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The Golden Rule
Artist: Above the Golden State
Label: Sparrow Records
Release Date: 01-26-2010

There is an old proverb that claims, "from humble beginnings come great things." If this is true, then Michael Watson, Kyle Dean Scott and Jordon Houston – collectively known as the Portland, Oregon-based trio, Above the Golden State – ought to be overjoyed. Suffice it to say that the assessments of their debut release ranged from mildly pleased to outright dismissive. Indeed, even the most positive of reviews tagged the 2008 self-titled project as a simply a modestly pleasing, albeit largely undistinguished, collection of acoustic pop/rock songs. Just how much the listening audience took the reviews to heart is debatable. But, while the group's debut single made a respectable showing, stalling just outside the Top 10, its successors languished in the lower reaches of the Top 40 while the album itself topped out at the modest #28 position before falling off the charts altogether. 

In their defense, the freshman effort's lackluster reception was probably more a function of the band's chosen style of music than any intrinsic lack of talent in the way in which they played it. To be sure, one look at the Billboard singles chart should convince even the most ardent of naysayers that Watson & Co.'s decidedly retro-leaning collection of buoyant Beatlesque melodies, soaring harmonies and often folk-influenced guitar work were all but destined to be lost on the average Christian Hit Radio devotee looking to latch on to the next big hip-hop, dance-pop or faux blue-eyed soul artist. Which is a shame, really, in light of the fact that the eponymous outing was a veritable treasure trove for those whose love of pop and rock music stretches back further than, say, the dc Talk Jesus Freak album.

Thankfully undaunted by the debut's lukewarm welcome, the AGTS cooperative has once again set out to tutor the yet-converted masses in the fine art of crafting the consummate three-and-a-half-minute single. The EP's spirited title track – a magnificently exuberant modern power pop offering, a la Fountains of Wayne or the late, great Waiting – opens things up with a convincing first shot over the proverbial bow. "Change to Love" trades the bracing distortion that graced the guitars of the leadoff cut for an equally appealing jangle. "Real You" finds Watson and his cohorts taking a slightly jarring, but ultimately rewarding, stylistic left turn. Sounding a bit like Rooney covering the Go-Go's "Get Up and Go," its lilting lo-fi synthesizer blips will elicit a knowing smile from those old enough to remember the birth of MTV, even as its modern rock inclinations ensure that their younger nieces and nephews don’t hit the “next” button on their iPods when they hear it.

In all fairness, it should be noted that the band's writing skills are slightly less unerring than their instrumental acumen. The unimaginative "I Am Loved" (You’re not alone/ You have someone to find you/ Someone to guide you home) is one of the more obvious examples of the sophomore record's word-related shortfalls. "Real You" and "Teach Us" (Wounded and scarred/ Uncover my heart/ Clouded and dark/ My words fall apart) though certainly less trite, aren't nearly as profound as their overarching language would try to make them sound. Of course, those who would dismiss entries like the title track as simplistic (You can know everything/ But your knowing won’t help/ Love your Savior and your neighbor like yourself) are likely the very ones those songs are aimed at. More importantly, the new project is more than musically engaging as a whole enough to place its intermittent lyrical underperformances somewhere between trifling and all but moot, depending on how closely the listener tends to pour over their favorite albums' liner notes.

At first blush, Rule may seem like merely a pleasant pop effort with little or no filler (which, truth be told, is arguably sufficient to recommend it). After a few spins, though, its underlying niceties, such as Watson's subtle balance of emotiveness and restraint or the  intricacies of his and Houston's marvelously understated fretwork, begin to bubble to the top. Indeed, it is this very minimalism, ironically enough, which winds up being the record's strongest selling points and one of the hardest things for most groups in the current the-further-over-the-top-the-better era to replicate convincingly. By stripping their music of all but the most necessary and appropriate accouterments, the Staters actually wind up emphasizing, rather than dulling, the underlying potency of their compositions. And it is this seldom-seen less-is-more aesthetic, along with the trio's undeniable musical savvy, that makes their stellar sophomore release a near-necessary purchase for both the existing fan base and classic pop connoisseurs at large.

Bert Gangl, The Phantom Tollbooth (04-08-2010)


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