Monday, March 2, 2009

Review: Bell X1 - Blue Lights On The Runway (* * * 1/2)

Bell X1 just recently released their new album, Blue Lights on the Runway, on March 3rd. The record is only the second to see a U.S. release but is actually the 4th effort for the Irish quartet. The band originally included folk superstar Damien Rice, who left the band to pursue a solo career (and we all know how that turned out), leaving drummer Paul Noonan to step into the singer/songwriter slot. Noonan's descriptive, often oddball lyrics and the band's bigger, fuller sound make them markedly different than anything Rice has done, but that hasn't hurt the group's popularity, and 'Blue Lights' is their most successful album yet in their native Ireland.

Hearing Bell X1 now, you truly would be hard-pressed to find any commonality between them and their former bandmate. Where Rice's music is intimate and delicate, Noonan and crew are grandiose, where Rice is earthy and grounded, Bell X1 prefer layers of noise and electronic flourishes. 'Blue Lights' is a big, smooth, alternative rock album that draws from a variety of influences, blending them all together in stadium-sized anthems and sing-a-long choruses. Opener "The Ribs of a Broken Umbrella" rolls along on keys and symbol-heavy percussion while Noonan relates the story of a man in love with 'a girl in a picture.' "The Great Defector" explodes into an addicting, catchy chorus complete with hand claps and group vocals, and "Breastfed" features some heavy guitar in the album's most rock 'n' roll moment.

Even the softer, less noisy tracks seem grand and almost epic in their presentation. "Blow Ins" shows the band at their most melodic, with beautiful vocals backed by slide guitar, piano, and soft percussion, "Amelia" is a quaint story of love and longing, and "The Curtains Are Twitchin'" begins gently before slowly climaxing in a messy mix of horns that close the album. These quieter tunes are, for the most part, more conventional than the fiery, up-tempo numbers, which balances the record at the expense of leaning toward the more generic side of alternative music.

Most of the songs on 'Blue Lights' are filled with strange descriptions and strings of seemingly unconnected thoughts, which can be a little distracting at first, but are certainly preferable to the flood of boring, dated rock lyrics so prevalent today. The worst offender is "One Stringed Harp," where Noonan conjures unnecessarily detailed imagery and slings borderline sexist phrases, but generally the writing is quirky and fun without being obnoxious. Perhaps my biggest beef with the record is that it's quite long. At 10 tracks and 55 minutes, certain songs felt like they could have been curtailed by a minute or two without losing any real substance. Fortunately, as has been discussed, the material is strong enough throughout the record and this is less of an issue than it might be otherwise.

I imagine 'Blue Lights' will get a mixed reception from fans and critics due to its unconventional nature, but I found it to be an enjoyable and interesting record despite being slightly uneven. Bell X1 have managed to combined their influences with their unique presentation into a melodic, fun, and frequently exciting album.