I met Kris Roe a number of years ago when his then-fledgling band was opening for Frenzal Rhomb and Chixdiggit. Kris was a chubby and enthusiastic frontman of a band that looked, at best, hastily assembled. The members certainly didn’t have the polished coordination and style that is so prevalent now. However, even then, you could see a capable songwriter, with great influences and a voice designed to be blared out of teenage girls' bedrooms. I spoke to Kris after his set, mainly interested in the Jawbreaker stickers adorning his amplifier, and we talked about music for some time with him convincing me to buy Built to Spill’s Keep It Like a Secret and both of us disagreeing about which Jawbreaker album was best (I still say it’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy).
Flash-forward a few years, and the band had made the leap to a major label, sent Kris to a trainer and polished up their image as well as their sound. The album largely escaped my notice at first, but soon enough, his earnest albeit dramatic cover of “Boys of Summer” was everywhere and the Ataris had hit it big. That could have been the start of a successful major label career, but apparently, unhappy with the arrangement of delivering a few single-worthy songs on an album, the band had a sharp break with their label and went off to very different pastures at Sanctuary.
With this new album, the band enlisted a half-dozen new members and the group decided to take the same road as fellow pop-punks-turned-rockers Brand New. Like Lacey and Co., they deliver an album full of `90s retro alternative rock, almost completely different from their prior music. While their best album, Blue Skies, Broken Hearts...Next 12 Exits was what Dear You would have sounded like if Blake had been concerned with listening to his label, this new album is about as far from Jawbreaker -- and the Ataris -- as the band could get.
This album, does, as Kris promised, channel Swervedriver, as well as Catherine Wheel, with the prerequisite intense, epic-sounding choruses and crashing guitar lines. Other tracks, like “Cardiff-by-the-Sea” and “Secret Handshakes” find the band dialing things down for the now-standard post-Pearl Jam ballad-type songs, that is to say, while nowhere near as awful as the metal power ballad of the `80s, seems awfully calculated to appeal to the just-dumped, the just-fired and the just-tired.
Other songs, like “Not Capable of Love,” are more of a relief from these types of tracks, with the band remembering that they are, after all, a rock band. The band takes on the Hüsker Dü-styled wall-of-sound with harmonized guitars and vocals that peak just about the fray. It works extremely well, and, like “Whatever Lies Will Help You Rest,” shows where the re-birthed Ataris could -- with increased confidence -- eventually end up.
While not a failure by any measure, the biggest trouble with Welcome the Night is that it is unsure of what it wants to be. Is it a throwback to all the punk-but-not-punk bands that influenced Kris or is it a commercial record, with crowd-pleasing anthems and the universal but clichéd themes of mainstream “emotional” rock?
What you have with this album is a new sound, but not a wealth of new ideas; it’s might not have a lasting appeal with people who remember music from the `90s, because it has to compete with the time and place. For younger fans however, Welcome the Night is unfamiliar and fresh and may just wring some of those same feelings out of them.