It seems like Epic Hero has lived a whole career in the span of two albums.
"New Life," the sophomore effort from the Minneapolis four-piece, is about as similar to 2001's "A Brighter Mess" as "Sgt. Pepper" is to "Meet the Beatles." In fact, this new disc marks such a spectacular jump from good to great that it feels like we missed an album in between (this mythical record would have featured super-shredder Kris Hoover, who joined after Album One and left before Album Two, on guitar).
"New Life" features founding members/songwriters Justin Milbradt on lead vocals and Dan Deurloo on drums, with Brad Bivens on bass and newcomer Ben Gowell on lead guitar.
In all its incarnations, Epic Hero has been great live. On one hand, "New Life" doesn't do this justice (if only they'd tacked on a live bonus track of "One Fine Day"). On the other hand, the album is gorgeously produced by Deurloo's friend and Semisonic lead singer Dan Wilson. I initially was confused when the frantic, layered opener "Hello Hello" came through my speakers, but a few tracks later, I understood: I thought Epic Hero would make a good second album; they were more interested in making a great one.
Wilson's contributions will reward anyone with a good sound system in their car or living room. On their best work, Semisonic mixes aching lyrics with berserk feedback to create a perfect space between the two extremes. Wilson got carried away on 2001's "All About Chemistry," but in producing his friends' band, he has rediscovered that sanctuary in the middle.
If you listen to the album with the intent of absorbing the special effects, "New Life" bears a resemblance to Semisonic's "Feeling Strangely Fine" (1998), with a grittier edge owing to the differences between Milbradt's and Wilson's voices. "New Life" certainly can stand toe to toe with mellorock classics like the first matchbox twenty album. Along those lines, Milbradt's voice takes the emotional spectrum of Rob Thomas' chords and drops the annoyance factor (check out "Tear Her Down"), and Wilson knows how to showcase the vocals as they rise up on the opposite side of a guitar lick to re-engage the listener.
As titles like "End of the Line," "One in a Crowd" and "On My Own" demonstrate, principal songwriter Milbradt is caught between looking back and moving forward. He pours his heart out now and then ("Angel," "Ease Your Mind"), but fans of the band's live shows can breathe easy. "High School" has all the sadness and nostalgia you'd hope for in a song called "High School" ("So let's go back for a night/We could be 17 again"), but it also rocks.
The Hoover-era track "One Fine Day" is the album's most radio friendly song (in the best sense of the term). Wilson's contributions don't necessarily hurt the song, but this is one instance where his handiwork isn't needed. Eight years after catchy four-minute radio rock was bowled over by hookless anger-rock, Epic Hero has made a catchy four-minute rock song simply because they know what good music sounds like and they're talented enough to create it.
It's the type of song that makes you want to hug the band on behalf of music fans everywhere.
"New Life" is available at www.epichero.com. The band will perform at 9:30 p.m. today at The Red Carpet in St. Cloud.
Other new releases:
Campfire Girls, "Tell Them Hi," rock (Interscope) -- Los Angeles quartet Campfire Girls (actually, four guys) drew comparisons to Nirvana when their first album came out in the mid-'90s. A period of drug abuse by lead singer Christian Stone and bassist Andrew Clark sidelined the band for several years, but Interscope was willing to take another shot at launching them.
"Tell Them Hi" has all the grungy goodness of four guys cranking out tunes in their garage, but you don't have to be a Nirvana fan to like Campfire Girls. The band is nostalgic for the grunge era ("Now they don't write the songs like the way that they used to," Stone sings on the catchy "Make It"), but they sound more like a good mellorock band along the lines of Remy Zero or Flickerstick.
"Someday," "Make It" and "Pedestal" could have been radio singles 10 years ago. Stone's voice is perfectly suited to sing-along choruses such as, "Yeah, when the world has let you down/I'll be the one you think about/When there's no one else around/Someday." Aside from a couple slow and moody tracks, the album is an appealing rocker rife with emotional truisms ("I pulled her in/I built her up/A pedestal to put her on," "She's gone away/No one ever felt this way"). Indeed, the band is making the most of their second chance.
MxPx, "Before Everything & After," punk (A&M) -- Modern punk fans will love the latest collection from this Washington state three-piece; everyone else will leave it. It's fun at first, but the repetitive sounds overstay their welcome over the course of the 16 tracks.
Producer Tom Lord-Alge gives a technical boost to tracks such as the piano-laden "Don't Walk Away" and the album highlight "Quit Your Life" ("Quit your life/Stay with me/We'll order in and watch TV"). Although lead singer/songwriter Mike Herrera devotes almost every song to the theme of lost love, the album is not as lyrically rich as other recent genre efforts, such as the latest Good Charlotte album (look for that band's Benji Madden contributing on a couple tracks here).
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.