Nu-garage rockers Empires release songs and EPs with such regularity it’s telling that their latest full-length, the aptly named Garage Hymns, was more than two years in the making. Fortunately, it was time well spent. The biggest knock on the Chicago upstarts has always been the spottiness of their output. But while past albums such as Howl and the Bang EP could alternate evenly between catchy-yet-edgy rock and forgettable filler, Garage Hymns fills in those aforementioned hollow spots with some substance. The extra attention to detail and renewed focus shine through on the record’s 11 tracks, allowing for the band’s most satisfying and consistent listen to date.
When frontman Sean Van Vleet croons in his sultry baritone, “I’ve got control of everything” on opening track “Can’t Keep Your Heart Away”, it’s not posturing. There’s a conviction in Van Vleet’s voice, something that only showed itself in patches on past records. That carries throughout Garage Hymns, and the music sounds equally recharged. The crisp, full-bodied production, buzz saw guitars, and bang-up drumming on emotive rockers like “Hard Times” and “Night Is Young” capture Springsteen-esque classic rock earnestness as well as The Gaslight Anthem and The Killers in their best moments. When the band isn’t sweating with vigor, they’re just having fun, a quality that’s exhibited in the shameless, cock-rock swagger of ”Runaway” and the hip-shaking stomp of “Hell’s Heroes”. These guys are on a quest to prove themselves on Garage Hymns, and they sound downright hungry for the mission.
As alluring as many bands find it to be aloof and despondent, there’s no shame in watching a band coming out of their shell and allowing the music to wash over them. Empires had their time in the sun as Chicago’s youthful scene stealers, but on Garage Hymns they’ve evolved into a group of guys who sound legitimately unafraid to follow the music, wherever it takes them. That unbothered, focused approach carries the record’s best moments and gives its duller spots a little extra polish. Here’s living proof that while attitude is fun, it’s a poor substitute for honesty.
Essential Tracks: “Can’t Keep Your Heart Away”, “Night Is Young”, and “Hell’s Heroes”