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Friends In America - What It Is To Be Album Cover
Author's Rating
Vocals 8.5
Musicianship 8.5
Lyrics 8.5
Production 8.5
Creativity 8.5
Lasting Value 8.5
Reviewer Tilt 8.5
Final Verdict: 85%
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Friends In America - What It Is To Be

Reviewed by: Craig Manning (09/18/13)
Friends In America - What It Is To Be
Release Date: June 26, 2013
Record Label: Self-Released


The greatest thing about the new record from Glasgow-based indie rock act, Friends in America, is that it immediately sounds familiar. Some listeners consistently look for music that reinvents the wheel; I look for music with heart, passion, and ties to the bands and records that I already love, and the debut album from Friends in America—it’s called What It Is To Be, in case you want to go pick it up on the band’s Bandcamp page—does all of those things in seemingly effortless fashion. In reality, I don’t think it was effortless—the band assembled this record over the course of two painstakingly stressful years in the lead guitarist’s bedroom—but the perfectionism paid off. These songs sound remarkably lush, more fully fleshed out than many efforts from major label bands with infinitely more resources under their belts, and if time is what it took for What It Is To Be to come to fruition, then I’m glad the band stuck it out and made a record the way they really wanted it to sound.

Over the course of seven songs and 27 minutes (is it an EP or an LP?), Friends in America flit back and forth between emo-charged dream pop (album highlight “Gaffe,” whose bursting harmonies recall moments of “Goodbye Sky Harbor” from Jimmy Eat World’s seminal 1999 LP, Clarity), sobering and simple indie pop (the gorgeous and heart-rending penultimate track, “I’m No Captain”), and rousing arena rock (the kinetic energy of “Quietly Quietly,” which channels some of the hunger of U2’s early albums into the record’s most propulsive cut, or the explosive conclusion to “You’re,” which sounds both blisteringly cathartic and wordlessly woeful).

Through it all, vocalist/guitarist Matt Rawlings and guitarist Hamish Black join together as stalwarts of melody and emotion, while drummer Liam Chapman and former bassist Fraser Stewart give the album its heartbeat. Chapman’s subtle percussion on “I’m No Captain” is particularly effective, driving the song through its gentle interchanges between vocal sections and splendidly pretty guitar breaks. The song, which Rawlings wrote about a period in his life spent working a distasteful job, is a wonderful exercise in downplayed resignation. We’ve all been there before, stuck in shitty holding patterns at work or school and trying not to let them color the way we live the rest of our lives. “I’m No Captain” captures that situation perfectly, of knowing we can’t break down or go off the rails, knowing that there are more important things in the world than what we do to pay the rent, but also feeling like there’s an injustice to where life has put us. When Rawlings delivers the song’s key line (“Yeah, I love my life, but I won’t keep it in a cage”), it blows the whole thing apart. It’s the triumph of coming home after a bad day and the dread of knowing the next day is going to be exactly the same thing, and its simultaneously the best and worst feeling in the world. Eventually, that kind of lifestyle takes a toll, and “I’m No Captain” is the sound of the screws coming loose.

What It Is To Be is a record full of revelations like “I’m No Captain,” songs that sound utterly splendid during a distracted listen, but which grow immeasurably in force as the lyrics begin to take root. “You’re” is a perfect example, a balladic track that finds balance somewhere between the sound of the last Frightened Rabbit record and U2’s Unforgettable Fire. It’s a love song and a break-up song rolled into one, and it works almost solely thanks to a devastating piece of lyrical parallelism. “You poured all your soul into me, left your toothbrush right next to my sink/And from that moment forward I knew I might love you too much,” Rawlings croons in the song’s infant moments, a light and naive portrait of the dizzying effects of young love. When the song reaches it’s dividing line midway through—with a harsh guitar scratch and the word “flicker”—the line gets twisted and turned around to reflect loneliness and heartbreak: “I poured myself into a drink, caught your specter there haunting my porch/Pleading ‘you’re better than this.’” Sure, it’s far from revolutionary to write about girls or heartbreak, but “You’re” boasts a viscerally yearning feel and some nicely-executed poetry, and once the song bursts into its arena-sized finale, the emotions are flying so hard and fast that even love-song cynics will swoon.

Too often, I hear people my age deploring the state of music today and pining for some bygone era of greatness. Personally, I’ve felt for a long time that the time we are living in right now is the best time ever to be a music fan, and it’s because bands like Friends in America can make and distribute albums that sound this good that I think that. I shake my head at the state of pop music radio as much as anyone else, but the sheer number of musical options that listeners have today is nothing short of remarkable, and the fact that beautiful and honest labor-of-love projects like What It Is To Be exist is a reminder of what a talented and driven band can do with a few instruments and a laptop computer. 15 years ago, the do-it-yourself aesthetic of this record would not have been possible; now, it’s becoming the norm for rock music. Since it took Friends in America two years to get these seven songs just right, who knows when we will hear something new from them again. All I know is that, if their next batch of songs sound as good as “I’m No Captain,” “You’re,” or any of the other wonderful works on display here, then I’ll be there to listen when they finally arrive.

8.5/10

Additional InformationFriends In America Is...
Matthew Rawlings: Vocals, guitar
Hamish Black: Guitar
Liam Chapman: Drums
Scott Duffy/Fraser Stewart: Bass

Track Listing:
1. What It Is To Be
2. Gaffe
3. You're
4. Quietly Quietly
5. Brother
6. I'm No Captain
7. Are You Alright?

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Displaying posts 1 - 9 of 9.
06:25 AM on 09/19/13
#2
georgedcc
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Excellent review Craig. You really encapsulate exactly what's so excellent and life-affirming about this record. A few months ago I worked a one off shift in a factory where I just stuck tags on plastic purses for eight hours. It was mind-numbing and depressing. On the way home I listened to this album while I was sitting waiting for my train, feeling generally shitty. I was reading the lyrics on my iPod and it absolutely floored me, hit my like a ton of bricks and was absolutely perfect for my mood. These imagery of the lyrics is absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking and utterly, completely relatable. Matthew's lyrics remind me of a fantastic mixture of Matt Berninger and Scott Hutchison.

If Frightened Rabbit didn't completely knock it out of the park with their latest album, this would be my AOTY.
07:33 AM on 09/19/13
#3
Craig Manning
Down in Jungleland
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Excellent review Craig. You really encapsulate exactly what's so excellent and life-affirming about this record. A few months ago I worked a one off shift in a factory where I just stuck tags on plastic purses for eight hours. It was mind-numbing and depressing. On the way home I listened to this album while I was sitting waiting for my train, feeling generally shitty. I was reading the lyrics on my iPod and it absolutely floored me, hit my like a ton of bricks and was absolutely perfect for my mood. These imagery of the lyrics is absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking and utterly, completely relatable. Matthew's lyrics remind me of a fantastic mixture of Matt Berninger and Scott Hutchison.

If Frightened Rabbit didn't completely knock it out of the park with their latest album, this would be my AOTY.
Man, I love stories like that. So great when music hits us at the exact right moment. I really liked this record from the start, but it was when I read along with the lyrics that it ascended into "love" territory. Especially "I'm No Captain."

I'm not sure whether to put this on my EP or LP list, but it will definitely be on there. And I know that's high praise from you, considering how much you adore that Frightened Rabbit album.
12:27 PM on 09/19/13
#4
Zac Djamoos
fantasizing the sight of manhattan
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This is a great review and this is a great album.
05:47 PM on 09/19/13
#5
barkjon
the sunspots in your eyes
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Such a brilliant album.
01:33 PM on 09/20/13
#6
theintention
It's like Meow-Schwitz in here.
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That cover art alone makes me want to listen to this album.
08:35 AM on 09/21/13
#7
Zac Djamoos
fantasizing the sight of manhattan
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That cover art alone makes me want to listen to this album.

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