It’s hard to judge objectively something that you are intimately acquainted with. Vocalists have a tough time taking other vocalists seriously, and writers are notoriously hard on other writers. That’s why We Are the City‘s accomplishment with In a Quiet World is so astonishing. They’ve made the piano (something I play on a daily basis) incredibly exciting.
To clarify the staggering worth of this achievement, consider this: you can be the most talented pianist in the world and still not excite me with your work. I can realize it as incredibly talented and enjoyable (i.e. everything in Ben Folds’ canon), even learn to play it. But get truly excited? Rare as snow in San Francisco.
Yet, We Are the City’s piano-based indie-rock is tumultuous, rhythmic, melodic, hard-charging, emotive, wide-eyed and totally sincere. without a speck of irony. The opener “There Are Very Tiny Beasts in the Ground” features a repeated line of “let me clean my teeth.” There’s no irony there; it’s about a girl brushing her teeth before she comes down the stairs. There’s depth there, for sure, but no irony. The fact that a snarky, solid, melodic piano line accompanies the lyric makes it memorable. The fact that it collapses into a unexpectedly latin-tinged rhythm section before morphing seamlessly into a pounding, arpegiatted section with guitar, drums, bass and distorted guitar makes it absolutely wonderful. That’s the first track, people. The first track.
The piano playing I referenced earlier isn’t virtuosic, but it does have an internal energy and rhythmic clarity that make it utterly interesting. Probably the most interesting part of it is that it makes rhythms and chord structures that are familiar seem unfamiliar and exciting. This is due in part to the prowess of the surrounding band (as in the swooping middle section of “Astronomers”) , but it cannot be unattributed to the pianist. He’s fantastic.
The vocals emulate all the compliments I attributed to the full sound earlier: emotive, wide-eyed, clear, sincere and solid. The tone is solidly tenor, but with no whining, no twinge of annoyance, just pure calm joy. It gets loud, as the vocalist ratchets up to a scream in the opener, but the majority of the work here is just smooth and enjoyable.
We are the City have a deep grasp on their work in that they can morph it into many things. They can take a beautiful piano line (“Astronomers”) or guitar line (“You’re a Good Man”) and turn it into a tour-de-force without losing any of the beauty that made it great in the first place. If Coldplay had been able to apply the lessons of “Astronomers” to “Amsterdam” off A Rush of Blood to the Head, that album would have been spot-on perfect. Their loss.
The rhythm section is worth noting as well. The drummer especially is not satisfied with just keeping time in a The Fray-esque thunking and plunking. There is rhythmic power and complexity throughout this whole album, and the continual push and pull between the piano, drums and guitar deliver a lot of the tension that make this album work so well. The syncopated guitar solo in “You’re a Good Man” works because it’s played directly against a piano/drums combo that makes the syncopation apparent.
Each of these eleven songs is its own experience. “Peso Loving Squid” is a bit odd, as it doesn’t really fit into the mood of the album, but it’s a good song nonetheless. “My Old Friend” features acoustic guitar prominently before breaking into their traditional full band set-up. “Time, Wasted” features an accordion and some of the most passionate lyrics and vocals of the album (including the heartbreaking line “If I don’t crash, well, I’ll be gunned down”).
In short, I could sing the praises of this album for a couple hundred more words, but it’s really going to do no good if you don’t go get it and listen to it. Trust me on this one: if you like Coldplay, Keane, The Fray, Muse, Ben Folds, Ben Kweller, or any other piano-based band, you need this album. It will give you goosebumps and shivers repeatedly. We are the City specializes in four-minute piano-based epics of melodic, rhythmic and emotional power. You’d do well to take notice.