You can't talk about Arthur without mentioning MxPx. Arthur began as an MxPx side project in the late '90s, and by the time the band had recorded their debut EP in 1999, Arthur had exactly the same lineup as MxPx, except frontman Mike Herrera had switched from bass to guitar and high school friend Neil Hundt had taken over on bass. That EP, Loneliness Is Bliss, was recorded live during some leftover studio time MxPx had, and it showcased a more stripped-down, pensive side to the band. Arthur toured off the EP and started work on a followup album, but MxPx got in the way, and the project lay dormant until recently, when the four guys finally sat down to record the 12 songs of Watch the Years Crawl By.
In those 11 years since 1999, Arthur have experienced much the same change in sound as MxPx. Watch the Years Crawl By is more tight and less raw than Loneliness Is Bliss. Everything sounds clean, polished, and lean, and Herrera's talent for writing a catchy melody has been honed even further to produce an album that you already know the words to after the second listen. This is a phenomenon that I only tend to experience with MxPx/Arthur albums–the music doesn't grow on you over time so much, but it hooks you very early on and keeps you coming back for more during those first few weeks of owning it. But whereas MxPx sell themselves on speed and aggression, Arthur tends to go for a more simple, subtle approach, and that makes sense when you consider the band are all well into their 30s. But the innocent themes of love and girls found in a lot of MxPx material are still present here. It makes you wonder where Herrera manages to get his inspiration from these days now that he's happily married, but he does manage and the lyrics cover a variety of moods, all relating to relationships.
Opening track "Cold Outside" is a straightforward rock song with a memorable chorus that sets the pace of the album nicely, but won't win any Grammys. But things pick up with second track "America", which seems to take the interesting approach of using America-centric imagery as the basis for a love song. The sparse verse is catchy, and the song would be perfect if it wasn't for a dragged-out finish. The ending sounds over-produced with overlapping vocals, and this spoils the bare-bones feel the album has going for it up to this point. However, fear not, as this is the only moment of filler/misstep of the album.
Third track "Be Still" is a down-tempo number which comes alive in the chorus. The melancholy meter registers full, but the song structures and lyrics are so simple that it doesn't feel forced. Fourth track "Heartache" is where the album strays most into MxPx territory with a fairly fast tempo and aggressive guitars and vocals, but the long snare rolls in the verse don't feel like something you'd find in an MxPx song and pull the song back into Arthur mode.
The instrumentation on Watch the Years Crawl By isn't technically impressive, but it is solid, and tighter than Loneliness Is Bliss. Yuri Ruley's straight-to-the-point drumming is a pleasure as ever, and the softly picked guitars roll the listener over and over rather than pummel you like an MxPx song might do.
"To Have and to Hold" starts off acoustic, but the rest of the band slowly join in, and a song which could have easily been drawn out finishes at a respectable 2:44. With its country stylings, "Tie Me to You" sounds like something from Herrera's third side project, Tumbledown, but seems 10 times less fake and is much better than anything I've heard come out of that project. "Thought a Lot" is a re-recording of the opening track from Loneliness Is Bliss, but this time without the jarring vocal discord that seems to kick off the original, and some minor adjustments and extra harmonies polish the song up even further.
Arthur have said that they are inspired by "a love of '50s doo-wop tunes" and there's a vague theme of that era throughout the whole album, but "Out of the Blue" shows this influence most strongly. Musically, tonally and lyrically this song sounds like something you might have heard on '50s radio, and for me it's one of the standout tracks of the album. "Fortissimo" is the album's darkest five minutes, but things finish on a more upbeat note with "You Bring Me to My Knees" and then "I Still Haven't Reached You", which utilizes well the organs which have been creeping into MxPx's albums over the last few years.
It's hard to find too many faults with the album musically, but the artwork is a bit of a letdown. The art for their previous EP was nothing special, but it fit the vibe of the record. The artwork for Watch the Years Crawl By looks cheap, and for a band with MxPx's budget, could be better.
In summary, MxPx have dabbled in so many sounds throughout the years that this release could have gone in multiple directions, but having 11 years of material to choose from really shows: This is the most solid, consistent release MxPx or Arthur have made in a while. The album lacks the speed and energy of MxPx, but it doesn't sound restrained or weak–it just seems to suit the band when you consider their age. This isn't hard, heavy or fast, but it is a collection of well-written songs that shows the band can still write great music.