One of the challenges of 2012 indie rock is how to put your own spin on a template that’s seen plenty of mileage in the past decade. Rhythm based and slightly crunchy guitars, punching basslines, crisp drums, and songwriting based in rock with a dash of power-pop for flavoring–it’s a reliable set up, but doesn’t always sound fresh.
Thankfully, LA band Armada synthesize tried and true indie rock with their own jazz and r&b instincts for a record that, if it isn’t always surprising, is constantly enjoyable. Leading song “Ghosts of Illinois” takes a Green Day-esque, spiraling chord progression, and builds in intensity over its four minutes, adding some piano and guitar texture for tension. As far as songcraft goes, it shows incredible focus, and starts the album on a high. Meanwhile, “Young Man” (and indeed the majority of Paper Ghosts) has a much looser groove to it, including a slower bridge/solo that smoothly transitions back into the song proper.
The rhythm section consisting of bassist Jeremy Gruber and drummer Eddie Core are responsible for most of the musical heavy lifting on Paper Ghosts. Core’s drumming falls somewhere between deft and jazzy, and classic rock stomp, similar to Jimmy Chamberin formerly of The Smashing Pumpkins. Gruber plays limber basslines that aren’t all over the map, but keep the arrangements in lock step without sounding samey. Given such a sturdy background for their songs, Armada guitarist Cody Page (who also does vocals) adds flavor to the songs. As a guitarist, he’s quite versatile; chord-centric riffs dominate tunes like “Ghosts of Illinois” and “Nevada”, while he breaks out some solid solos on “Callanwolde” and Muse-style freakout “Pick Up the Pieces”. For vocals, Page favors a somewhat throaty delivery that reminds me of Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump, if not in range, then at least in dramatic flair. Armada’s fairly adventurous within their boundaries, but they have the musicianship to pull it off.
Paper Ghost wanders during the middle section of “Nevada”, “Beacon St.”, and “Badge & Gun. “Nevada” and “Beacon St.” are mid-tempo slowburners; “Nevada” focusing on a sparse, distorted guitar riff that grinds its way into something resembling Southern rock territory, whereas “Beacon St.” takes a more dramatic turn with Page showing more range than normal. After the more intricate songs, Armada shakes the dust off with “Badge & Gun”, which puts all momentum forward. It’s the purest rock song on Paper Ghosts, and a nice blast of air after a somewhat heady section of the album.
“Pick Up the Pieces” ends up being one of the stronger cuts since it keeps the tension mounted during the entire song, has a fulfilling release, and all in a pretty solid runtime. “Renaissance” picks up the previous songs’s momentum, and while it doesn’t hit as hard as “Badge & Gun”, it’s still one of the livelier songs on the album for it’s sheer fist in the air quality. Unfortunately, closer “Love You” ends the album on a somewhat dissatisfying note. The song starts intriguingly enough with some clean guitar work and vocals, only for keyboards to subtly creep in around the two minute mark. From there, the song follows a softly post-rock ebb and flow, but doesn’t do enough to justify its six minute length. Half as long would have been twice as good.
Paper Ghosts mixes some modernized elements into indie rock; there’s some folk that pops up, scattered seventh chords, and arrangements that wouldn’t sound out of place on the new Jack White record. As a whole, it’s a musically strong, fairly melodic record with sharp lyricism. If Paper Ghosts has a weakness, it’s that it could use an editor; while plenty of these songs jam and build, they more than take their time getting there–there’s about some fat to trim. But overall, a promising full length debut from a band that’s got ideas to spare.