A swing and a miss
For some reason or another, there seems to be a lot of genre-mashing going on within the world of pop music; “Old Town Road” is a prime example of this. For most artists, it’s likely a subconscious effort; we’re about to close the chapter on the ’10s, so there’s this expectation that our cultural aesthetic is going to be radically redefined within the next few years. From the Beatles to Nirvana, artists who find their fame at the beginning of a new decade tend to mold the shape of their respective genres for the remainder of that era, and everyone wants to be considered the progenitor of this elusive new sound. However, coming up with something unique and innovative is time-consuming and risky; in this fast-paced world of marketing and social media, it’s much more practical to smash some existing genres together, throw it at the wall and hope something sticks. At least, that seems to be Judah & the Lion’s modus operandi, seeing as how they titled their previous album Folk Hop’ N’ Roll. The best way to describe their newest album, Pep Talks, would be if Mumford & Sons were thrown into a blender with Twenty-One Pilots, but the blender was set to the lowest setting, so instead of a seamless puree, we get an awkward chunky mixture of different genres; it just doesn’t go down well.
The album kicks things off with a massively overblown intro; a sign of things to come. A backdrop of synth-generated string arrangements suddenly evolves into a cacophony of sport noises. It’s centered around a melody (it’s constructed like one of those stadium sing-along deals) comprised of densely layered vocals, complete with horns, a drumline and everything else one would expect to hear at a high school basketball game. This whole mess winds down with a banjo-driven outro because they’re trying to push this “folk hop ‘n’ roll” shtick.
Track five, “pictures,” featuring acclaimed country singer Kacey Musgraves, is so forgettable that it’s almost not worth mentioning. One would think that they would have tried harder to make the song a little more compelling, especially considering Musgraves’ name recognition. The track is a sedated piano ballad with no distinguishing characteristic (beyond the banjo, of course). By their admission, this is “just another sad song/ of a love gone wrong.” This song might have been a minor hit on adult contemporary radio ten-to-fifteen years ago, and it’s certainly not the worst song on this album. That honor goes to track eight, “Don’t Mess With My Mama.” This one might be the most perplexing track on the album. The thing opens with an upbeat drumline, and electronic elements are gradually added to it. It’s all pretty conventional, but everything goes off the rails once the chorus hits; out of absolutely nowhere comes this vague dubstep trap-tinged drop thing, and it completely murders the momentum that was built during the verses.
The final leg of this album is just brutal. They drop the genre mangling which has so far defined this album and opt for a more straight-forward pop-punk approach (with banjos, of course!) The second to last track, “Sportz,” is clearly engineered to be played at (where else) sporting arenas; they played the second intermission at the NHL’s Winter Classic earlier this year, and now they are apparently attempting to corner the coveted jock jam market. Musically, nothing is exciting or especially off-putting, but lyrically, oh boy. This excerpt from the chorus speaks for itself, “my head is shaped like a basketball/ and I’m going for the rebound/ sports/ balls /sports /balls /we love sports”
This is a very bizarre record, to say the least. There are times where it becomes obvious that Pep Talks is trying desperately to propel itself to anthemic status, but the songs are so deeply personal that they become unrelatable to anyone who isn’t Judah. Choosing Americana to act as an anchor for musical excursions was a poor choice, as the relentless banjo and mandolin wear out their novelty about five songs in. It’s anyone’s guess as to what new sounds await us in the coming decade, but this definitely ain’t it.