The introductory hype on Manchester Orchestra's Simple Math seems to be settling some, and we're still a few months away from the proper buildup to Kevin Devine's new album. So it's a good time for a long-overdue look at the self-titled album from Bad Books—a project comprised of the Manchester guys plus Devine, a singer-songwriter-infused indie rock supergroup of sorts.
The hope for Bad Books is, likely, that it is so much greater than the sum of its parts. In that respect, the album falls short. It occasionally lacks cohesion, feeling more like a collection of (albeit solid) B-sides from both acts rather than a thematic, logical arc. It's also missing the bite and snarl either act tends to project on their respective albums at times. That being said, there's no denying how inherently warm and settling the long-player can be.
"How This All Ends" feels far shorter than the runtime of its opening three minutes. It's a mellow, fuzzy buildup colliding Neutral Milk Hotel circa On Avery Island with the slow, jammy fits of early Built to Spill. Fans of both MO and KD should be well-acquainted with these influences already, sure, but the way they devise it here seems like a striking aside (and that's what it is, after all). Mid-point (and lead single) "You Wouldn't Have to Ask" is a quick, punchy number too where the band's confluences actually result in a song Bad Books could properly call their own. See, "Please Move" is a pretty great song, but it also feels like it's giving away the blueprints of tension to "Apprehension" (from Simple Math).
"The Easy Mark & the Old Maid" and "You're a Mirror I Cannot Avoid" are slower, stripped-down numbers driven primarily by Devine, and they're carried with his usual, charged breathiness. They're incrementally more ghostly and Elliott Smith-brushed than his usual fare, with a flutter of keys here and there. They're both largely similar enough to his own material that his fans should be pleased, but they fit into Bad Books' spastic context just as well. (That goes for the country-folk touches of "Mesa, AZ", too.)
Hull gets two stripped tracks of his own—"I Begged You Everything", the album's longest at 4:53, and closer "Texas". His reverberated voice on the former delivers his words in his usually affected, deliberate fashion, and it makes it a standout here. "The fuck / am I / supposed to do / when you never lie / about telling a lie?" might be read by some as convoluted, but really, it sounds like vintage Hull, and the whispery harmony from Devine pronounces the random swear all the harsher in contrasting the pretty folkiness. "Texas" could be a Right Away, Great Captain! outtake.
The generally consistent production tone at least gives Bad Books a fine flow, even if the songs themselves sometimes sound like they come from disparate places. It's not the monumentally bombastic, supergroup collab people might have hoped for, but it's a very solid collection of songs nonetheless that both parties would do well to seek out (if they haven't already).