We Were Promised Jetpacks
It’s been three years since We Were Promised Jetpacks released their relentless second album In the Pit of the Stomach (my #10 pick for 2011 seen here) and for whatever reason, there stock has seemingly risen during their absence. This is not a complaint, because they are a great band and I love to see the artists that I like find a growing audience, but it is curious that they sold out the Doug Fir here in Portland, where I saw them back in February without the benefit of any new material (live album aside), while their previous visit was as an opening act for label mates The Twilight Sad at an even smaller venue. Now, just last week they headlined the Wonder Ballroom, an even larger venue, headlining this time with The Twilight Sad in support. Maybe absence is the new marketing strategy. I also saw the recently reunited Slowdive perform this last week and they sold out their entire US tour, while they were barely attended as an opener for Ride back in May of 1992. Or it just takes time for word to spread, I guess.
At any rate, between albums, We Were Promised Jetpacks added a new band member, Stuart Michael McGachan on keyboards and additional guitar, and his impact is quite noticeable. The elements of atmosphere that he is providing seem to have had a grounding effect on the band. Their arrangements on Unravelling are fuller and more diverse. The all out intensity of their first two ‘loud-quiet-loud’ albums is still intact, but not quite as in your face, and frankly, not quite as exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, it is their all-in intensity that is what drew me to their sound to begin with, but it is nice to see them move beyond the on the verge of fisticuffs edge where they have always teetered. Singer Adam Thompson continues to impress with his thoughtful lyrics, powerful voice, and assaulting rhythm guitar work, while lead guitarist Michael Palmer is now allowed to toss in some more intricate textures and layers, which only increases the welcoming rush when he floods the speakers with his overloading passes of noise. Meanwhile, bassist Sean Smith and drummer Darren Lackie have really expanded their input, with an added element of staccato beats and spacious groovy post punk bass-lines that we first heard from the likes of Gang of Four and Orange Juice.
It’s a bit shocking to hear the quiet and smooth keyboard introduction on album opener “Safety in Numbers.” The first time I heard the song, my immediate impression is that they’ve been listening to too much Coldplay, with Thompson’s vocals smooth and soft vocal delivery. Luckily, the song turns out to be maybe the strongest on the album. Somehow it continues to build momentum throughout the entirety of the track making it difficult to move into the next song. I actually played the song about four or five times before moving on. Likewise, “Peaks and Troughs” builds and builds throughout, but instead of letting things run rampant and out of control as before, the song maintains its focus and allows its subtleties to drive its message home. “Peace Sign” is another example of this new found restraint (and beautiful piano fills from McGachan) and yet still finds the time to reach for the noisy heights of past offerings.
Elsewhere, “Night Terror” finds a buzzing groove with a heavy bass line and that staccato beat leading the way into an explosive chorus. However, these new found rhythms are hit and miss for me. While “Night Terror,” the grinding “Moral Compass,” and “Bright Minds” incorporate their new expansion of sound perfectly into the strengths that first attracted me to their music, the laborious “I Keep it Composed” feels tired, while the overly long and directionless “Disconnecting” bogs down the entire flow of the record. I appreciate their experimental spirit, but this is really B-side material.
Despite one major misstep, this is still a great album. The darkness of the story of someone (or all of us) unraveling throughout is actually tempered by the closing portion of the album – uncharacteristically allowing a ray of light into the band’s normally bleak outlook. The heavy pounding of the powerful “Moral Compass” seems to find some cleansing and a resolve to try to overcome and persevere. The majestic and spectacular extended instrumental passage “Peace of Mind” is a perfect soundtrack to a beautiful sunrise. Finally, the closing “Ricochet” is a nice bit of reflection to end the proceedings.
I hope this band’s honesty, intensity, and ever expanding palette of sound continues to find a wider audience. They are more than worthy of your attention.
We were Promised Jetpacks "Safety in Numbers"