Plumbiferous Media

What Lasts - These United States

Jul 25th 2010
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What Lasts - These United StatesThese United States
What Lasts
Score: 42

These Unit­ed States returned last Tues­day with a new album, What Lasts. Right on the 35 minute line between EP and LP, What Lasts is a rel­a­tive­ly short intro­duc­tion to the new devel­op­ments These Unit­ed States has made to their sound since their last album. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, its short­ness may actu­al­ly be a boon to the band, as the band real­ly does­n’t sound very good on What Lasts.

Front­man Jesse Elliott pro­vides vocals for yet anoth­er These Unit­ed States album, singing with his famil­iar alt-coun­try influ­enced tones. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, while on the States’ last album (2009’s Every­thing Touch­es Every­thing) Elliot­t’s voice gen­er­al­ly worked quite well - occa­sion­al clash­ing moments aside - What Lasts seems to dis­play the exact oppo­site approach. Elliot­t’s stronger tones do appear from time to time, but the major­i­ty of the album is tak­en up by the half-groan­ing, half-spit­ting-at-the micro­phone tone his voice seems to be reach­ing towards on tracks like open­er “Nobody Can Tell.”

And Elliott seems to have tak­en the same approach to What Lasts’ lyrics. While These Unit­ed States’ ear­li­er work tend­ed to bal­ance, as lyrics go, the gen­uine­ly inter­est­ing and the mild­ly gener­ic, What Lasts has replaced inter­est­ing with inane. The album opens with the entire­ly non­sen­si­cal stan­za: “I was recov­ered by two strangers / And a motor / Over­flow­ing mod­ern man from the jaws of the wild waters / Noth­ing yet metaphor­ic / Sym­bol­ic or clut­tered / Just my life on their one hand / And my death on their order / Sky drowned in its blue All those sail­boats too per­fect / Paint­ed just to be washed / As I spun from their orbit.” The album fluc­tu­ates between this sort of con­fu­sion and rep­e­ti­tion of gener­ic lines, with occa­sion­al well-writ­ten lines that would have fit well on the States’ ear­li­er albums.

As unlike­ly as it may seem, giv­en the thought­less­ly writ­ten lyrics, What Lasts has extreme­ly care­ful­ly con­struct­ed instru­men­tals. These Unit­ed States uses as many gui­tar-gen­er­at­ed sounds as pos­si­ble, along with the full slew of addi­tion­al instru­men­ta­tion to cre­ate a rich­ly pop­u­lat­ed and beau­ti­ful­ly record­ed sound. The instru­men­tals are sur­pris­ing­ly deep and intri­cate, and are the best ele­ment on the album by a long shot, but the instru­men­tals’ qual­i­ty does not gen­er­al­ly show through to the over­all sound, that extreme lev­el of detail often becom­ing appar­ent only under intense scrutiny.

With some excep­tions, includ­ing the intense “One You Believe” and the rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple, but nonethe­less engag­ing “Life&Death She&I,” the end result of all that work devis­ing and record­ing the instru­men­tals is often a fair­ly dull, gener­ic fun­da­men­tal sound. The loud­er, more active tracks fare bet­ter in gen­er­al, but that’s more a tem­po­rary fix than any­thing. On top of all that - or real­ly dug in among it - are the creak­ing, groan­ing vocals of Elliot­t’s. All togeth­er, as care­ful­ly craft­ed and record­ed as the music is, one still, more often than not, does­n’t real­ly care.

What Lasts is not an improve­ment for These Unit­ed States. It’s a change, but and not one in the right direc­tion. What Lasts takes all of the worst ele­ments of the States’ ear­li­er albums, with only pinch­es of the best, and com­bines them into an album that is under­stand­ably weak. When the band returns to the sound of their ear­li­er albums, it sounds as good as it did then. The prob­lem, then, is that they don’t seem inclined to do so.

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