This is an open letter to Yellowcard, a band whose album Ocean Avenue I consider one of my favorite “summer albums,” and who hail from Jacksonville, in my adopted home state of Florida. I will welcome any attempt by the band to contact me regarding this review/open letter, and I am looking forward to reading fans’ thoughts.
So you’ve finally gotten over the MTV-spurred major-label buzz from Ocean Avenue and the unceremonious banishment of guitarist and founding member Ben Harper (who you have replaced by former Staring Back guitarist Ryan Mendez) in time to build on that promising hype you generated back in 2003. The hype is there, with your lead single hitting the airwaves only about half a million times a day. With electrically charged guitar riffs, the title track is fun to listen to the first few times. But Ryan, your voice needs a little bit more “oomph.” I believe that as a band, you have managed to earn early “worst of ’06” honors for your abysmally awful “Down On My Head,” which stinks up the third spot on the CD. Did you just take cheesy emo lyrics, put them on repeat, and toss in a little bit of one-dimensional harmonizing for good measure to make sure the song is dead as a doornail? I’m of course going to say this and you’ll pick it as the next single, catapulting this steaming pile of dung into trendy oblivion. After your listeners work their way through that drag of a song (or just press “skip forward”), I have to give you props for the first solid track on Lights and Sounds. “Sure Thing Falling” is hard charging and overwhelmingly hooky, which plays to its advantage. I enjoy the brief interlude from violinist extraordinaire Sean Mackin late in the song as well, which adds some depth to this catchy piece of music. Characterized by a throaty bass line and simple yet well-written guitar riffs, “Sure Thing Falling” will hits your listeners hardest with the infectious lyrics, which are probably the best on the album. One for two isn’t bad.
Despite a truly heartwarming concept, I cannot recommend “Two Weeks from Twenty” to your fans, guys. A song that you wrote about the war in Iraq, which ultimately laments the pointlessness of it all, this one should have been a bona fide slam-dunk. Subtly catchy, the problem with this song lies in the vocals. Ryan, your voice—what in god’s name happened to it? The one thing that really begins to grate on the listener is the lack of the passion that should go into a song like this. If you feel strongly enough to write a song like this, it deserves an honest treatment. That said, the horns and instrumental bridges are quite superb to listen to, but “Two Weeks From Twenty” would be a definitively strong track on this album if the vocals were done better.
“Waiting Game” features an extravagant string arrangement to accompany the upbeat song, and really shows off Sean Mackin’s talent. To think that he did all of the strings himself is quite amazing and shows a focus that maybe the rest of the band could take a page or two from. While the orchestral parts are great, I’m still worried about the quality of the vocals on “Waiting Game.” Ryan, your voice takes me back to fourth grade music class. Back when the teacher would tell all of the students to just sing the songs in normal pitch because she knew we couldn’t hit the notes, we’d pretty much just focus on learning the words. Far too often on Lights and Sounds do I get these flashbacks. Where’s the emotion? Where’s the edgy pop-punk we have come to know and love from Yellowcard? We see flashes of the “old” band on “Rough Landing, Holly,” but it’s not nearly widespread enough for my liking (although the song is possibly the best one on the new album).
How can this one Yellowcard fan summarize your new effort, Lights and Sounds? You seem to have dropped the punk tag from your repertoire, which might come back to bite you in the butt later in your career. That glossy pop vibe is well and good, but when the singles don’t catch on with Top 40 radio, this album will have a tough time clawing its way up the sales chart on musical talent alone. With lush string arrangements out of Sean Mackin instead of rugged violin hooks, you have have altered the traditional Yellowcard sound significantly, which I think will be key (pardon the pun) to your future sound. Ryan Key comes up a bit stale in too many places for this album to be worth owning, though. The songwriting just could be so much better. You had many of the right ideas with the instruments, but the lyrics feel flat, as do the vocals. As a fan, I find myself longing for the comforting crooning of Ocean Avenue instead of this poorly mixed, lackluster CD. I won’t stop enjoying your music, but this album was a severe letdown for me. I end this letter with a statement toward the future. Not every great band can write solely number-one hits throughout a lengthy career; sometimes to grow musically, a letdown album is required, and it usually precedes a groundbreaking CD. While Lights and Sounds is not the Clarity or Deja Entendu that you were aiming for, perhaps it will allow you to completely blow us away with your next release. That’s what I really want to know—are you a great band?