Silverchair - Neon Ballroom
Rating - 8/B
(Because Prem asked...)
Let's see now, Silverchair...they were that novelty act from Australia, right? Back in the 90s? Those children who dressed like they were from Seattle and played exactly like Nirvana and/or Pearl Jam?
Er, yea, okay.
If you ask me, Silverchair started showing a broader songwriting imagination than derivative riff-based grunge rock on their second album, Freakshow. But it's on Neon Ballroom where their growing artistry and songcraft (well, Daniel Johns' anyway) really really explode all over the place. And it isn't just the orchestral arrangements either - stripped down to their essense, songs like the grunge-band-with-piano-and-strings epic 'Emotion Sickness', 'Ana's Song (Open Fire)' and 'Dearest Helpless' (which isn't much embellished in any case) are very good songs, with good melodies and hooks and different parts interestingly and intelligently structured and ordered.
Having said that, the orchestration really lifts this album. Those strings and pianos on 'Miss You Love' take a vaguely REM-ish tune and move it into another dimension altogether, for instance. But Daniel Johns' middle-eight on a lightly fuzzed guitar and the increasing use of distorion and feedback at intervals in the second half of the song add as much to the dynamics as the orchestration. Point Of View is another really good song with a great vocal performance, where the orchestration only augments an already well developed song structure.
Not everything is quite as stellar. 'Do You Feel The Same' is a saccharine pop-rock song that goes nowhere, 'Black Tangled Heart' is a bit overwrought to be really gripping (and relies excessively on orchestral lushness as opposed to a well thought-out musical framework underlying the embellishment) and 'Spawn Again', a perfectly good screaming riff-grunge workout, feels too at odds with everything else - it was written earlier for a movie soundtrack, as a matter of fact, and rejigging it for this album wasn't really needed. 'Anthem For The Year 2000' of course became dated a year after the album was released, and is musically too simplistic, being built around a very basic riff that basically goes on forever, mutating a little into a barebones version for the verse and layered with odd noises that can't conceal the very primitive musical idea at play here. It's a pity they had to put in these songs, as if compelled to fulfill some rock-out quota, especially considering that 'Dearest Helpless' and 'Satin Sheets' get pretty rocking in that appropriately grungy manner without ruining the flow of the album or belying the band's development. The album closer, 'Steam Will Rise', reconciles the two sides of this album' sound excellently, too, building to a truly climactic end.
Neon Ballroom sees the Chairs' early promise actually delivering - though I wonder whether anyone involved in their early success expected their big leap forward artistically to be in this direction. The next album, Diorama, expanded on the orchestral aspect, but was a bit wieghed down with bland moderate-modern-rock songwriting in many places - the price of maturity? They've been on an extended hiatus since, but have a new album slated for release this year (2007). If it lives up to the level of songcrafting ability on this album, it just might be a surprise hit of the year, even if the whole concept of a grunge-inspired band seems irrelevant in today's indie/garage-retro rock climate.
The Eiderdown-Stuffing Bottomline: Think of this as a dark horse album, then. Grungestruck kids evolve into a pretty decent modern rock band with some neat songwriting chops and a gorgeous orchestral backing. Not all the material matches the ambition and evolution on display, but at least half of this album stands as one of the better moments in the dismal world of second-generation grunge. Possibly the finest moment of that regrettable phase, really, when you consider the competition consists of trash like Creed and Godsmack. Pity the vocals are just a bit too whiney at times, but this is grunge, after all.