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On Second Listen: Army Navy – Army Navy

on December 04, 2008, 5:00pm

Sometimes a band’s name is so deceptive I don’t want to check out the music. I ignored The Knife for years because the name was just trying too hard in its “We’re not trying hard at all” approach. My Brightest Diamond wasn’t the fluffy, unicorn love fest I anticipated. The National has more oomph to it than the moniker suggests. Album covers are often the same affair. Boring covers often overshadow excellent albums. Rufus Wainwright’s Poses. Santogold’s Santogold.

What’s worse is when an interesting name or a good cover fails to deliver.

The moral of the story? You can’t judge much by an album cover or a band name. And that’s what I had to remind myself when I sat down to listen to Los Angeles-based band Army Navy’s self-titled debut. I was bored by the name but intrigued by the artwork, a brightly lit but abandoned phone booth set against the black night sky.

I had to leave all expectations at the door because otherwise I wouldn’t know which expectation to follow. And I’m glad I did. What I found was a debut that, while uneven, gives listeners enough memorable songs to expect greater things in the future.

Army Navy opens with its strongest track, “Dark as Days”, and within a minute you’re hooked. The foot-tapping acoustic guitar and tambourine combine with lead singer Justin Kennedy’s whiny vocals in that perfect way you wish all indie bands did. The quick verse/chorus/verse make you wonder if these guys are British or just MGMT’s less retro siblings. On the basis of that track, you’ll want to hear what follows.

Unfortunately, the album doesn’t near that greatness again until its final track, a bonus cover of Maxine Nightingale’s 1976 classic “Right Back Where We Started From.” Normally, such a cover comes across as gimmicky, but in this case it highlights some of the band’s strongest elements. For one thing, they know catchy when they hear it. The original was memorable, and this one is just a more upbeat version daring you to clap your hands. Also, the band never overstays their welcome. In three-and-a-half minutes they make their mark on the track and leave you satiated.

What comes between these tracks is uneven. Nothing on the album is bad, and many tracks are very strong. “Unresponsive Ears” has the bittersweet mood of The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and suggests the band has a talent for finding the melancholy in an upbeat rhythm. The problem is that I could point to several moments that remind me of The Beatles and Cheap Trick and a dozen other great bands and only a few that really standout as pure Army Navy moments. Perhaps expecting greatness from a debut is unfair, but frustratingly the band sets the expectations themselves.

Perhaps more interestingly is the nagging feeling I had throughout the 12 tracks that the band is far better live than in the studio. “In the Lime” pushes Kennedy’s vocals to the front and blurs together the rest of the band—maybe to create intimacy between him and the audience. Nonetheless, by the end of the song I found myself yearning to hear the nuances of the music—the xylophone and the harmonies that bleed together into an overstuffed backing band.

The album was produced by Adam Lasus, who also worked with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Amy Ray, two other acts who have the potential for mainstream greatness if only they’d lose their interesting quirks. Listen to CYHSY’s “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” and then Army Navy’s “In the Lime” just to hear how well the same formula of wrapping fuzzy pop sensibilities around unconventional vocals can work in the right hands.

What you get after listening to 50 minutes of Army Navy is the sense that this band’s sophomore effort will probably be much stronger and that what we currently have is a nice start. I would’ve liked to have heard an EP instead of a full-length album, but in the meantime I’ll make a great playlist that pulls out the band’s best songs.

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