Heavens - Patent Pending
Record Label: Epitaph Records
Release Date: 9/12/06
Why must every band that forgoes a drum kit in favor of programmed looping inevitably be compared to the Postal Service?
Critics continue to milk the success of the duo’s debut, Give Up, by likening it to anything with similar instrumentation. In doing this, they shamelessly ignore the things that make the band special.
The drum machines, the overdubbed vocals, the programmed synths and strings – these things do not define the Postal Service. They can be found on any mainstream pop album recorded in the past 20 years. No, the true selling point of the Postal Service is its imaginative combination of Ben Gibbard’s melodic rock and Jimmy Tamborello’s straight-up techno.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, this sound has never been duplicated. Sure, a few artists have come close enough to warrant comparison. There have just been far too many inaccurate analogies to ignore.
Heavens is the latest victim of this trend. Nearly every review written on its debut, Patent Pending, has mentioned the Postal Service in some capacity. Yes, the band, like the Postal Service, is a collaborative side-project featuring two respected musicians (in this case, Josiah Steinbrick and Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba). Yes, both make prominent use of drum programming and synthesized instruments. But that’s it. The comparisons end there.
Heavens’ apparent influences are much darker – post-punk pioneers Joy Division, 80s new-wavers Depeche Mode, and, of course, Skiba’s own Alkaline Trio.
The album’s first tracks – “Gardens” and “Counting” – contain the most obvious new-wave references. In fact, both feature chord progressions that sound as if they were stolen directly from Depeche Mode.
Those songs, however, are the biggest stretches Skiba seems willing to make. The rest of the album falls neatly into place with the rest of his recorded material. His singular writing style – characterized by short, morbid, lyrical couplets – is present on nearly every track on Patent Pending.
Anyone familiar with Skiba’s work with the Alkaline Trio has already heard everything he has to offer lyrically. So, for example, when he tells us “I’ll announce the grand prize: arterial spray that paints the carpet before your eyes,” we know that he’s not saying anything new, but rather recalling something he’s said before, many times.
Yet, somehow, he never ceases to entertain.
The title track, for instance, lifts a riff directly from the Alkaline Trio’s “Queen of Pain.” But with Steinbrick’s contribution, it ends up sounding like a Franz Ferdinand cover a Trio b-side – nothing new, but different enough to keep us intrigued.
In the end, two moments truly stand out in the dark cloud that is Patent Pending. One comes in “Dead End Girl.” About halfway through, Skiba shuts up and lets the instruments speak for him, giving way to a beautiful three-minute guitar feature that plays like Coldplay’s “Fix You” with edge.
The other is the end of the album’s finale, “Leave.” Skiba repeats the chorus, “Don’t leave just yet/Quiet on the set/Let’s give this one more go.” We wearily obey, tottering on the edge of sheer boredom. Then, all of a sudden, the strings kick in. At first they’re just background accompaniment, but their calculated swells quickly jump into the foreground – and we’re confused. How did this dark song become so cheesy?
This question epitomizes the album’s failings. Skiba and Steinbrick seem to have thrown this together randomly, without a clear focus or objective. They weren’t sure if they wanted to spruce up a collection of rejected Alkaline Trio tracks or compose something entirely new.
Maybe next time they will figure that out before they record, and something truly special will result.
For now, we can deal with this; at least until we get sick of it in a couple months.