Manchester Orchestra | Simple Math (Columbia Records)

My notes from initial listens were generally favorable; however, when I listened to it again I found it generally annoying.

When I first heard Simple Math, I didn’t know anything about the band or their music. Because the band is called Manchester Orchestra, I had assumed that I was in for some lush rock instrumentation from across the pond. The wistful opening track, “Deer,” lends itself to that perception, with its slow burn build to celebration and a self-effacing, angsty charm reminding me of Scottish folk rockers, Frightened Rabbit.

Unfortunately, in the tracks that follow the album veers from simplicity into over-complexity. The first half of the album rocks out with an arena-esque enthusiasm echoing post grunge acts from the mid-’90s such as Material Issue and Matthew Sweet (in a good way) or Sponge and Collective Soul (in a bad way). The second half of the album moves from that musical pocket to the same country as Death Cab for Cutie with melodic lyrical lines that use words like “misconceive,” “apathetic,” and “belligerently” over pleasant guitar and piano riffs that occasionally blow up into rockers. These songs worked better for me.

After several listens, I went to the Internet for a little context. Turns out, this is the third album from a bunch of suburban kids from Atlanta who were influenced by Manchester bands like Joy Division, the Smiths, and the Stone Roses. Andy Hull, the brains behind this band, claims to have crafted a concept album that explores his dissatisfaction with himself and the world. I have infinitely more respect for the effort and ambition than I do with the actual end product.

A modern rock album with songs about coming to terms with being a loveable asshole while drawing parallels to the world in general sounds less like a concept and more like the defining songwriting style of indie rock. On the other hand, Simple Math does not sound like a collection of singles; it has the flow of a single work. When the songs do succeed, it is within the context of the album.        

I have had this album for about a month now, and my notes from initial listens were generally favorable. However, when I listened to it again just before writing this, I found it generally annoying. For example, the song “Virgin,” the album’s midpoint, had me smiling and rocking out when I first heard it. But I put it on a mix CD recently, and alongside bands like My Morning Jacket, the Decemberists, and Arcade Fire, it sounded hollow and overproduced with its children’s choir and hard rocking guitars.  

Because the band includes the liberal use of a string section and choir on this album, I am interested to see what they can do live. I hope that the use of dramatic crescendos and passionately shouted choruses fulfills the potential showcased here. Until I get that opportunity to see them, I’m probably going to be forgetting about them. C | Tony Van Zeyl



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