Preview: There's good power-pop to be found in Bad Books
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Kevin Devine and Manchester Orchestra were pretty good on their own. Put them together and you get Bad Books, a band with glorious harmonies, thoughtful lyrics and some power-pop kick.
The roots of the band, which is currently on the road with its second album, "II," go back to 2007 when the Atlanta-based indie band Manchester Orchestra was on tour with Brand New and Mr. Devine, an established Brooklyn singer-songwriter with five albums already to his credit. That led to more tours together and a writing collaboration between Mr. Devine and Manchester Orchestra frontman Andy Hull, partially fueled by their management and mutual label, Favorite Gentlemen. They set the first recording session for 2010.
"A lot of it had to do with having people outside of us kind of kicking our [behinds] about it, and make it something we weren't just speaking about but actually doing," Mr. Devine says. "We might have naturally arrived at this place because both Andy and myself write a lot and talk a lot to each other, and are kind of in frequent contact, and I feel like it might have developed to this place on our own."
Working on the Bad Books self-titled debut in 2010, the benefit of putting two strong forces together quickly became evident.
"I feel like it is an excellent test of your ego and your sensitivity," Mr. Devine says. "I think every songwriter is precious about his or her songs. You get into a groove doing stuff on your own. I've been doing it for a long time, Manchester has been doing it for a while as well. When you're the principle songwriter in your project, you get accustomed to being in the pole position. Working with another one of those people, the results can be really unsatisfying, because there's a lot of butting heads, or you can learn a thing or two about getting out of each other's way. I feel like we trust the other guy to see it through."
They also found that having some time pressure placed on the project actually made them freer and looser in their approach. And then there are the harmonies between the two singers, which are a beautiful match, comparable at times to the Jayhawks.
"I think [Andy's] challenged me to be a better singer. I think he believed in me as singer more than I did and kind of would push me to try different things, and that has been really helpful for me moving forward."
Mr. Devine thinks that the band's second record, recorded early last year and released in October, "came out so well that it challenges anything in either of our catalogs, if not exceeds it on some levels."
An acoustic session that you can find on YouTube shows how great the songs sound stripped down. The recorded versions opt for bigger production, as heard in the shoegazer noisiness of "The After Party," the Grandaddy-style space-rock of "Forest Whitaker" and the Matthew Sweet-like power-pop of "It Never Stops."
"One thing that [hasn't changed] for me ... maybe the first time I heard [R.E.M.'s] 'Automatic People for the People' or saw Nirvana 'Unplugged,' or the first time I really let myself hear the Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell records, or the Beatles, stuff that my mom would play, I feel like a good song should be a good song," Mr. Devine says. "The mark of a good song to me is if I sit down and play it for you alone, or if I played it as a punk rock song, or if I played it as an orchestral rock song, or if I played it as a classic rock song, or if I played it as some Postal Service-sounding blippy thing, if the song is good, it should work however.
"I think with the Bad Books thing, we're two people with that mindset. We both like rock music, too, so 'It Never Stops' sounds really beautiful when we play it just Andy and I singing in harmony and strumming chords, but we wanted to make it like a dynamic, propulsive big-chorus rock song ... if you deal in those dynamics but still write smart, accessible but challenging, then you're really trying to pull off a magic trick."
There are more chapters planned for the Bad Books story, but in the meantime, they have separate projects in the works. Manchester is about to start recording a new album, and Mr. Devine is two weeks away from closing a Kickstarter campaign to release his next two records, one of which will be a punk record with his band and Jesse Lacey of Brand New.
"I think we're going to self-release them, which is exciting for me, because I've knocked around the industry for a while, and built this progressive career that gets a little bigger every year, but hasn't really been helped along too much by the traditional/industrial means, so we decided to take the ball out of other people's hands and just succeed or fail with it on our own merits."
He set a goal to raise $60,000 over 45 days, and ended up raising $64,000 in nine hours. The total is now at $92,000 for the projects he hopes to have out by October.
"I've been signed to Capitol Records and played at every venue I grew up going to, nice people have written nice things in nice newspapers and magazines, but that's kind of the coolest thing that's ever happened to us. Just your fans speaking in a clear voice that says, 'Don't be anxious about doing this ... we just want to hear your music.' "
First Published February 14, 2013 12:00 am