Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What the hell do I know?

The interesting thing about Pennsylvanian pop group Illinois is that though they're not wildly inventive and recall plenty of peer groups at once, they do manage to make each song vastly different from the last. I found myself sitting through each song on What the Hell Do I Know? with a careful ear, asking nobody, “Who does this sound like?” And while I absolutely hate having to name-drop comparisons, it's virtually impossible to avoid in the case of a band like Illinois, which embraces that tricky genre of "indie pop" with arms wide open. The verses of “Headphones” bring Howard Hello to mind, while “Screendoor” brings out the ambiguously male vocals of Chris Archibald, making sense of possible references to Cold War Kids or Silversun Pickups. I can't help but think of the Strokes' “Under Control” when I hear opener “Alone Again” start up – yes, I know the Strokes have been generously used as a reference point in perhaps 50% of music reviews written over the last five years, but it's the reference point that sticks out in my mind on this particular occasion. Maybe it's the pacing of the song, or the fact that it's a ballad disguised as a pop song, but I pick up on the softer side of Julian Casablancas here. And of course, with the popularity of Sufjan Stevens came the popularity of the banjo in pop music, found here in “Nosebleed” over a fairly bland dance track.

So, yes, the EP's dull and redundant points could be summed up in a bullet-point, nutshell form. But there are a few things about it that are sort of cool, actually. Like how the track carrying the bass drum on “Bad Day” is up loudly enough that you get a layer of fuzz over the giant, overpowering double-boom that trails off and contrasts the muted story being told (which is rather trivial and perfectly maintained in its state of background noise). “What Can I Do For You” is quite nice because you can hear the parts played by each band member, coming together at once so that the sound's nice and full, the band utilizing each other and making every piece relevant.

And much as I gripe about all things unoriginal (ironic words to write in a blog, no less – this is where I'd normally toss in a What the Hell Do I Know? pun and let things go), “Alone Again” and “Screendoor” are actually the most memorable tracks Illinois has to offer. Respectively, the background vocals comprising each “bum-bum” chorus mesh with hand claps to assist a strong albeit pleasant rhythm section that, this time, does not overpower the lovely melodies offered. “Screendoor” is just plain feel-good, what with its ooh-ing and hoo-hoo-ing, literally buzzing bass/guitar intertwining, and simple danceable quality.

No, there's nothing original, fresh, (insert synonym for “original”) about Illinois. But they're very safe, and safe will win Illinois a steady fan base. Well, that and the fact that they're opening for the sold-out Kooks tour in the US this spring. But the band makes solid, reliable pop, and sometimes, a scoop of vanilla ice cream is all you've been craving.

Illinois on MySpace (contains tour dates with and without the Kooks, plus one song not on the EP)

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