A lot has happened since The Drums released their excellent “Summertime!” EP last September. Singer Johnathan Pierce and guitarist Jacob Graham, best friends since childhood, went from being a duo to a four piece with the addition of guitarist Adam Kessler, of Pierce’s former band, Elkland, and Connor Hanwick on drums. By the end of 2009, they had gained a considerable attention from critics, and for good reason. “Summertime!” took the best aspects of new wave and surf rock and formed a sound that was at once familiar, yet one that was unique and exciting.
The EP landed the group on many “Bands to Watch” lists, with everyone from Pitchfork to NME singing praises about them. A full nine months later, the band has released its self-titled debut amidst a steady wave of hype and pockets of backlash. Some believe that the group are no more than a flash in the pan, or that they were years late to the new-wave revival party. However, while not perfect, The Drums have made an album that is filled with some of the catchiest music you are likely to hear this year, delivered in a style that they can justify claiming for themselves.
There really is no better way to describe The Drums sound than Manchester melancholy meets the American boardwalk or, as Coke Machine Glow writer George Bass described it in his review of “Summertime!,” “What if Joy Division had done a beach party record?” The prominent, memorable bass lines, the synthesized drums, and the space conscious production values of England’s northern region are paired with the summer tinged guitars and bounciness of the shores on this side of the Atlantic to great artistic effect. The band sounds extremely comfortable with this style, and it shows in some of their best songs. The bass line for album highlight “Let’s Go Surfing,” for example, is likely to stay stuck in your head for weeks, while the synth heavy chorus of the equally impressive “Forever and Ever Amen” is just the icing on an insanely catchy arrangement. Even when the band experiments with their sound, like on the more atmospheric “It Will All End in Tears” or pushing Pierce’s vocals into the background on album closer “The Future,” they still manage to find a way to keep things engaging while still retaining catchiness. The group has found a winning sound that is amplified by Pierce’s charisma and appeal.
The interesting thing, though, is that Pierce’s lyrics are nothing special. In fact, many people would be justified in dismissing them as overly simplistic or juvenile. While lines such as “I thought that my life was getting easier/ Instead it’s getting harder,” from “Book of Stories,” seem like they could be written by almost anyone that has ever had a rough day, there is a certain beauty in the directness of how Pierce expresses his emotions. With the exception of “Let’s Go Surfing,” the lyrics on this album wear the influence of new wave’s most heartbroken front men as opposed to the carefree vibe that the guitars suggest. It is an interesting contradiction that is made meaningful by Pierce’s vocal delivery. He sings in an earnest, heartfelt tone that gives his words their own unique charm, and he has a certain swagger that make the lyrics come to life, despite their simplicity.
For proof, just listen to standout track “Down by the Water.” Pierce completely outdoes himself, singing lyrics like “You gotta believe me when I say/ When I say the word “Forever!,” with such sincerity that it is nothing short of heart wrenching. Combined with a slow, sorrowful arrangement conjuring up images of a 1950’s dancehall number, it is easily one of the group’s best songs, and a prime candidate for the song you wish you had the chance to dance to at your prom. More than anything, this album establishes Pierce as a front man who can make the most out of seemingly unimpressive lyrics through his performance, and that in itself is something that very few vocalists can pull off with such effortlessness.
If there is one major complaint about this album, it is that many of the most memorable songs from “Summertime!” were left by the wayside. “Let’s Go Surfing” and “Down by the Water” are the only songs that are represented, and while it is great that The Drums have confidence in the new material presented here, some of the EP’s best moments are sorely missed. “I Felt Stupid,” released as a single late last year, is arguably the song that best defines the group’s sound and what they’re all about, and it is sad to see that it and standouts “Saddest Summer” and “Submarine” are left to exist as EP only cuts. Some of the songs on “The Drums” feel like they would be better suited as B-Sides, such as “Me and the Moon” and “Skippin’ Town,” when compared to the quality of those tracks. However, it is not a fatal flaw, and it is all the more reason for people who are just discovering the band to go out and buy “Summertime!” as a companion piece.
With their debut, The Drums have made an album that lives up to the promise of their earlier work while demonstrating that they have a great potential to grow as a band. When they are on top of their game, they are capable of writing songs that are memorable and unique, and this album will likely gain them even more followers. It will be interesting to see what direction they decide to take next, but for now, you can rest assured that this a quality pop album from a band on the rise.