Published Jun 12, 2019For their first record in seven years, Bad Books made sure it was worth the wait, and not a side project worth forgetting. Helmed by singer-songwriters Kevin Devine and Andy Hull (of Manchester Orchestra), III brings their talents together and distils them into an album that's all of a piece while preserving each writer's own identity.
In the realm of Frightened Rabbit and Volcano Choir, Bad Books offer a sometimes exuberant, sometimes sombre sound that takes simple folk songs and blows them out with dramatic piano chords, churchlike choral arrangements, spacey atmospherics and digital embellishments. For all their basis in acoustic instruments, these are songs that shimmer and echo at length — not for a coffee house, but an opera house.
Devine and Hull contribute five songs each, trading back and forth, track-by-track. In spite of the album's cohesive feel, the differences between each writer's songs are quite drastic — Devine's are generally upbeat and full-bodied, while Hull's are far more gloomy and barren. If "Lake House" and "Left Your Body" are the dead of winter, "I Love You, I'm Sorry, Please Help Me, Thank You" and "Supposed to Be" are the bloom of spring.
Devine's songs have verses, choruses and thorough arrangements; Hull's are sparse and loosely structured, often wearing a single melody to the bone, letting the feeling speak for itself. What they show are two kinds of vulnerability: finely and meticulously crafted artistry versus a raw nerve exposed for all to see.
What ties it together? Laudable songcraft, for one. But also a singular vision for how the record should sound, with lovely harmonization and arrangements, and the cognizance to know when to let the empty space hang, when to fleck it with decorative bits, and when to fill it with gorgeous instrumentation. They let some notes die in the air right as they're sung, while others reverberate into every corner of the mind. Through the lush landscape of "Wheel Well," the hurried, restrained energy of "UFO," the heart-rending simplicity of "Neighborhood" and the satisfying conclusion of "Army," III is a record that fluctuates between the joyous and the melancholy over and over, making those many contrasts of dark and light all the more impactful. (Loma Vista)