Helicopters | Sizing Up the Distance
Most Likely To: show promise and puerility in equal measure.
There is a thin line between clever and stupid. I think David Foster Wallace wrote that somewhere, and damn it to hell if he wasn’t right. How is this line delineated? How thin a line is it? It seems like it’s always shifting, one that is obscured and moving, even as it is tread upon. Chicago trio Helicopters try to balance their new release Sizing Up The Distance on the line, sometimes deftly poised like tightrope walkers and sometimes falling flat on their faces left of clever.
The album starts off with what is arguably the best song of the bunch, “Emergency.” It builds through beautiful harmonies, layered vocal melodies, and intricate guitar textures, erupting into a full-fledged anthem halfway through with the introduction of a swinging drumbeat and a wall of synthesizers. The electronic flourishes are used perfectly, the guitars and the vocals ebb and flow through the mix, and when the synthesizers kick in behind the call and response vocals, you believe you’ve found yourself a great band. “Emergency” opens the album with this amazing promise for the rest of the record. And then the second song happens.
The lyrics take a nosedive on “Getting Out Of Town,” wallowing in trite and wide eyed high-school fantasy, setting the tone for the rest of the record as a great song/horrible song showdown. Whereas the musical texture and the production aesthetic are maintained throughout, the quality of the songwriting and the assumed decision to include every playful musical whim on the record create an inconsistent and often frustrating listen. There are three principal songwriters in Helicopters, and the democratic decision to allow all literary voices to be heard on the record is a poor one. For every great song on the record (“Emergency,” “Iran”) there is an equally horrible indulgence (“Still Silhouettes,” “White Lily No Soul”).
The divergent musical themes, when set next to their more earnest songs, bear little continuity and feel like they would have been best served left on the cutting room floor. “Still Silhouettes” sounds like a bad attempt at recreating an LCD Soundsystem song, and the fact that the album’s lyrics veer from literal pap to emotional abstractions doesn’t help their cause either.
Having said that, there is plenty to like on this debut full-length. The production is gorgeous and deep. The guitar work is nuanced and nimble. The vocal work is perfectly balanced, the harmonies ring out in dulcet tones.
Some bands have the ability to weave disparate genres together within the context of a single record, relying on underlying themes or an over-arching aesthetic to bind them together. It’s a tough task, and one that requires a unified front from the band members. The way that Helicopters swing wildly between marvelously clever and painfully stupid on Sizing Up The Distance brings into question their ability to rein in their indulgences and tread the thin line gracefully.
Watch a live performance of “Emergency” by Helicopters: