On paper, collaborations between established musicians inherently pose an element of intrigue and anticipation. The pervading expectation is that two artists, respectively, will be making something entirely new, perhaps even something greater than just “Musician A” + “Musician B.” But does either party actually benefit from the other’s addition? How will the stylistic leanings of one artist mingle coherently with the defining features of the other? Does Bad Books actually make for good music?
Bad Books brings together Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra and singer-songwriter Kevin Devine, a pair that developed organically from informal jam sessions while the two were on tour together. While the common questions surrounding collaborations are usually more fitting for “supergroups” like Monsters of Folk with their lineups of stand-alone indie celebrities, less-hyped collaborations like Bad Books still can’t escape similar curiosity. Theoretically, Hull’s emotive soft-punk work with Manchester Orchestra wouldn’t exactly accommodate Devine’s intimate solo work, though the two aren’t completely at odds. In their self-titled debut, Bad Books offer a compilation of standard rock tunes and reflective acoustic tracks, making for an engaging, yet not altogether distinctive, record.
Throughout the album, Hull and Devine alternate as lead vocalists, each taking command of their own songs with nary a peep from the other. On Bad Books, the two lead singers meet each other in the middle of their distinct styles, averaging out their sounds to produce something mostly poppy, with a folksy undertone. Hull has stripped down the pleading energy of his Manchester Orchestra vocals, and instead defers to a touching, slight warble to match the mid-paced melodies. Meanwhile, Devine tries his hand at crafting bouncier songs, doing so thoughtfully and convincingly. The arrangements might not be particularly noteworthy, but the strength of the lyrics (“God sleeps in the Gaza strip/And Man alone’s left to live with it”) combined with the reliably undulating rhythm of most songs results in an enjoyably simple listen.
Good tunes aside, truly successful collaborations weave the contributions of each party into a single musical narrative. Both Hull and Devine wrote 5 songs each to the album, which explains why Bad Books plays more like one short story after the other, individually well-written paragraphs chopped together without a logical or intuitive flow. Bad Books stumbles in the all-too-clear watermarks left by both frontmen on their respective songs, feeling like two EPs interspersed. But Hull and Devine know how to be endearing, and that is a quality not many artists can humbly claim. Bad Books won’t bury itself too deep in your musical consciousness, but it will rest nicely in your November playlist.
-Scott Lensing, co-host of “6 Degrees of Jeff Mangum,” Sundays 4-6PM