Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Album Review: 3 Doors Down - Us And The Night

Like a lot of bands that came around during the time that has been lumped under the banner of 'post-grunge', 3 Doors Down made a big splash when that sound was all the rage, and then has receded more into the background as rock music of all stripes struggles to find any popularity. Even when talking about a band that was mainstream, like them, you have to almost be a die-hard fan just to know what's going on. It should come as no surprise, then, for me to say that the band hadn't crossed my mind in several years, and I couldn't name you a track from their last several releases. That's not because of any feelings I have for them, but merely because rock music in the mainstream has been marginalized that much.

You can make the argument that rock music has evolved over the years, and that's true. However, there are certain ways that rock has changed, and there are certain ways that are obvious pandering to get another hit or two before the end of a career. Listening to the opening song here, "The Broken", it seems obvious to me which way the wind is blowing. The song has autotune, drum effects, and a synth that is too pop even for the worst 80s hair band. Even the rhythm being played is a take-off on indie rock, and has virtually nothing to do with the kind of rock I remember 3 Doors Down playing. That said, what's really at question is whether the song is any good, and the answer to that is... sort of. It's got the surface level appeal of modern pop, but it doesn't have much teeth, and there doesn't seem to be enough there to dig into on repeated listens. It's pleasant, but a bit like empty calories.

"In The Dark" follows, and is a much better track. It does away with the pretense of modern pop, and instead focuses on what the band is good at; delivering melodic rock that puts writing a good song ahead of reinventing the wheel. It shows a better sense of evolution, having turned the lights on and scrubbed away the darkness and grime of the post-grunge era, preferring to make something more akin to modern arena rock. It's a good sound for the band, and definitely is a better path to explore.

When I hear the vocal timbre on "Still Alive", it hits me what I'm hearing. 3 Doors Down has somehow morphed into what Daughtry was, until the flaming disaster that was their last album. Let's dispense with something right away; I don't mean that as a knock in the slightest. The first two Daughtry records are magnificent examples of how to fuse pop and rock in a way that feels organic, and when 3 Doors Down is focused on following that train of thought, they do themselves proud. "Believe It" is a really good song, and one I easily could have heard on rock radio back when I still paid attention to it. It's right in my wheelhouse, and it works.

There is diversity to the record, as well, and it comes with the usual issues. The ballad "Inside Of Me" is saccharine but effective, and is a needed reprieve. "I Don't Wanna Know" is a controversial song, with an approach that mirrors something Ed Sheeran might do, but it goes too far down the pop line even for a rock fan like me who still likes pop melodies. It doesn't have the authentic feeling that "Pieces Of Me" does, when that song properly uses its acoustic guitars.

Then we have the case of a song like "Love Is A Lie", which is a tight little rocker with a hooky as heck chorus. The only problem is that it immediately reminded me that the melody had almost idenitically been written by Nickelback a decade ago. The similarity dimmed my affection for the track. That's then balanced out by "Us And The Night", which goes back to hitting all the right marks.

So what the record amounts to is a bit of confusion. We get several fantastic songs that perfectly blend pop and rock, but then we also get a handful of tracks that are too pop-oriented for the band's own good, because they don't fit in with what we know of their sound. And, to be honest, they aren't nearly as good at writing those tracks. The good material on "Us And The Night" is great, but the band isn't willing to double down on their strengths in an environment that won't reward that. I understand it, but I don't like it, because it makes this album far less than it could have been. It's still good, but it clearly could have been better.

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