Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Whigs - "Mission Control" (ATO Records 2008)

What do The Smithereens, INXS, The Pixies, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Guided By Voices, and The Replacements have in common? Well, they're all rock bands to begin with. And, I'd be willing to bet that you can find them all in Whigs frontman Parker Gispert's record collection.

The Whigs, hailing from Athens, GA, were responsible for quite a bit of excitement with the self-release of their debut Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip in 2005, so much so that Dave Matthews' label ATO Records picked them up in the summer of 2006 and Fat Lip received national release. This led to The Whigs almost instantly becoming darlings of the national press, being hailed as everything from "band of the day" to what amounts to the Great White Hope of 21st century Rock 'n' Roll. Fat Lip is a raw blast of underproduced, confident rock that was certainly worthy of notice and, of course, set up expecatations for the surely brilliant follow-up. This is generally dangerous ground for young bands. Otherwise the term "sophomore slump" would not be so widely employed in the context of rock music.

Mission Control boasts a more polished production (the production credit goes to Beck's behind-the-board man Rob Schnapf) than its predecessor and moves in a distinctly more radio friendly pop oriented direction. This is not necessarily a bad thing but, while Fat Lip displayed the band's influences to a nice and subtle effect, Mission Control moves them to the forefront and leaves the record sounding like a derivative mishmash of ideas pioneered by other bands.

The record kicks off with the immediately catchy "Like a Vibration", and it's no surprise its so catchy as it is instantly reminiscent of The Smithereens, a band whose singles were catchy as shit. The fact that the song has a harder, faster edge than The Smithereens seems like an effort to make sure these instantly recognizable melodies and hooks are tailored to the aesthetics of a younger audience. "Production City" follows, and it literally sounds like it could have been an out take from INXS's Listen Like Thieves, right down to a very Michael Hutchence vocal delivery. After a couple of duds placed right in the middle of the song sequence (the tradional place for filler) The Smithereens show back up on "Hot Bed", The Replacements drop in for a visit on "Need You Need You", and INXS swings back through to help out on album closer "Mission Control". Its a rare moment on the record when an obvious comparison can't be made - I'll leave it to the listener to find the many others not listed here.

This is not to say that there aren't truly inspired moments. "Right Hand on My Heart", deservedly the album's single, stands on it's own with its driving beat, droning guitar riff, addictive vocal melody, and impressively soaring chorus. The chorus on "Already Young" is far and away the hookiest and most memorable moment on the record in spite of a recognizably Foo Fighters verse construction and a completely out of place Dave Matthews sounding pre-chorus breakdown that smacks of producer interference ("What this song needs is a dynamic!").

Mission Control is a really fun listen. With the exception of the aforementioned duds ("Sleep Sunshine" and "1000 Wives") the record exhibits a youthful energy and just the right degree of rebellious snottiness - something all too lacking in so many young bands today. It's clear they had a blast making this record and don't have any problem with people knowing it. All of this combined with comfortably familiar riffs make Mission Control a really appealing piece of work.

That being said, The Whigs are in no way the Great White Hope of American Rock 'n' Roll. They're good at what they do, they're a lot of fun, and they're sure to sell a lot of records. Perhaps in time they'll even find their own voice - one in which the inspirations are paid tribute but utilized to allow them to grow as a band without sounding so unfortunately deliberately derivative. I think they have it in them, but right now they're too busy staying on proven ground to find out.

Mission Control is being enthusiastically received critically. It's already being called "Album of the Year" by many critics although it only came out in January. That this is the case is pretty strong evidence to me that mediocrity is becoming the order of the day in the music trade again. It's not The Whigs' fault, and there are plenty of bands that deserve the mediocrity label more than they do. That a record so obviously built on the backs of truly innovative bands, both defunct and active, is being hailed as something providing salvation to a stagnant genre is, to me, a cause for alarm. It speaks to a willful ignorance or fear of music that is really pushing the envelope in the arbiters of what's considered worthy of attention in the music trade. That may not necessarily be something new, but it never gets any less insidious or depressing. My heart goes out to The Whigs who, at least for the moment, have become the inadvertent poster boys for this phenomenon. It sure sounds like they really just want to rock.

Sophomore slump? I guess it depends on your point of view.

2.5 out of 4 recycled riffs

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