Hailing from Nashville, Tennessee, Better Off (née Friends) made their first full-length contribution for 6131 Records with 2013’s (I Think) I’m Leaving. Led by frontman Luke Granered, the band wastes no time showing their hand alongside the latest emo/pop-punk wave, but Leaving separates itself from its peers with its accessibility and genuine charm.
The album kicks off with a subdued mission statement in “Hello (Blues)” with Granered’s lyrics setting the tone of lamentation. The ebbing opener then explodes into the syncopated punch of “The Price Is Never Right”, arguably the album’s best track with its crashing crescendos and Granered’s shouted chorus of “all my thoughts say / please stay inside just today / cause you’re so fragile lately and nobody’s holding on to say / could you tell me now if we figured out what to do with all our wasted time / I’ll see dark days for the rest of my life / and I don’t need to go outside.”
One of the keys to Leaving’s repeat play value is the strength of the tracks on the album’s back half. The toned-down, airy “Letting It In/Making It Go” gives way to a trio of blasting, energetic tracks at 7, 8 and 9. While none reach the heights of “The Price Is Never Right” or “A Fool Walks Into a Bar and Cries Wolf”, the catchy chorus of “Keeping Watch”, the pop-punk warmth of “Next Step Is Out the Door” and the angular guitars of “Inside” make sure that there is little skipping to do on the deeper cuts. “Garden State of Mind”, the closer, highlights Granered’s sung intro over strummed chords before giving a mantra of sorts with the lines, “It’s hard to say / the world won’t wait for me, no / no, nothing’s going to change” and launching into more tight drumming over densely toned guitar. As soon as it finishes the second (this time full band) run through the intro, the song reduces down to a boil of picked notes and half-time drums, with Granered repeating the album title over and over for the remaining eight minutes. The result is that the album signs off with more of a whisper than a shout, and fails to capitalize on the potential of “Garden State of Mind” as a standalone track.
There is no question that (I Think) I’m Leaving’s foot in the door is its raw emotion and its dedication to heart-on-sleeve storytelling. On “1991 (Alive)” Granered sears through the crashing chorus with the lines “I can’t believe we got this far alive / the halfway homes for my soul have burned until there is no one left inside.” Just one song later, “Letting It In/Making It Go” provides a stylistic contrast while demonstrating another set of dramatic, metaphor-heavy lyrics worthy of empathy. While Leaving’s attempts to be lyrically creative fall short at times, the true aural success of the album is its legitimate candor — its ability to be heartfelt without consciously trying to sound that way. The sonic backgrounds to Granered’s words are equally full-bodied, demanding attention with their tight compositions. From the calculated dynamics of opener “Hello (Blues)” to the blasting chorus of “Living Tired”, Better Off demonstrate charisma and immediacy in their passionate performances.
(I Think) I’m Leaving is a success for a young band like Better Off. It may not establish itself as a classic, or break ground as a shaker, but the 11 tracks show a knack for composition and intangible confidence beyond what is expected of a debut album. The best songs on Leaving lodge themselves in the listener’s head with grabbing lyrics and crashing hooks, while even the mid-level songs hint at mature songwriting.