Rating:Almost a decade has passed since Phil Ek produced Band of Horses’ lovely, shimmering debut album, Everything All the Time. The group has tried to improve on their opening act three times since and each time delivered a finished product more sterile and less interesting than what came before. I admit to being in denial that one day Ben Bridwell and co. will get it right. Enter the Sidekicks from the Buckeye State of Ohio. On their fourth album, and first on erstwhile punk label Epitaph, the trio has done its damnedest to recreate a Band of Horses album even if it leaned, say, more emo than folksy. This will come as quite a surprise to longstanding fans of the Sidekicks who will likely wonder about these cleaner sounding impostors.
It’s nice to see that Ek, who produced Runners in the Nerved World, is still carrying the Band of Horses torch. But shouldn’t he be carrying it with, you know, Band of Horses? Previous albums from the Sidekicks highlighted raw vocals and fast-charging guitars. The group, according to its Bandcamp page, were lucky enough to do what they loved as teens—make “propulsive punk rock” with their friends. When and why they decided to reconfigure their sound toward a shiny dad rock ornament is anyone’s guess. And it’s not like they’re hiding comparisons. They invite them on their Bandcamp page citing both Band of Horses and early Built to Spill as guideposts for the album.
The first two songs I heard off Runners in the Nerved World—“Deer” and “Jesus Christ Supermalls”—deceived me into thinking that the trio could succeed in its new sound like an actor putting on weight to play a role against type. On the spiraling, repetitious “Deer,” Ek polishes Steve Ciolek’s vocals and guitar to a sheen that—had the song been released a decade earlier—could have been featured on FOX’s sad-rich-people drama “The O.C.” “Jesus Christ Supermalls” doesn’t go down quite as smooth, but its chorus cocktail of Ciolek’s yelping vocals and ascendent guitar playing makes it a candidate for repeat listens.
Album opener “Hell Is Warm” starts with the kind of soft cooing and gorgeous post-rock notes that answers the (non-existent) age-old question of what Explosions in the Sky would sound like with Bridwell as singer. Ciolek actually pulled the same cooing vocal trick on “Jonah and the Whale” off the Sidekicks’s previous album, Awkward Breed. I don’t imagine longtime fans liked it then. They almost certainly won’t like it now.
Even when the Sidekicks speed up the tempo, as they do on “Everything in Twos,” it is hard to escape the way Ek performed the equivalent of botched plastic surgery on Ciolek’s vocals. “Blissfield, MI” perhaps comes closest to the power pop days of yore, but it does nothing to build on what the band has already accomplished. Their Bandcamp page underlines “The Kid Who Broke His Wrist” as an example of “jangly pop euphoria”. There is nothing euphoric about it.
What is lacking from these songs is the energy and passion that the Sidekicks displayed when they were a band almost no one outside of Ohio—or my friend Lloyd in Jersey—knew existed. Nothing on Runners in the Nerved World is as unhinged as “1940s Fighter Jet” off Awkward Breed or as catchy as “Almost the Same” or “Small” off second album Weight of Air.
Runners in the Nerved World will likely bring the Sidekicks a much larger fanbase in the next few weeks than they amassed in the past 10 years. My explanation: people like familiarity. And many people will get the opportunity to get familiar with the Sidekicks in the next seven weeks, as they embark on a 36-stop tour. My interest in seeing the Sidekicks perform live has plummeted after repeated listens to Runners in the Nerved World. So has my desire for that return-to-form Band of Horses album I described above. I am in denial no more.