With two albums already under their belts, Atlanta indie rock band Manchester Orchestra decided that with their third album, Simple Math, it was time to finally have — wait for it — an orchestra.
While I am convinced orchestral instruments and rock ’n’ roll go together like an improbable couple, proving that opposites do indeed attract, I’m not convinced that the band uses the pairing to the best of its abilities.
In most of the album’s tracks, the use of orchestral instruments, especially strings, is rather subtle. However, on the album’s title track, “Simple Math,” the accompaniment is quite obvious, and not in a way that bolsters the song into a grandiose inter-lacement of sounds. Rather, the addition of strings comes off as cheesy and contrived, especially as the song grows into a conglomeration of heavy percussion, layered vocals and orchestral sounds. The best part of the song ends up not being the orchestra, but the aggressive guitar chord progressions.
The quiet poignancy that made their debut album, I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child, such a compelling listen, isn’t entirely present here. That being said, there is merit in a fairly young band experimenting with their identity as musicians.
Simple Math moves a step forward from their sound on their second album, Mean Everything To Nothing, and takes on an even tougher sound, especially on the track “Mighty,” which opens up with a gritty guitar riff reminiscent of Queens of the Stone Age. Andy Hull’s boyish voice resolutely pushes through the song until he reaches the end and wails, “So let go of the sorrowful groaning / Let go of the ones you admire / It’s not like I was devious or boastful.” The addition of strings seems entirely unnecessary, and almost too pretty for a song this feisty.
Nevertheless, the subsequent track, “Pensacola,” makes a beautifully subtle use of the French horn, especially during the second half of the bridge and continuing to the end of the song. Hull fiercely sings, “My daughter, she barely eats / She barely sleeps / She barely speaks.” The rhythm slows down but quickly jumps into tambourine-induced jauntiness, accompanied with the bright French horn. Finally, the entire band jumps in with what sounds like a drunken chant of “Alcohol, dirty malls, Pensacola, Florida bars,” which overlaps with the bridge lyrics and everything else. And it works!
“Virgin” is the most gripping track, which begins with what can only be madman screaming the words “Manic depressive! Masochistic! Disco! And ecsta…” which then bleed into a children’s choir segueing into Hull’s quiet croon. But sooner than later the song burgeons into a booming lament of lost trust, combative guitars and repeated distortion. The children’s choir returns along with more brass, and a strange kind of chanting ensues.
The biblical allusions present in I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child also appear on Simple Math, most explicitly on the penultimate track, “Apprehension,” in which Hull sings, “Here I am again, directly back to the place where Adam ruined family / running in a marathon of mental til God shows up again.”
Simple Math is Manchester Orchestra’s most honest work lyrically; Hull’s distinctive imagery and storytelling remains at the center of the songs. Musically, many of the album’s tracks could do with less orchestral strings and more of the band’s characteristic strong guitars, which magnify the power of Hull’s evocative lyrics.
While Simple Math may satisfy an identity the Manchester Orchestra has been looking for, there remain bits and pieces that need to be put together before they can create the breakthrough the group has the potential to create.