When Kevin Devine and Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra met in 2007 while on tour with Brand New, the two promised each other that they would eventually record music together. Flash-forward three years and the two have fulfilled the promise, forming the indie-rock super group Bad Books. The band consists of Devine, the indie folk-rock, wunderkind singer/songwriter, and Hull, who each write half of the 10 songs on their debut Bad Books, and are backed by the rest of Manchester Orchestra. With the duo’s similar voices, they often feature singing on each other’s tracks.The first song, “How This All Ends,” sets the tone for the album. Bad Books is unique for a super group as they sound like a separate entity instead of an amalgamation of the two bands. The track is similar to a sea-shanty sung at bars and shines from the songwriting and singing of Hull and is backed by guitars provided by both Devine and Hull, along with Manchester Orchestra guitarist Robert McDowell. A highlight for the track is the way it features harmonizing vocals during the chorus, similar to the style popularized by the Beach Boys. This is something that has not been done in either band’s previous work so it is especially interesting to hear on the track, perhaps paving the way for a project that will last longer than one album. It also ends with a sound effect as if listening while descending underwater, provided by sound engineer Chris Freeman.
The next few tracks follow the same pattern as Devine and Hull trade off acoustic tracks, with occasional spurts of electrics and pounding drums. “The Easy Mark and The Old Maid” is the first track on the album written by Devine. The chorus is among one of the most tenderly sung on the record. Devine shows his prowess as a phenomenal songwriter in the song. His lyrics aren’t ones that just pass through the ears of the listeners; they make you feel what his characters feel. The song drips with emotion.
However, with the sixth track “You Wouldn’t Have to Ask,” the band provides possibly the fastest pop song on record. Devine here provides the best vocals on record, howling during the chorus. His guitar playing shines as well. McDowell and Hull’s guitar lines are easy to pick out for fans of Manchester Orchestra, yet with Devine’s acoustic background, it is amazing to hear the technically crafted electric guitar riffs he comes up with. The song is similar to the incredibly heavy yet poppy songs that made the Pixies prolific.
If one song on the record could have been found on the forthcoming Manchester Orchestra record, it’s “Please Move,” the eighth track. The song is without a doubt the heaviest in this collection and features Hull’s trademark shrieks in the chorus. The guitar lines also playfully weave around each other and feature three distinctive riffs, giving each of the talented guitarists their fair share of work. The song sounds as if it is almost a sequel to Manchester’s 2009 single, “Shake it Out,” with the same style of a heavy verse, chorus and outro, balanced by a soft, melodic bridge.
The album ends with two acoustic folk songs, the first of which was composed by Devine, entitled “Mesa, AZ.” The song is similar to compositions by Neutral Milk Hotel and the lyrics are sure to further comparisons between Devine and Bob Dylan. The lyrics mention “Beggars Banquet” by The Rolling Stones, which is interesting, as the song is also similar to “Factory Girl,” from the Stones’ 1968 album. A highlight of the track is the ascending bass line provided by Jonathan Corley.
The album ends with Hull’s track, “Texas,” where he sings with a volume so low he is nearly whispering. The lyrics are evocative and are possibly some of the best of his career. The arrangement is sparse and subtle, different than anything Hull has ever done, and is much more similar to Devine’s acoustic work, showcasing the influence that the pair has had on each other’s writing.
While Bad Books may be seen as a side project, the collaboration between the two separate groups make a band that could easily thrive for years by itself. The project is exciting for fans of both groups and is sure to be on many best-of lists at the end of the year.