Beijing - Night
Release Date: May 7, 2013
Record Label: Self-Released
It was with considerable skepticism that I pressed play on Night, the first full-length record from Beijing, a New Haven, Connecticut four-piece, for the first time. That’s a weird emotion to be feeling when stepping into the atmosphere of a new record for an inaugural listen. I generally try to approach each album I listen to, especially the ones I hope to review, with an open mind. And is “skeptical” even a word that makes any measure of sense when used in relation to a band that, until this week, I didn’t even know existed? The answer to that question, I think, is “no,” but such is the power of a notable “recommended if you like...” section. In my eyes, there is no greater mixed bag in the music promotion business (or in the music criticism circuit, for that matter) than the expectation that up-and-coming bands provide a list of artists they think they sound like. On one hand, an eye-catching RIYL, full of artists I like or love, almost guarantees that I am going to give a promo a listen. On the other hand, that same RIYL also creates expectations where, two seconds ago, none existed. And elevated expectations are fucking dangerous, the most dangerous obstacles an artist can face in trying to build or maintain a fanbase.
So when I opened the email containing Night and saw that Beijing were comparing themselves to a list of familiar and oft-beloved artists—including but not limited to: the Smashing Pumpkins, the Silversun Pickups, Jeff Buckley, and Sunny Day Real Estate—I was ready to pay attention. It was the band name sandwiched in between the others, however, that raised a red flag: Jimmy Eat World. In my time as a music reviewer, I think I’ve seen Jimmy Eat World as part of the RIYL section more than any other artist. Maybe that’s just one of the curses of writing about music in this scene. After all, Jimmy are a prototype: an image of a successful emo/alternative band who wrote a bunch of records that resonated with people on a deeply personal level, but still managed to cross over into the mainstream. What alt-rock band worth their salt wouldn’t want to be compared to Jimmy Eat World? The problem is that very few bands are able to make good on that comparison. Something about Jimmy’s epic, sprawling sound, or perhaps about their honest, emotional songcraft, is much more difficult to reproduce than it sounds like it would be on record, and most bands that use the JEW comparison end up coming across as hollow imitations a much more talented group. I bring this all up here, though, because I believe Beijing is one of the few bands I’ve heard where the comparison actually kind of makes a bit of sense.
Make no mistake, Night doesn’t really sound like a Jimmy Eat World album. It’s markedly dirtier than anything JEW has released since Static Prevails, for one thing, and the songwriters in Beijing don’t have the knack for soaring, unforgettable hooks that Jim Adkins does. Hell, frontman Eric Thornberg doesn’t sound anything like Adkins. As far as Thornberg’s vocals are concerned, the comparison to the Silversun Pickups is far more apt, though I would personally say he’s closer to Tym, formerly the frontman of the band Daytrader. But all discrepancies aside, Night still feels like a Jimmy Eat World record, and I guess that’s what really counts. The band credits the similarity to their use of spacey, ringing guitar sounds, but I think it’s more than that. At its best moments, Night sounds like a ragged, torn up, disassembled version of Jimmy Eat World’s 2004 masterpiece, Futures. There’s the same wistful, autumnal feel to these songs, from the claustrophobic commencement of “Acrobat” to the gorgeous acoustic-led torch song that is “Let Down.” And just like Futures found a home on brisk fall evenings, this record feels destined for late night drives later this year, when the temperature starts to drop and the days get shorter. Hell there’s even an epic, 7+ minute finale, a chilling sonic crescendo called “Seasons” that ranks among the finest moments I’ve heard in music all year, even if it is just a shameless imitation of “23.”
If I have one regret about Night, it’s that Beijing doesn’t have the resources to take these songs where they deserve to go. The propulsive hook on “Into the Rain” could have hit the radio airwaves 12 or 15 years ago, but doesn’t have a prayer of doing so now, especially with the band’s limited public image; same goes for “Let Down,” which sounds like a scuzzy, dirtied-up version of a heyday Goo Goo Dolls ballad; and “Open Arms” is borderline anthemic, from its slow-burning opening to the expanding and enveloping walls of guitar sounds that flit and burst through the texture. Thornberg’s reverb-drenched vocals rise and fall through a symphony of distorted instrumentation, against a canvas of feedback, and while the song never reaches the fist-pumping chorus it deserves (the centerpiece position goes instead to a rousing guitar solo), it’s still a glorious moment.
Even better is “Triggers,” a towering ballad tucked comfortably into the penultimate position. When the song opens up and Thornberg really starts wailing, it sounds like a lost U2 cut, or maybe like one of the many skyscraping anthems from 30 Second to War’s This is War. Either way, the song is huge, and while these guys might just be a quartet of Connecticut start-ups at this point, their sound yearns for an arena to fill. Whether or not it will ever actually get the chance to fill one is questionable at best: after all, how many superstar alternative rock bands has this generation spawned? But for now, Beijing are lovable underdogs and Night is a brilliant musical surprise in a year already characterized by an embarrassment of riches. I just hope the record finds the audience it deserves.