When we last left Chicago’s Empires in 2012, they had just delivered Garage Hymns, a record that found the band’s pop sensibilities catching up with their taste for burly guitars and garage rock attitude. It was a worthwhile step forward that, if nothing else, showed the band had the range to explore broader musical territory if they wanted to without completely turning their back on the past.
But for all the musical growth that Empires showcased, Garage Hymns, as its name implies, was still first and foremost a rock record. Its songs were rock songs with pop flourishes, not the other way around. What’s most interesting about the band’s newly released Orphan LP is that it flips its predecessor’s script 180 degrees. On Orphan, Empires are very much in the business of writing solid, airtight pop rock songs à la U2, The Killers, and The National. It still rocks pretty generously, but the band’s garage instincts are now only part of the equation.
In the end, Empires’ decision to further satisfy their pop cravings was a good one. If Garage Hymns sounded like it might be on to something, then Orphan is the work of a band delivering on that promise. Their jones for big, powerful pop rock is on full display here. Opening with “Silverfire”, the band merge guitar crunch with playful hooks and melodies in ways they hadn’t even tried before. From there, Orphan just gets bigger and more addictive. The stomping, anthemic “Hostage”, the decidedly Killers-ish sound of “How Good Does It Feel”, and the groovy foray “Please Don’t Tell My Lover” takes into dance rock all speak of a band ready to dive into pop waters headfirst. At the same time, the band doesn’t totally flake on their roots. “Honeyblood” starts out lushly, but its live-wire finish proves the band can still open up and let their louder side come out and play when it wants to.
Brick by musical brick, Empires are steadily evolving into the pop rock powerhouse that they evidently have the makeup to be. If the band continue to smartly and steadily branch out like they do on Orphan, they could soon be taking to the bigger stages and venues that the record’s songs so eagerly court.
Essential Tracks: “Hostage”, “How Good Does It Feel”, and “Honeyblood”