of some kids bashing around on various instruments following the single, “Love, Love, Love (Love, Love).” It might have better served the record if the band had adopted a more child-like approach to arranging (the old throw-stuff-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks technique, perhaps?). Instead, they opt for more conventional ideas, the recurring veneer of distorted guitars and layered vocal harmonies serving to wash out quite a few otherwise memorable hooks. The record is most exciting when the anthemic tendencies subside and some space opens up. On “Stab City,” “A Break, A Pause,” and “Where Do I Stand?” they use effects and loops in fairly interesting ways that bring a more discernible dimension of nuance into the fold.
Depending on your prejudices and preferences, this band is confident and well-oiled, poised for big shows and laudatory attention, or they’re just average songwriters hunkering down in the safest stylistic territory. Ultimately, As Tall As Lions exhibit a clear understanding of what works. In the future, it should be fascinating to see what will happen if they try to pursue something less mired in certainty.