There’s an intense, almost overbearing pop sensibility about Noah and the Whale. Previously known for charming, folksy indie pop, bandleader Charlie Fink (true pop musician that he is) knows what is in currently and also that a change of pace frequently gives fresh life to a band. Except on the London five-piece’s new record, Last Night on Earth, that fresh life is the not-so-fresh dose of kitschy 80’s synth-pop that seems to be getting rehashed every few minutes.
The almost Paul Simon-y polyrhythm via drum machine beat that opens the disc on “Life is Life” sets a tone that carries through the record. Largely gone are the acoustic accouterments and charming ramshackle that held some sway. Instead there are watered-down Yeasayer synth swashes and choral chanting. The tune manages to somehow sound as if it’s been on the radio for years, too familiar, too remembered. The unbelievably Springsteen-meets-“Baba O’Riley”-aped piano chords of “Tonight’s the Kind of Night” hit that same feeling, though the additions of synth and Fink’s laid-back storytelling keep it from absolute mimicry.
“L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.” takes a close look at the Kinks, in both its initials song title (“L o l a, Lola”, anyone?) and the double-time narrative vocal delivery. While Fink does give a few more explicit details than Ray Davies ever did, the Tom Petty-sounding bridge and uplifting choral treatments prevent any real grittiness. “Wild Thing”, rather than echoing the Troggs, sounds like one of Springsteen’s everyman ballads. Noah and the Whale could probably cover any radio pop base they wanted to, producing a song that sounds like it came directly from the speakers in your old, broken-down sedan years ago. That said, it rarely comes across as interesting, exciting, or personal on Last Night on Earth.
The escape from the suburbs “in the summer of 98” and tale of starting a band with “influences like Bruce and The Band” on “Give it All Back” is a personal story but one that could be coming from one of countless songwriters. “Turning back time just to be with my friends” isn’t fresh material for anybody, and the rambling, AM radio instrumentation isn’t helping the staleness either. “Just Before We Met” seems composed of two more recent inspirations; the violin and skipping cymbals echo Vampire Weekend, while Fink’s melancholic, nostalgic vocal delivery reminds of The National.
The guitars are tuned just right, the songs are composed and structured perfectly, and the pieces all fit together. But what this album is lacking is excitement and conflict, originality and surprise. It is a pop record, one meticulously crafted and arranged. Are there better pop records out there? Maybe. Is Last Night on Earth largely boilerplate, expectable pop stuff? Yes. Will this record get massive love? Undoubtedly, yes. Fink combines just enough indie charm to a machine-tooled pop template to avoid getting lost in the shuffle, and his songs are well-written and well-played. However, the drone of “good song” after “good song” isn’t enough to keep coming back for more.