Straylight Run- The Needles, the Space
John Nolan's got quite a catalog going. First, he was a member of a groundbreaking post-hardcore release in Taking Back Sunday's Tell All Your Friends, then followed that with a slick piano laden debut under the Straylight Run moniker, then this: the indie heavy, Mates of State lifting sophomore effort The Needles, the Space. Nolan has somehow spanned three different genres, making three albums that, while possessing flaws, all have an indescribable quality that begs and pleads for repeated listening. This quality is really the only thing tying the three together (oh, and that whole nagging guy named Adam), but it's a quality that demonstrates Nolan's songwriting brilliance and knack for creating songs (in any genre) that get stuck in your head, and in your mix cds.
TNTS is a departure from the languid beauty of Straylight's self-titled debut, and the Nolans (John and his sister Michelle), Will Noon, and Shaun Cooper don't do anything to ease the listener into their newfound indie-pop sound. "The Words We Say" and Michelle's intro "The Miracle That Never Came" are fitting ear tinglers; they peak the listeners interest, and they are solid beginners. "Words" is one of the weaker tracks on the record however, as it really doesn't move anywhere. The song spends too much time plodding around in half-time, instead of taking a time change to the end that would have transitioned better into "Miracle," which is one of Michelle's better tracks. She is, in some ways, a more mature lyricist and vocalist than her brother for one major reasons: she crafts a detached story arc better than John. John's strength lies in self-effacing, self-confronting, and sometimes America-confronting ("Who Will Save Us Now?") songs.
Michelle, who's track on SR's first album were the two weakest songs on the record, has grown leaps and bounds in songwriting ability. Her voice now bounces off the acoustics of the record like John's never really does. Think of her as a less corrected and polished Greta Salpeter. This is not to say John is a bad singer, its just he tends to dwell in either his low register (beginning of "Take it to Manhattan") or his yelping howl (the end of "Take it to Manhattan").
But John is the better songwriter. He has grown from his past two records, and has managed to add different instruments (glockenspiel, marching drums, trumpets, accordians, etc.) without betraying his simple acoutic guitar melody. The four best songs on the album are his, because they walk the line between genre-jumping and doing what has already been done. "We'll Never Leave Again" and the picture perfect "The First of This Century" heavily take from Straylight's debut, specifically "Another Word for Desperate" and "Sympathy for the Martyr." Speaking of martyrs, that pesky Adam Lazarra demon is apparently still pestering John. "Take it to Manhattan" is lyrically a carry over from "A Slow Descent," attacking Lazarra for his actions with Taking Back Sunday after Nolan's departure. "Manhattan" is best rock song, as it ends in a sing-song gang vocal end, marching drums banging. The other of John's gems is "Buttoned Down," the acoustic song on the album. It disarms the strongest of hearts, letting the listener into a subconscious that they might not have wanted to enter, but are knee deep in by song's end.
Musically, Straylight find themselves referencing most of the things from their listening catalogue. Mates of State, Brand New's acoustic tracks (listen to "Buttoned Down"), and Ben Folds all flood the release sonically. The indie pop is surprisingly developed for a band that, three years ago, was doing piano-heavy lamentable songs. Vocal interplay is one of the albums strengths, but you'd expect that; the Nolan's voices mold into each other, and they've figured out how to have the piano be a stepping stool to that goal. The drums somtimes overpower, a mark of an album that is being stripped of the polishing most major labels require. SR have taken the Gatsbys American Dream approach, and it works. The only instrument that suffers is bass. Cooper is frequently overpowered by Noon's dancing kick drum, and sometimes he just completely disappears from tracks.
Needles will undoubtedly split SR's fan base; one faction supporting the bands progression, the other left out in the cold waiting for a follow-up to the first album. Regardless of this split, any listener must recognize Straylight's talent for jumping into a genre and sounding like they've been there for years. And while the end of album hints at Straylight's fade into past, it is comforting to know that John Nolan, amid his unique catalog, has made the record that is largely the culmination of his first two, and the records he listens to now. Michelle and John should be proud of themselves; their songs are sometimes pop-perfect, sometimes self-confronting, and rarely off the mark. The task now facing Straylight is to create a follow-up to Needles that doesn't abandon the genre that they seem to fit the best into. But hey, knowing John's past, we could be in for anything-- maybe rap? Now that would be a real 'first of this century.'
RIYL: The Beatles, Mates of State, Greta Salpeter, sounding happy when you're sad, xylophones.