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The Boxer Rebellion – Union

The Boxer Rebellion - Union

Inertia, 2009

For an art form that’s only been around a hundred some years, recorded music has a hell of a time topping itself. The basically criteria-less genre of “alternative rock” is filled with bands trying desperately not to retread old territory, which is kind of weird, given that this so-called “old territory” dates back mostly to the ’80s (with the advent of college rock), if not the ’90s (the advent of Pearl Jam).

Londoners The Boxer Rebellion are next in the line of up-and-comers trying to stand out as something more than just one of those bands. They do have one thing going for them: a great name. Unfortunately, they navigate that spacey, arena-rock territory that hasn’t been novel since U2, which, despite modern bands’ best efforts, often feels highly been-there-done-that. Big guitars, pounding drums, soaring vocals — the only element here that could be called original is the prominence of singer Nathan Nicholson’s falsetto. But Radiohead has been doing that for more than a decade…and a lot more effectively.

Union suffers from a lack of purpose. It’s big, it’s reverby – but what for? When the sound is asking this much, the lyrics have to offer something. People didn’t listen to Arcade Fire just because they sounded like they had something to say; they listened because they heard “We’re just a million little gods causing rain storms/Turning every good thing to dust,” and this meant something to them.

“Forces/Dark forces/Are everywhere,” Nicholson sings ad nauseum on “Forces.” All right. So what? I need some specificity, some compelling turn of phrase, something to make me care. Come on, guys, don’t just sing at me. Make me sing along! Many of the other tracks fail for this reason: “Move On,” “Spitting Fire,” “Semi-automatic.” The ingredients of something beautiful are there — earnestness, that raw fuzz in the distortion, a purposeful beat. But it’s missing that lyrical and melodic something that makes you grin like an idiot, turn up the volume, repeat and repeat.

There are flickers of greatness: single “Evacuate” is catchy and compelling. The guitars pulse like sirens, Nicholson’s voice is raw to the point of beauty, and murmured background vocals create a fantastically ghostly atmosphere. Raw, loud, passionate, this is an anthem I can sing along to. “Soviets,” too, stands high above its peers. “I’m sorry” may be one of the oldest choruses in the book, but Nicholson’s aching voice gives it new life. These songs make me wonder why Nicholson spends so much of the album in falsetto, his power is greater in his normal range. But everything great feels like a beautiful accident amidst a lot of aimlessness. The Boxer Rebellion could be the next Radiohead — or at least the next Coldplay — but not without a lot of work.

I’ll close with what may be Webcuts’ nerdiest reference to date: On “Once More With Feeling,” the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, having been brought back from the dead only to face a demon who makes everyone sing, an ennui-engulfed Buffy sings, “Don’t give me songs/Give me something to sing about.” The Boxer Rebellion’s got the former. Now let’s hear the latter.

By | 2009-09-16T14:40:12+01:00 August 17th, 2009|Categories: Album Reviews|Tags: , , , , , , , , |2 Comments

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  1. Avatar
    charlotte September 29, 2009 at 7:12 am

    i’m sorry – but 3 out of 10 stars?
    lilting vocals, catchy beats, some immence musicianship (seriously, the drums on the album could restart a dead heart) and beautiful lyrics!
    (not that i agree with you) but how can any comparison to radiohead / coldplay / u2 be a bad thing?
    are you saying that any band who sound like previously very succesful artists can’t be successful for that very reason?

    i haven’t read any other reviews you have written, and i dont think i will bother – because after this work of fantasy (or is it fiction?!) – i’m not sure i could take any of them seriously!

    i suggest you go and see tbr live, and take a fresh pair of ears, and an apology for the band with you!!

  2. Avatar
    Nathan Goldman October 10, 2009 at 6:27 am

    I’m with you on the vocals (for which I think “lifting” is a fair description, though that didn’t do as much for me as it does for you) and the drums (which, as you say, are massive and alive in a very good way), but on the lyrics I must disagree. I’m glad you liked them! Seriously, I’d rather you love the band than agree with me, both for your benefit and The Boxer Rebellion’s. But for me, they fell flat – uninteresting, not compelling, didn’t stay with me.

    I didn’t mean to imply that any band that takes tricks from Radiohead, Coldplay, U2, or any other band (succesful or not) is bad. My point was that when I listened to this record, all I really noticed were echoes of these bands. There was little I noticed – good or bad – that seemed to belong to this band.

    That’s not to say originality is required for quality, or that the two are necessarily related. In the end what makes music good is nothing other than that it happens to sound good to a particular person. It’s totally subjective. As an album reviewer, I listen to the album, think about if I love it, like it, hate it, or am totally neutral, and then I do my best to justify that view in terms that might help others get a feel for whether they’ll like it or not, based not just on my rating, but also on my reasoning. This is all sort of futile, because someone could read my review, intellectually agree with all my points, and love the record. I’m doing the best I can to think about how I feel and try to explain why. But of course, the “why” is always the same – I liked it because it sounded good, I didn’t like it because it sounded bad, or it didn’t make much of a difference to me. But reviews like that don’t make for interesting reading or discussion.

    What it boils down to is this: Am I continuing to listen to this album because I am going to review it, or because I am enjoying it? And will I continue to listen when the review is done?

    For this album, I was listening to write the review, and except for “Evacuate” and “Soviets” (which I really did like), I haven’t listened since.

    If the band’s ever in my area I’ll check them out, and I’ll keep an ear out for whatever they put out next. I’m glad you’re enjoying the album so much, and I hope you continue to.

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