Wednesday, February 10, 2010

254. Motion City Soundtrack: My Dinosaur Life (2010)

Note: My opinion on this album has changed since the publication of this review. Read this for more detail.

In a recent interview, Motion City Soundtrack frontman Justin Pierre said his Minneapolis pop punk band's new album, My Dinosaur Life, is an "all in" moment, a shot at the big time.

I have to assume he was talking about the business side of things (this is their first album on a major label) because creatively, MCS has been all-in from the beginning. The band's 2003 debut (I Am the Movie) was embryonic and uneven, but still had a fair share of notable moments. The next two albums, 2005's Commit This To Memory and 2007's Even If It Kills Me were outstanding. They were perfectly-paced, energetic, and deeply catchy.

Ironically, My Dinosaur Life is none of those things.

Where Even If It Kills Me left off, MCS were finding a balance between their cold-weather cynicism and a growing sense of hope and happiness. It makes sense: Lead singer and lyricist Justin Pierre fell in love, got sober, ended a relationship, and fell off the wagon all in the course of recording the album. The album also found the band moving lyrically outward, writing a couple of songs that were about social ills instead of personal ones (Calling All Cops and Hello Helicopter).

My Dinosaur Life fails to build on that progression. Like its predecessors, the album documents bad choices, relationships that have ended, and the eternal lure of alcohol and drugs. Unlike its predecessors, most of the songs fail to document those things compellingly.

Actually, things start off fairly well. Worker Bee is short, snappy, and optimistic: "It's been a good year / A good new beginning" Pierre intones. A Lifeless Ordinary (Need A Little Help) continues the sunshiney mood, with Pierre acknowledging on the memorable chorus that he can't figure things out all by himself.

From there things decline, for various reasons. On some songs the problem is the lyrics. The catchy, self-loathing duo Pulp Fiction and Her Words Destroyed My Planet can't quite overcome their awkward extended metaphors. @!#?@! is a throwaway that seems somehow beneath MCS. I mean, the chorus goes: "You all need to go away / you motherfuckers / you all need to leave me and my sensitive homeboys alone." Ironic or not, it's unfunny. A few songs throw in off-kilter pop culture references (Veronica Mars, Busta Rhymes, Miami Vice, Inspector Gadget) that add nothing.

Elsewhere, the problems are musical. On Disappear and History Lesson Pierre's voice sounds eerily like Monkees' singer Mickey Dolenz. It's so jarring that I had to look at the liner notes to see if a different band member had taken over vocals on those songs. I like Dolenz, but it's just distracting. Delirium and Stand Too Close are little more than generic pop punk. So is Hysteria. You know things are off when you find yourself wishing a song were a Def Leppard cover.

Thankfully, things wrap up on a slightly better note. The album's best song is Skin and Bones. Lyrically, it tackles life's big questions and the fear the unknown brings, and the chorus is a killer: "Will we be all right left alone tonight?" Closer The Weakends isn't bad despite the stupid title, but it would have been one of the weaker tracks on either of the band's previous records.

And that's the problem in microcosm: It's not so much that My Dinosaur Life is an awful album, as it is that MCS are capable of so much better. Last month I reviewed Duran Duran's Liberty, an album hated by the band's fans, and I discussed how my ignorance of their catalog actually helped my view of the album. In this case, it's the reverse effect. Maybe I'm too familiar with Motion City Soundtrack to judge My Dinosaur Life fairly. All I can say to that is that I really did want to love this album. It just didn't cooperate with me.

Time will tell if Motion City Soundtrack's "all in" moment leads to a commercial breakthrough, but believe me when I tell you it's definitely not an artistic one.

Grade: C-
Fave Song: Skin and Bones


Richard said...

Very interesting that this is getting MCS its best reviews ( but not pleasing one of their big fans. I haven't heard it yet, but I'm definitely curious...

Paul Allen said...

Universal Acclaim! I noticed the rave reviews too before I wrote this one, and I even listened to the album a couple more times to make sure I wasn't missing something.

I guess mileage may vary.