To many indie rock aficionados, the name 764-HERO is somehow synonymous with the gray, soggy Northwest climate. John Atkins’ terminally melancholy yowl coupled with his often messy, fuzzy shards of guitar and non-committal yet very emotional lyrics seems to, more than most any other band I can think of, identify with what many perceive as the unrelentingly dreary weather that we Northwesterners endure on a seemingly unending basis. Well, here’s the catch: I’d wager that our summers are more beautiful than any other place in the country — sunny, breezy, and very seldom too hot. Likewise, 764-HERO is actually quite a bit more multidimensional than many give them credit for. From the sparse, dirgelike qualities of songs like “Impossible Waste” and “Pitiful Rattle” from their debut, Salt Sinks, Sugar Floats, to the fantic, screamy “Comb the Carpet” from ’97’s We’re Solids EP to the more consistently melodic territory they’ve been mining lately, 764-HERO, so far, has not been a band to put out the same record twice.
The band started out as a duo, with singer/guitarist John Atkins (ex-of Hush Harbor) and drummer Polly Johnson kicking up quite the impressive racket: simultaneously tuneful and shambolic, the duo’s first two records were very much like their live shows — raw as an exposed nerve with pop smarts lying partially obscured under Atkins’ wailing voice and guitar and Johnson’s precise timekeeping. Although previously quite happy as a duo, the band brought bassist James Bertram (also of Red Stars Theory) aboard for their second full length, Get Here and Stay. Flying directly in the face of the old “if it ain’t broke” adage, Bertram, with his distinctive loping, melodic style of bass playing, actually managed to take a good thing and make it better. In addition to his contributions on their recorded material, Bertram also added a huge amount of spunk to the band’s live show.
While some of my favorite live 764-HERO experiences date back to when they were still a duo, Bertram added an undeniable jolt of energy to the band that was sometimes sorely lacking. With Atkins stuck behind his mic and Johnson behind her drums, there wasn’t a whole lot of movement evident in a 764-HERO performance. Bertram, however, was a freakin’ energizer bunny — jumping around almost constantly while thrumming out his distinctive basslines on his trademark Travis Bean bass, he added an amazing amount of juice to their live performance. Get Here and Stay remains the band’s high water mark, beautifully marrying Atkins’ relentless melancholy with his emerging pop sense. Like the watercolor that graced its cover, the music was blurred, but warm and beautiful. Last year’s Weekends of Sound, while no means a bad record, for me, failed to scale similar heights as its predecessor. The record did feature a handful of great tunes, such as the churning title track and the sparse, mournful “You Were the Long Way Home, but by and large, it lacked the dynamic sense and openness that made Get Here and Stay such a keeper.
Unfortunately, Weekends of Sound marked Bertram’s last record with the band, as well as the band’s last record for Seattle indie Up records (due to the untimely and tragic death of Up founder Chris Takino). Nobody Knows This Is Everywhere, then, marks the band’s first recording with new bassist Robin P. (formerly a touring member of Modest Mouse), as well as their first release on New York-based indie Tiger Style. Unfortunately, it also finds the band digging itself into something of a stylistic rut. Bertram is sorely missed — although Robin P. is actually quite competent in his own right, his playing is much more “inside the box” than Bertram’s was. Bertram had the tendency to play extremely melodic basslines that almost functioned as the lead instrument. This worked perfectly with Atkins’ wall o’ fuzzy guitar style of guitar playing, pushing the sound in different directions, and allowing it to spread out more. Robin P., on the other hand, has the tendency to follow Atkins’ guitar lines to a greater extent, and while he’s good at what he does, the resultant sound is much more flat and less expressive than it was with Bertram’s unique style.
Nobody is being billed as 764-HERO’s “most accessible” work to date. While this is true to some degree, mainly recording-wise, many of these songs actually lack the buoyant pop hooks of Atkins’ earlier material. Songs like “Satellites” and “Confetti Confessional” seem content to merely wallow in their melancholy, while a few attempts to rock out, such as “You Were a Party”, come across as overly forced when compared to the genuine, searing intensity of some of the band’s earlier tracks. 764-HERO has always been accused of sounding a whole lot like Built to Spill. I always chalked this up to mere critical laziness, as Atkins’ voice resembles Doug Martsch’s in only the most superficial of ways, and their guitar styles are totally dissimilar. However, Nowhere‘s “At the Surface” is perhaps the most Built to Spill-esque thing the band has ever done, with a wiggly little guitar hook that could have been nabbed from a BTS B-side circa There’s Nothing Wrong With Love.
This is not to say that the entire disc is a wash — there are quite a few songs here that compare favorably with the band’s earlier material. The one-two opening punch of “Oceanbound” and “Photographic Evidence” is as strong an opening as the band’s ever had (except, perhaps, for the magnificently elegiac “Loaded, Painted Red” from Get Here and Stay), and “Skylines” and the closing “Shoot a 45” are as pretty as any other of the band’s mellower moments. Unfortunately, these songs, as successful as they may be individually, do not add up to a convincing whole. The band seems to have lost the fire under its collective ass that propelled its previous records to greatness. Without it, they sound merely pleasant and adequate rather than intense and fiery as they have previously. Although I can sort of see how the band and its label might have seen Nobody Knows This Is Everywhere as a poppier, more accessible effort than their previous releases, this stab at accessibility, has unfortunately robbed the band of a great deal of its once-abundant personality. Instead of “smoothing out the edges”, it has done little more than dull the band’s former shine, and lend more credence to the folks who can’t seem to separate 764-HERO from its dreary, soggy northwest origins.