When it first started emerging from basements in the ‘90s, emo proved that energy and relatability can, in fact, transcend musical talent. Melody still found its place, especially as the scene gained steam, but 21st century bands from Taking Back Sunday to The Hotelier have been more defined by their connectedness with listeners. The latter, as well as the more hardcore-tinged Defeater and Make Do and Mend, have fronted the modern scene with heart-on-sleeve prowess. Yet, a few contemporary artists have created a Newtonian counterbalance: for all their emotional release, they reveal an equal amount of blandness. Can’t Swim is the latest embodiment of emo physics, as Fail You Again hits with immense force throughout its runtime but struggles to sound unique at the same time.
With that statement in mind, it’s important to focus on the positives of the band’s debut full-length first, as they still outweigh the negatives by quite a bit. Sound-wise, Can’t Swim reminds most of Make Do and Mend’s gritty post-hardcore, adding elements of alternative rock and pop-punk to sweeten up the mix. Their harder side is on full display in opener “What’s Your Big Idea”, where iron-coated guitars and a shouted chorus of “hey”s set a harsh tone. Their sugary tendencies spring into action in the succeeding track, a depressing affair tying past failures to present endurance. “We Won’t Sleep” is highlighted by a sleek hook and simple, yet depthful lyrics (“These beds that were once / Where we nurtured our young / Have broken and bent from the love”).
Both the heavy and poppy sides appear fully developed in “$50,000,000” and “Hey Amy”, two thick slabs of emo-punk that attract attention for different reasons. The former is a slow-moving affair that incorporates an isolated guitar part reminiscent of The Devil & God-era Brand New, but its grimy instrumentation fails to build up much additional excitement. “Hey Amy” uses a quiet-to-heavy dynamic to land a bigger blow, ending up one of the album’s most interesting songs musically due to its structure and guitar effects. Can’t Swim’s songwriting is put to the test in the heavier songs, and they triumph in some (the aforementioned tracks) and struggle in others. “One Shot” is an attempted anthem, but the try is pulled down by generic lines and low-pitched melodies that don’t fit its intentions.
Hits and misses aside, the group shows a lot of rawness that makes them as double-edged as Newton’s Third Law. The outfit puts an impressive resume of influences on the table, with hints of The Movielife in their guitars and the recent emo/rock sounds of Transit and Citizen coursing through its roots. But their pursuit of an identity often feels more defined by their inspirations than their spin on the genre, a sign of a band seeking footing but not quite finding it yet. The heavier tracks on Fail You Again maintain some intrigue, but don’t hold a candle to the genre’s current headliners. In fact, the outfit seems most comfortable (and effective) in slower songs “Quitting” and “Molly’s Desk” — both of which are stripped down to the point of highest resonance.
Can’t Swim’s Pure Noise debut showcases a group that does what they do well while trying to grasp a more distinct identity in the process. At times, they find themselves, as moments like the build-up in “Quitting” and the instrumentation in “We Won’t Sleep” and “Hey Amy” make substantive impacts and showcase the band’s cavernous potential. Fail You Again may not be as striking as other recent emo debuts, as records like Daytrader’s Twelve Years and From Indian Lakes’ Able Bodies still take the cake. That being said, it’s still a likable collection of bleak, emo-tinged punk songs that makes a solid impression — one that the band can use to move forward as their promising career continues.
Emo/Punk | Pure Noise Records