I feel like I should apologize to those around me because of Orphan, the new album from Empires. For the past few weeks, my neighbors have been hearing me belt out its choruses in the shower. My co-workers have had to listen to me tap out its guitar riffs’ rhythms on my desk and hum its choruses. Anytime I’ve been in the car with friends, I’ve commandeered the sound system with the sole intention of playing this album. If we were in the ‘80’s and my copy of Orphan had been on a cassette tape, I probably would have worn it out in a week. It is that damn good.
Let’s talk about roots. Orphan has a whole slew of ‘em, ranging from The National, U2, The Strokes, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
On opening track “Silverfire”, for example, Sean Van Vleet’s voice dips down to gravelly depths that bring Matt Berninger to mind, but then on “Hostage” two tracks later, he effortlessly belts out arena-filling, soaring choruses that are reminiscent of ‘80’s-era Bono (back before he was shoving U2’s music down our throats, whether we wanted it or not).
At times, Orphan has the restrained angst of a brainchild of the mid ‘80’s and ‘90’s, when My Bloody Valentine, Radiohead, and Nick Cave reigned supreme. That’s especially prevalent on “Lifers”, which is full of sleepy reverb and just enough vocal distortion. There’s no rush as Van Vleet forlornly laments, “I remain on highways and small stages / That’ll be the dream for me / See my friends on jet planes and big stages / And I wave and they’ll wave back / It’s all I ask, it’s all I ask”. (Though, really, if there’s any justice in the world, Empires is not going to have a career like the one described in “Lifers”.)
Other times, though, Orphan swaggers with the kind of dance-floor confidence that made The Killers and Franz Ferdinand first stand out. Never is that more prevalent then on “How Good Does It Feel” and “Please Don’t Tell My Lover”. On its own, each of these songs is massively catchy. The lyrics are great, the guitar riffs are massive, and honestly, you’d basically have to nail your feet to the floor to keep them from dancing along. “How Good Does It Feel” is all slick guitar licks; “Please Don’t Tell My Lover” is chockfull of bouncy staccato beats. They’re cut from the same danceable indie-rock cloth, and when put back-to-back, they’re probably the best six minutes on Orphan.
The really remarkable thing about Orphan is that even though it’s fairly easy to discern its musical influences, Empires have managed to combine all of those roots into something wholly original. Listing all of those influences makes it seems like Empires isn’t anything new or exciting. If I wanted to listen to someone with a voice like Matt Berninger, I’d just listen to The National, right? If I wanted slick indie-rock dance beats, I’d pop in Franz Ferdinand’s Tonight.
Empires have pulled off something really special, though; it’s like they stuck all the bands that impressed them in a blender, leaned on the ‘puree’ button with all their might, strained out all the parts that didn’t fit, and then served you up with the smoothest U2– and Radiohead-tinged musical cocktail in a glass that’s completely of their own creation. They’ve succeeded in the difficult task of paying homage to your influences without copying them.
But I’ll stop with all the idol-talk now. There’s plenty of great stuff here that doesn’t have anything to do with roots or influences. Stuff, for instance, like the earnest hope in “Glow” and the slow-burning “Journey Kid”.
And then there’s “Shadowfaux”, which just might be my favorite three minutes and twenty-two seconds of 2014. It starts out sounding like it’s going to be another melancholy ballad, what with its mid-paced piano intro and lyrics that reference “a moment of pity in a crushed-up city”. Then, Van Sleet haltingly confesses, “I just can’t help myself when I see you…” Just when you think that this is going to be all pining melodrama, the song explodes into bright motion, full of brisk cymbals, backing synths, and an earworm guitar riff as Van Sleet marvels, “I didn’t know I could be so bold”. It’s really the perfect musical personification of that feeling when you see them, that person that makes you go from calm piano to driving alternative rock guitars and drums in the space of a second.
Orphan clocks in at just under forty minutes; most of the songs are around the three-minute mark. Ordinarily, producing a long album is cause for a band to brag. It’s usually all about the double-albums, the B-sides, the extra special secret tracks. But on Orphan, every single song is like a perfectly compact three-minute sonic party. There’s not an ounce of fat to be found here; every song’s length suits it perfectly. Take the aforementioned “Lifers”; at 4:16, it’s the longest track, but because its lyrical content matches perfectly with its languid pacing, it never seems to drag. If the worst thing about this album is its short length, though, that really only means that you get to listen to it that much more quickly.
And trust me. That is definitely a good thing.