Sound/Style: Spiritually slanted modern rock/adult alternative rock hybrid
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- If you took the four or five seconds to read the "sound/style" description listed above, you might be asking yourself how one distinguishes between "modern rock" and "adult alternative rock" and why such a distinction is necessary at all. Blame it primarily on corporate agendas, which in the last 30 years have turned radio into a blur of demographic divisions: that is, which people groups are buying what kind of music, how old they are, what they wear, whether they prefer regular or extra crispy and what they say when they accidentally shut their hand in the car door. The importance of the music itself – paramount in the ‘50s and ‘60s and during the rise of FM radio in the early ‘70s – has paled next to the question of how to exploit the listening audience for the highest ratings and, thus, the most advertising revenue. This practice has turned the music industry into a merciless chopping block that has sliced and diced music down from pop art into glorified ad jingles. Okay, I exaggerate – but just barely. The sub-genres of modern rock and adult alternative rock mainly exist to identify their slightly overlapping target audiences. Modern rock (noisy, often dour or detached, found on MTV) is aimed at a younger segment, while adult alternative (contemporary pop/rock for musically savvy young professionals, people who either don’t shop at chain stores or just won’t admit it, and those not ready for lite rock) might be for someone who is older but whose earring hole hasn’t grown all the way closed just yet. Okay, I’m being facetious – but only slightly.
Adherence to these categories can mean career life or death. It’s curious, then, if not tentatively encouraging, to see newer bands trying to straddle these narrow distinctions (creating sub-sub genres?) and wriggling around the limitations they impose. Lifehouse was a modern rock band that, with the loss of two founding members and their shift from a four-piece to a trio, has become less aggressive and somewhat more melodic. Evidently, a move like this one perks up a greater percentage of earring-less ears but doesn’t totally alienate the tattooed. Even this writer, a middle-aged and earring hole-less rock fan, can attest that the change is for the good. Lifehouse, on their self-titled third outing, have maintained their power but toned down the weightiness so common to today’s leaden laments. Their guitar textures are more ventilated, allowing some air to move between the layers. Most of their songs lope along at comfortable but not droning mid-tempos.
The new trio format finds the band’s creative force Jason Wade fashioning chordal riffs that suit the single-guitar setup nicely. These help define the band’s current sound but also create a sameness further magnified by Wade’s tensile, emotionally compressed vocals. His songs, though well formed, sometimes seem made from a template. Most cuts blend into one another, though the memorable "Days Go By" benefits from a brisk tempo and a syncopated, falsetto-peppered chorus melody. Taken as a whole, Lifehouse’s mellowed-out modern rock style suggests a body of paintings in multiple shades of brown, with cellos, guitars and vocals all crossing in a dull-ish middle-range.
By the way, Lifehouse have also managed to cross over from commercial rock success to Christian rock appeal. This is yet another matter of genre classification, and it’s indeed heartening to see mainstream audiences embracing groups like Lifehouse and Switchfoot. In such music, Christian references tend toward the opaque, and Lifehouse is no exception. Some serious between-the-lines spectacles are needed to ferret out the deeper meanings in these poetic verbal pastiches, despite the random appearance of lines like "trade it in for a brand new life" and "do you feel lost inside of someone else’s life? /we’re not gonna live forever." When they’re not meandering about relationships and pain, Wade’s lyrics put an optimistic spin on a pragmatic approach to life. "Chapter One" and "The End Has Only Begun," songs that spatter sunlight on shadowy times, drop bits of code to those in the know but also speak to unbelievers in a non-sectarian manner.
It isn’t the fault of modern musicians that the industry has created six-inch-wide hoops for them to jump through, and Lifehouse have managed to cover considerable ground in their allotted half-foot. If the church of commercial music isn’t an especially enlightened place, the presence of bands like these – ones with a firm grasp on the tone of the under-35 culture – ensure that there’ll be life somewhere in the house.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.