Many times Christian rock bands start out being religious groups only to morph into something different. Often these bands retain positive musical qualities in the much larger market of rock . 12 Stones and Skillet are but two examples. Switchfoot, and Need to Breathe define themselves as examples opposite of this trend. These two bands began their careers as secular groups and then changed into primarily Christian. On their second album, Switchfoot started writing lyrics undeniably Christian (and then only a few). This band went nowhere with the first three albums and I find fault with the songwriting. They were a tight band even back in 97 when they recorded The Legend of Chin -- but being good does not mean being great. Sometimes time, change and practice turns good to great and that is what happened to Switchfoot. It should not be ignored that another band's first album came out the same year as Switchfoot's first one -- So Much For the Afterglow by Everclear. If you listen to them both you will see some similarities. Mainly, the bass playing on Everclear's song "Everything to Everyone" compares to the bass on the first Switchfoot album, except for the occasional slow song like "Home" and "Concrete Girl" where the bass is more relaxed, blending into the laid back mood of the songs. The most obvious similarity is the vocal style. Both singers curl their phrasing underneath to a flat sounding inflection. But the music of Switchfoot on this album resembles the Red Hot Chili Peppers more than it does Everclear's bombastic style full of overwhelming guitar. "Chem 6A", the second song on the Switchfoot album is like a more relaxed Chili Pepper song. Maybe this album falls flat because it closely resembles music just a little too typical of late 90's rock. It is supposed to be a concept album. If so, it hides behind an edifice of abstraction that only creates more confusion and doubt about what the music means. They do not include Christian songs here, overt or otherwise.
This second album, New Way to be Human, has a few Christian songs on it, like the first "New Way to be Human" and "Only Hope." There are hooks on this album, too. The musicians have a more polished, flashy style. They switch back and forth from a softer sound to a harder one. The lyrics are breezy. The chorus' on songs like "Incomplete" have nice high parts the singer can sing well, but this band still has a way to go towards getting their own unique sound. "Let that be Enough" has nice lyrics but the singing and guitar could have been done by James Taylor. "Only Hope" features an orchestra behind it and turns out to be a worship and praise song. I like the flute -- reminds me of early King Crimson. Someone put too many slow songs together and that is never a good idea. Tempo changes are important. It would be the same if there were too many fast songs together. For some reason, one speed too long gets boring.
The third album, Learning to Breathe, opens up with one of the better songs of their career, "Dare You to Move." It appeared on their next album Beautiful Letdown also. This worship song really moves us into an emotional, spiritual sphere. The singing begins a long career of treating the vocals with electronic effects that improves them, making their songs all the more delightful to hear. "Dare You to Move" stands in contrast to the rest of the album, being pretty much the only spiritual song on the album, but there are references to "redemption," "grace," and other terms not really connected with a religious context in the songs. The bass player has picked up a stick bass somewhere and plays it on a couple of songs. The improvement in every aspect of the production is noticeable on this album -- mainly in the singing, but also the other instruments. The guitar player has much improved since the first album, The Legend of Chin. The band now controls the sound that will catapult them to stardom. It is all their own and they are one of the luckiest bands out there. They were under contract while they were learning to be rock stars. They were that good from the beginning -- enough to impress the right people. As far as I am concerned, they were "learning to breathe" on the first two albums. Nothing wrong with this one.
With the release of their fourth effort, Beautiful Letdown, Switchfoot delivers a strong recording by anyone's standards. We are overwhelmed by the extremes of the goodness this album presents. The second song, "This is Your Life," captivates the listener in different ways. The lyrics are inspirational and impart wisdom. Its insight is a moral reflection that need not be interpreted in a religious way, but a spiritual one. The vocals tower above the background music in a majestic manner. It is framed by keyboard's playing a single note at a time; a clumsy mechanical part strongly contrasting with the music within it. The band rocks out on the song "Ammunition" which begins timidly only to pick up suddenly and move on in high fashion. These lyrics are social commentary. This will be a new theme for the band's next several albums, including this one. Switchfoot lives in a world that is a bad place to be. They do not trust those in power, and the lyrics reveal themselves to be disillusioned by much of the world. They put their faith in something greater, though. Check out the bass on the song "The Beautiful Letdown." It is an anti-materialistic song, discontent with the state of things. Again the strength of the vocals is beyond description. "On Fire" resonates and moves us to a place far away. It too poses a real challenge for listeners who want their songs to be meaningful, but the music is of such beauty and power in this mid-tempo song that one barely notices the lack of logic in the lyrics.
Then Switchfoot releases their fifth album, Nothing is Sound. This is the highest point (so far) of their careers in my opinion. The first song, "Lonely Nation," explores the alienation of life in a world where desires command the market. The phrase "Screaming Without Lungs" reminds us of U2's line "Scream without raising your voice." It would seem the similarity is on purpose. The band plays in a tight manner and compliments the vocals well. The next song "Stars" is fun, but the third song, "Happy is a Yuppy Word," has a thing or two to say about the upper-middle class and the upper class that buys into the same paradigm. It puts down war and says "everything is meaningless." It reminds me of the William Butler Yeats line "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold" when it says "nothing is sound, nothing is right side right." This song is almost subversive if you consider how harsh the criticism is. It is strange, a bit, how bleak a Christian band can be. But their anger is justified. We live in a world that deserves to hear it once in a while. Righteous anger informs us how to cope with life's many problems. This does not call for a change in the status quo by means of anarchy or organized warfare, but rebels against the prevailing order nonetheless. Perhaps the soft criticism will have more impact since it is more tactful and much more subtle and moral than violence. Perhaps the message contains an introspective, larger statement about the human condition and no solutions are imminent, but are focused on planting seeds of doubt and raising awareness.
Another good song on Nothing is Sound is "The Blues." The songwriting for this jewel is superb for Switchfoot. One line is "Are there any left who haven't kissed the enemy?" And this is asked amid a cluster of despairing questions. The emotion is so genuine and yet severe. It is as good as it can get without being upbeat. In fact, that is going to be a stumbling block for many people. Switchfoot adopts this world-view that is part and parcel of their religious beliefs, but only one way of looking at Christ's message.
Having exhausted their excellent and depressing songs in the last album, Switchfoot switches gears with the album Oh, Gravity... This album does not have songs on it the caliber of those on Beautiful Letdown or Nothing is Sound. But Oh, Gravity is spirited and sounds more like live music. So we find in this recording that legendary Steve Lillywhite, producer of U2 etc, is the executive producer. The first song, "Oh, Gravity," rocks out. The second song, "American Dream" has a lot going for it too (I love it when they aren't playing minor chords). Some interesting internal rhyming may be found on this fast tempo song. "Awakening" has power chords and some guitar gimmicks, but the singing is great. I didn't care for the song "Dirty Second Hands." I am afraid most of the rest of the album is filler, too. The lead singer tries to make the most of the weak songs which may satisfy someone's morbid curiosity. The band has loads of talent, but what they are playing at the tail end of the album misses the mark by quite a margin in this inconsistent effort.
The latest Switchfoot album came out in 2009 and is titled Hello Hurricane. They present a very different sound for the band. The first song "Needle and Haystack Life," has an expansive, desolate sound before the guitar cuts in. The song is melodic and charming. The next song, "Mess of Me," is bouncy and regards someone who is ready to straighten up his life. "Your Love is a Song" pleases us with simplicity. The vocals carry the melody and prove the singer's range remains intact through these years. With "The Sound" we find keyboards and grinding guitars droning underneath and in the vocal breaks. What screaming choruses! Let's just say the vocals are not nearly treated as they have been in the past. This album was produced by the band and it does stand apart from the others. Some might say it is overproduced. I believe music can benefit from the advances in sound technology and that this album is but one example. Gone is the depressing rebellion of past albums. They are interested in other things than their issues with the world. There is a song about love, "Hello Hurrcane;" a humorous glance at a serious subject.
Otherwise on this album, the singer has several slow songs that are not loaded with distractions. He is able to showcase his exceptional voice -- something that has put this band where they are now. For example the song, "Always" is apparantly a religious song but with too much confusing lyrics to confirm with any certainty. This album is a bit lethargic compared with Oh, Gravity. The bouncy fun songs are toward the beginning. I hate to call the rest filler because the songs are quite nice. There is more keyboard to fill up the space normally taken by the electric guitars, which are still there, just not as much as in the past. There are many slow paced songs, including "Sing it Out." The album finishes with a mid-tempo song called, "Red Eyes." It is a song with clever lyrics that are out of focus and do not conform to reasoned modes of expression.
Switchfoot's remarkable career went through many changes. I do not see how any band could go from Beautiful Letdown to Nothing is Sound so suddenly. From light to darkness and back again, that is the odyssey of a rock band looking for fame with humility. Who knows the reasons they have soared to the heights of the heavens and plumbed the depths of hell? They are sincere and dedicated even if they are not always what you would ask them to be. In Christian rock they have few rivals. In fact, they inspire their counterparts in the industry and often are imitated. They started out so young and are still a fresh sounding band to this day.
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