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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