The economy has taken its toll on all aspects of life, and music is no exception. Case in point: Ryan Auffenberg. Having released two successful EPs and an album, all garnering positive acclaim, he spent the summer of 2008 touring around the country. He came home to a folded record label, bills, and what seemed like the end of the road. The following months were spent repaying debts and questioning his choice to pursue music.
The road wasn’t quite over, though. Auffenberg soon after teamed up with friend Peter Craft, assembled a group of musicians and started making music again; Halsted was born. Described by Auffenberg as “a tribute to the purity, passion, naÃ¯vette and downright stupidity that leads people to choose a life of music”, Halsted and Life Underwater are hope, optimism, and a love for making music reincarnated.
As much as everybody loves a good underdog, though, Life Underwater falls short in conveying this lofty intention. Characterized by poppy melodies, with many of those piano-based, Life Underwater plays like a Jack’s Mannequin or Dashboard Confessional album. It’s undoubtedly nice to drive to, but it isn’t exactly a demonstration of musical innovation or mastery. There are some definite high points, but Life Underwater is underdeveloped and ultimately forgettable.
The album begins with “Cast No Shadow”, a mid-tempo piano ditty about relationship problems and reconciling differences. The guitar and piano combination is clean and crisp. The music is betrayed, though, with lines such as “your eyes are red/come back to bed/quiet the voices in your head” and Auffenberg’s whispery, atonal voice. Unfortunately, this is a problem Halsted frequently encounters throughout Life Underwater. The lethargic vocals seem removed from the music and, at times, utterly disinterested. Stellar lyrics or inescapable sincerity can sometimes excuse poor vocals from criticism, but the majority of the album offers neither of those, leaving it frustrating in its inadequacies.
Tracks such as “Walking Shoes” and their endearing, upbeat tempos and rhythms find a much better home for Auffenberg’s voice. Reminiscent of a Lifehouse song, “Walking Shoes” and its quick guitar work, uplifting lyrics, and catchy chorus get toes tapping and voices humming. “Cabaret” follows in this vein, offering one of the strongest tracks of the album, with its country-esque bass line, incorporation of chimes, and subtle female vocals alongside a solid performance by Auffenberg.
The instrumentation throughout is skillfully executed and worthy of note. Life Underwater‘s piano and guitar work together nicely instead of fighting for the spotlight. The sultry melodies in tracks like “White Hot City Lights” go a long way in redeeming Halsted’s other shortcomings. Additionally, the surprise appearance of horns and handclaps in “Sellout” take the listener to a sunny, summer beach afternoon. The album would be better served with more of this departure from melancholy that plagues about a third of the album.
Overall, Halsted is a nice listen, with their well-crafted pop songs. Unfortunately, Life Underwater lacks a differentiating factor to make it stand out among the massive amounts of piano-based pop-rock clogging the musical pipelines. Auffenberg quips in “Sellout”, “Whatever you’ve spit out’s been said before.” Fittingly, Halsted finds its stride in completely enjoyable but unoriginal tracks such as that one.