Its popularity aside, 2007's Even If It Kills Me was a polarizing listen for many longtime fans of Motion City Soundtrack. While that record was full of pop that was competent enough, it was evident that the band was making a conscious effort to play it safe with song structures and vocal melodies in the name of being as catchy as possible, which was a bit of a ridiculous -- and ultimately, unnecessary -- proposition; what set Motion City Soundtrack apart from the rest of the power-pop pack was their ability to maintain their wordy, quirky and very unique identity without sacrificing catchiness. Both I Am the Movie and Commit This to Memory were examples of that.
Despite these perceived pratfalls, the kids ate it up; EIIKM debuted at number 16 on the Billboard 200 chart, the album spawned three moderately successful singles and in all likelihood, was the catalyst for the band's move to a major label for their fourth full-length, My Dinosaur Life. And to those older fans who left Motion City Soundtrack for dead a few years ago: They're back, and are sorry you felt alienated (but to be fair, they probably gained 10 new fans for every one they lost). My Dinosaur Life is their most focused effort to date and will please fans young and old alike.
The first and most noticeable difference between Even If It Kills Me and My Dinosaur Life is the tone. The whole record has a decidedly sharper edge than its predecessor; the guitars are beefed up, the unique wordplay of vocalist Justin Pierre is back and in full effect and Jesse Johnson's keyboard and Moog parts are slightly more pronounced, but never so overboard that they become grating to hear. The album gets off to a rousing start with "Worker Bee," a solid, quick opener that's highlighted by subtly intricate guitar work and soaring vocals from Pierre. The power chords that anchor the chorus of "A Lifeless Ordinary (Need a Little Help)," while extremely catchy, feel a little too akin to something one might hear on EIIKM, but the verses around them are bouncy and surprisingly jagged; in other words, original enough to let it go.
"Her Words Destroyed My Planet" just might be the ultimate Motion City Soundtrack track; unconventional instrumentation for a pop song (are those kazoos?), unapologetically nerdy and unbearably sad lyrics from Pierre (references to Veronica Mars, notions of getting a job at a coffee shop, shaving off his beard, selling his XBOX and taking an online course to learn Japanese are all signs of getting it together), all topped off with arguably the most memorable chorus the band has ever written. It's quite an achievement and will likely be a live staple for years to come. There are no room for kazoos in "Disappear," however; the song's darker, edgier instrumentation complements Pierre's frantic, biting delivery very well. The chorus, as usual, is laced with hooks and choice backup vocals. "Delirium" follows a similar formula, with the chorus's primary hook being the lyric "I swim in pharmaceuticals" (likely an autobiographical account from Pierre, who has battled with substance abuse problems in the past).
While the first half of My Dinosaur Life is nearly perfect, the back end doesn't slouch much, either. "Stand Too Close" is a heartfelt, acoustic-laden number that eventually yields a huge, anthemic chorus. Jesse Johnson's Moog and the underrated drumming of Tony Thaxton both getting a chance to shine on "Pulp Fiction." Pierre's vocal performance is somehow simultaneously herky-jerky and understated on "Hysteria" (what other vocalist can pull that off?) and "Skin and Bones," as the title might suggest, is a uniquely introspective look at the age-old idea of the meaning of life ("What if there's nothing more to us? / We're just carbon-based, we're just pixie dust").
The near-five-minute "The Weakends" closes My Dinosaur Life in dramatic fashion; the angular verses are carried by Thaxton's impressive fills, while Pierre's vocal performance is top-notch, as usual; the way the song crescendos from the quieter verses to the loud choruses certainly isn't a new technique, but damn if it isn't done to perfection here. Step aside, "Hold Me Down"; this is the new favorite album closer of choice.
Missteps on My Dinosaur Life are few and far between; "History Lesson" drags a little bit, which is never good for a song with a running time of 2:35, and the chorus of "@!#?@!" is the wrong kind of silly ("You all need to go away, you motherfuckers / You all need to leave me and my homeboys alone"), but aside from these brief transgressions, this is the best Motion City Soundtrack has been since I Am the Movie. Life is all about second chances, and My Dinosaur Life gives the band a new lease on it.
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