Return to the valley of emo.
There's been one band recently that's broken this trend though, and that's Paramore. The first single from their most recent album, "Riot!", didn't completely win me over, because despite its catchy riffs, the lyrics really bugged me. A song in which the narrator gloats in the face of a romantic rival about having the object of her affection "where I want him now" is not going to make me happy, ever. All the cliches about catty rivalry between girls, all the manipulative battle-of-the-sexes crap in which boys are seen as targets for point-scoring, and especially lines like "Once a whore, you're nothing more. I'm sorry, that'll never change"--not the kind of stuff I want to hear in a song, no matter how catchy the melody. But a friend of mine told me about how good the rest of the record was, how "Misery Business" wasn't even one of the stronger songs on the record, how I should check out the rest of the album, and I just couldn't resist. If there's one thing I learned from my period a few years ago in which I fell in love with almost every new emo band that came down the pike, it's that I'm not going to be able to resist really catchy songs. So I figured what the hell, I'd give Paramore a shot.
Unfortunately, I can't say that the lyrics to the rest of the album are any smarter or better thought out than those of "Misery Business". They are at least inoffensive, so that's a step in the right direction. But one thing that "Misery Business" and "Crushcrushcrush", which I also hear on the radio, both point out is that the A&R people assigned to Paramore are picking the wrong singles. Yes, "Misery Business" is catchy enough that, if I tune out the lyrics, I can enjoy listening to it. And yes, "Crushcrushcrush" has some decent parts, even if the chorus kind of gets on my nerves. But no doubt about it, these are two of the weakest songs on the album. If you've heard them on the radio and thought what I did, that Paramore were decent--certainly more promising than a lot of other recent emo acts--but nothing amazing, let me tell you, you haven't heard anything yet.
The best argument on this album for a reassignation of the single-picking duties for Paramore is track two, "That's What You Get". If "Misery Business" is a catchy song, then this is an irresistible pop confection of the first order. Some of Paramore's songs feature tough-sounding punk rhythm guitar and harder-edged riffing on the verses that offset the catchier choruses, and normally, I would consider these plus points. For Paramore, though, the opposite is true. Their best songs are the ones where their punk/hardcore inclinations get out of the way and let the pure pop goodness shine through. "That's What You Get" does a great job of exactly this, and it's a perfect combination of modern, melodic emo and the more straightforward pop catchiness of early 80s New Wave bands like the Go-Gos. Singer Hayley Williams fills most of the song with stupid lyrics that border on meaningless, but the chorus of "That's what you get when you let your heart win" redeems those dumb lyrics entirely. It's a vague phrase, but it's just evocative enough to allow the listener to give it meaning with their imagination. And the listener will want to, because the chorus underneath those lyrics has an evocative, emotional sound of its own. If I still had reservations about Paramore after my experience with their first single, this song erased them all in one fell swoop.
The song that follows it, "Hallelujah", is another great one, but this one connects more overtly with the punk/hardcore roots of Paramore's sound. The entire song moves at a head-nodding half-tempo, the sort of speed that could sound like a breakdown coming out of a faster, punkier riff. Sticking with the slower speed throughout the song instead of contrasting it with that sort of faster punk riff is a risky choice, but it pays off in a big way. Paramore guitarist Josh Farro spends most of the song switching between steadily strummed octave chords and a more chugging attack, in a manner reminiscent of Quicksand. Contrasted with Hayley's gorgeously sung vocals, though, this guitar attack comes to a much different end, emphasizing the more emotional nature of the song even as the heavier feel of the music is preserved.
Slower ballads "When It Rains" and "We Are Broken", which show up later in the album, work well enough within the context of the album to serve as breaks in the mood, and keep the listener interested enough not to reach for the skip button. However, both songs seem slightly at odds with Paramore's usual punk-influenced style. Their choruses being as catchy as they are save them from seeming like total sellout moves, and the album works well as a whole with these two songs on it, but I'm not entirely sure about this particular direction in their sound. Fortunately, these songs are offset by one that lies halfway between the two--"Miracle". It has a similar pop feel to that of "That's What You Get", but brings in a bit more of the faster, punkier feel of "Misery Business". In so doing, it creates what might be the perfect blend of all of the styles Paramore explore on this album. "That's What You Get" is probably slightly catchier, but "Miracle" is a more fully realized song, and if they can replicate this blend more often, their next album will be significantly better than this one. Not only does "Miracle" have an outstanding chorus, it's got a bridge that mixes the pop of the chorus with a more intense vibe that powers things along and hints much more strongly at hardcore than the rest of the song does. Then at the end, they wrap the whole thing up with a half-speed breakdown that feels like something Lifetime would have done--always a good band to imitate, if you ask me.
The album ends with "Born For This", an uptempo track with choppily strummed verses and a catchy chorus. However, the element of this song that catches my attention the most is the way they transition from verse to chorus: the rhythm section drops out, the guitar drops in volume, and over Josh Farro's choppy strumming, Hayley quietly sings, "We want the airwaves back." Any Refused fan worth their salt will recognize this as a tribute to the Refused song "Liberation Frequency", from their era-defining final album "The Shape Of Punk To Come". "Born For This" is a really catchy song, and it'd be one of the best ones on the album even without this hidden reference. However, with it added in, my opinion not only of the song but of Paramore as a whole is pushed significantly higher. If Paramore are knowledgeable enough, and have good enough taste, to include a reference like this on their album, they are cool in my book.
Ultimately, "Riot!", while being good for the most part and excellent at several points, is somewhat of a mixed bag. I like it quite a bit, and I'm sure I'll still be listening to it in a few years just like I'm still listening to "From Under The Cork Tree" and "Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge" now. Whether their next album will be a "Black Parade" or an "Infinity On High" remains to be seen, but I'm smart enough to appreciate what I've got while I've got it, even if it's not quite perfect.
Paramore - That's What You Get
Paramore - Miracle