School Boy Humor - School Boy Humor Review

It's easy to blame Fall Out Boy for the current crop of emo pop-rockers that clutter up the rock aisle of your favorite record store. Before them, blink-182 was the whipping boy. But as bad as both groups can/could be, at least Fall Out Boy shows flashes of ambition and songwriting complexity. And blink could pen a catchy tune or two amidst albums stuffed with thirteen variations of the same lousy song. School Boy Humor owes a debt in their songcraft to both groups. And their inspirations should thank this Little Rock quintet for making them sound like musical geniuses.

There's a niche for bland and straightforward songwriting in the world (see the recent All American Rejects review), but shrugging off this kind of dreck because other people might like it is kind of like allowing tykes to veg out on brain-rotting junk when they could be watching something like, say, Sesame Street. If you've ever heard a song by Every Avenue, Forever the Sickest Kids, etc., you know what you're getting into. It's not even the style I'm opposed to (though it truly is disheartening) but rather an utter absence of originality, identity and substance.

“Paint Me with Envy” is up first and scribbles out a cheat sheet for the band to follow to the letter for almost every track that follows. Cleanly distorted guitars, oversimplified drum beat taps, two-note bass thumps, superfluous synthesizer gimmicks plugged in just to make the music “soar,” and ultra-generic, sub-frat sing shouting balanced between two vocalists, Phil and Anthony Evans (ahem, blink, ahem). But so what? So they play it completely safe with the instruments they sound like they just picked up two months ago for the first time. Big deal. Maybe they'll have something interesting to say. Nope. “She's dressed to kill so you better stop staring.” “Boy, you know that she isn't like you, she's a little insecure.” And, of course, “Good looks are what you need to have/To make it somewhere in this world/To lead a life you won't end up regretting.” If Evans (whichever one) was attempting to be ironic/sarcastic, he needs to figure out a way not to sound so blandly earnest with his monotonous singing. If not, I don't even know what to say...

Five tracks later, we're treated to something slightly different. Click-stutter drum machines, chilly synth drones and a looping keyboard line fill up the verse background. It's not much of an improvement, but at least it's something disparate. Then the chorus arrives and we're back to track one. Or three. Or eight, two, and so on. Efforts to be even more “important” and “sincere” than before just make everything hit flatter. Japanese dog robots have more heart than this clumsy faux-ballad could ever scrape up.

But wait. After that is “Cheating Myself,” another song that starts off calmly, quiet enough to hear, “We'll sing just a little bit louder/And we won't stop 'til she can't handle it/We'll sing just a little bit slower/So she'll hang on to every single word.” Where's Steve Albini when you need him? Later, after another loud and spotless refrain, the song quiets down again so you won't miss, “So close your eyes girl, and tell me what you see/The lives that we've created were all because of me/So listen closely, girl, 'cause our future is at stake/The reason we are ending is because I give, you take.” It's performed/sung exactly like a second-tier boy band (say, Westlife?). Memo to SBH: if you can't even compete with first-tier boy bands, it's time to go back to the drawing board. Of course, following that song up with a track that opens amid a frosted-tips, sandals-and-shades pseudo rap is good timing; makes the last one actually seem not quite so bad.

And so it goes. Around and around, each one seemingly more tiresome and obnoxious than the last. Even when they “spice” cuts up with airy breaths of quiet, they return to the formula soon enough. Before long, that very attempt to “break things up” becomes even more repetitiously mundane than the shiny power pop they were peddling early on. And whenever they get tired of composing tired takes on heartbreak, they summon a handful of lines that suggest they want to have a little force and weight. But hearing them announce, “You have to fight for what you believe in,” is like watching five guys attempt a coup d'etat armed with Super Soakers.

Just as every song seems even more shapeless than the one that came before, so too does the last song dig further down into their seemingly bottomless hole (discounting a hidden cover that proves that not every album concealing a secret finale can call such a surprise a “bonus”). It's called “What If,” and if you wanted to see these guys' “softer” side, you get what you asked for. Take the same old obvious and oblivious lyricism, throw in a piano, acoustic guitar, electronic chimes and multi-part harmonies. If you can make it all the way through without reaching for the mute button six or seven times, you're a braver man than I.

Now that I've probably devoted more time trying to uncover the band's appeal than they set aside for composing this disaster, I can lay my weary head into folded arms. But there's something to be said about the task of writing these banal little tunes. Writing credit for all but one song is shared by the album's producer/mixer, Geoff Rockwell; a quick glance at his career credits will give you all the info needed on deciding how clueless a choice it was. To save you the chore, one highlight is an assist on a compilation called Punk Goes Crunk. I probably should have warned you not to read that last sentence on a full stomach. Consult your local Yellow Pages for a cleaning crew.

As much as I support emotional honesty in songwriting, there's plenty of reason to go in the other direction. If there was a version of Guitar Hero out there that focused solely on emo pop, these guys would have cut their teeth on that stuff. Assuming not, they still went and hired someone to shave off what little friction there might have been there originally so it could appeal to people who think that N'Sync is “too edgy.” And they plunged into their eighth-grade journals to copy wet-eyed 'tween sentiment into every grimace-worthy stanza. Hearing this for more than nine straight minutes will invariably force the listener to develop a morphine addiction just to make the pain dissipate. Give me noise n' nihilism any day over this trite tripe.

"School Boy Humor" is on sale February 24, 2009 from Vagrant.

Matt Medlock


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