Resting comfortably in the void between funk, rock, hip-hop, and soul, I was a little skeptical about the Paper Tongues at first. Their self-titled debut album could have gone in a thousand different directions, most of them disastrous. But, after catching the Paper Tongues opening for Flyleaf last year at Mr. Smalls in Pittsburgh and enjoying their sound, I decided to listen through the album.
The thing that strikes me most about the Paper Tongues is that their sound is full. With a complete stack up of drums, multiple guitarists, two keyboardists and a dynamic male vocalist, I was still surprised by the sound this group creates. This album is mixed well, a simple statement that I can't say about the majority of content I hear. Its mastering is spot on.
The album opens with their single Trinity. Trinity puts the lead vocalist, Aswan North, front and center in a spacious mix of punchy drums and ambient keyboards circling around the headphones. To add to the ambiance, the band's backup vocals are mixed perfectly in with subtle chorus effects. The lead vocals drive with power, although being a little conceptually vague. On third or fourth listen, I'm still not sure what the song is trying to say, but I find it irrelevant along such a great sound palette. The lyrics drive with a syncopated rhythm that makes the entire energetic and enjoyable.
After the song is over, a fast 16th-phrased drum beat leads in to For The People. The songs is anthematic – chord progressions reminding me of a feeling of triumph. “This one's for the people” is a recurring theme throughout the lyrics, and though a little shallow, is admittedly fun to listen to. Again, the mix is superb; vocals are where they should be, drums are audible and intricate. Ambient synthesizers are complimentary and the entire sound of the song is immersive. This song is driving and I'm fighting the urge to deliver a pretentious fist pump. Two songs in and I'm thrilled.
Third songs rolls, and I hear Ride To California. The song starts with a monotonic, hip-hop rhythm vocal part reminiscent of Rage Against the Machine, and surprisingly I'm not turned off. I'm not accustomed to nodding my head at hip-hop, but it's appealing to me when approached with musical composition remaining a priority. I'm excited for more energy.
The next track, Get Higher is a ballad in a fashion individual to the band's style. Vocals are dynamic, reaching, soaring and spot-on, and only supported by a full faculty built by a slew of electric guitar and synth. The bass and drums cement the mix in to one of the best ballads you've ever heard – this is coming from someone who traditionally loathes ballads, too. The song is lyrically another 'pump' song, and is thematically making me suspicious that this is a closet-Christian rock album, but I'm not necessarily turned off. I'm enjoying the music and imaging scenes from Braveheart.
What If, track 5, isn't my favorite song, as it lives in the domain between mid-tempo and ballad that feels more awkward t
han puberty. It's got a resounding chorus, if nothing else, but this isn't the band's specialty – they seem to be born for more energy. I'm excited for the next track.
The rhythm in Soul is different. Percussion phrasing is mixed meter, hopping between time signatures, but still very grounded in the rock four-beat realm. It's just enough experimentation to be good. Every single song on this album has a very uplifting, triumphant chorus and this song is no different (admittedly, I could use some more variety, but I'm far from complaining). Aswan hits a note in the middle and holds it in Steve Perry fashion, and despite knowing that this might be perfected in the studio, I'm legitimately pleased with his voice. His vocal range is vast, especially in higher registers, and it's beyond powerful.
A funk drum beat opens up Everybody and I almost shake my headphones of my head. Funk and rock roots are really evident in this track, though the song is topically rather angry, and seems be in support of a downtrodden child. It's a bit of a theme change that I don't discount. The drummer, Jordan Hardee, is captivating me and the track makes me want to turn up the volume to 11.
I'm not thrilled with another ballad that follows, Strongest Flame. Slow songs aren't this band's core competency. There are a hundred artists that come to mind that can pull off the ballad, and we don't need another. The Paper Tongues aren't that band.
Rich and Poor is another song where I really enjoy the production, it's mixed expertly. Guitars are over-driven and expansive, and normally I find that distracting, but its complimentary here. Lyrically, this song is a fairly cliche hip-hop theme about how tough life can be in Brooklyn, but the music fits and I'm enjoying the vocalist's voice too damn much to care about what he's saying. This is far from my favorite track on the album and I like it – a good sign.
The last track on the album is Love Like You and dammit, they pulled the very predictable move of closing with their most-sensitive ballad of the disc. I'm disappointed for all of 45 seconds until the chorus comes in, which arrives with a wall of sound that would make Phil Spector blush. It's not my favorite production technique by far, but it carries a lot of resolve that I find an appropriate to close out this kick-ass album.
This album is short, only 10 tracks, but for a freshman album, it's excellent. It's production is top notch, so kudos to A&M/Octone Records. I'm utterly impressed with the melding and welding of so many genres of music, and the vocalist leaves the listener with a lot of residual energy. I'm ready to go fight a bear or something.
The Good: The production, the drums, the vocals, the environment created inside of the headphones.
The Bad: The album was short, and I could have used a few more tracks.
The Ugly: Ballads from this decade are usually bad no matter who is performing them, and the Paper Tongues are no exception.
The Verdict: Unequivocally the best hiphoprockfunksoul band I've heard today. (Buy this album)