By Megan Paolone
Two years ago, Brooklyn singer-songwriter Kevin Devine joined forces with friend and Manchester Orchestra frontman Andy Hull. The collaboration resulted in Bad Books, which, despite a mildly successful self-titled debut and small U.S. tour, had no definite plans to release another album.
When the band announced that they were heading back into the studio, fans were naturally ecstatic. Both Devine and Manchester had recently released albums—2011’s Between the Concrete and Clouds and Simple Math, respectively—and a second Bad Books album was the perfect treat to tide fans over until their next releases.
Bad Books’ II proves that the band isn’t just a one-off project, and though it has its weak points, it’s certainly more cohesive than their first album. With the release of II, it’s evident that Bad Books is more than just a recipe of equal parts Devine and Manchester; the project has finally developed an individual identity.
Although the musicians still split writing duties for the 11-track album down the middle, and it’s lyrically evident who has written which songs, the musical progression of II is impressive when compared to the band’s first release.
“The After Party” is a great escort into the rest of album. A bass line from Jonathan Corley (Manchester and Bad Books bassist) calls forth Manchester’s catalog, though Devine’s harmonies with Hull by the time the song closes are a marker of what’s to come.
Released as II’s first single back in August, “Forest Whitaker” is a catchy pop tune with a thumping beat. It’s got the whistling that Devine puts to use in his own work, but the vocals switch back and forth seamlessly between Devine and Hull. It’s one of the first uniquely Bad Books songs that have evolved from the collaboration, and perhaps one of their catchiest songs to date.
On the rocking “Never Stops,” Devine tells of adventures around Brooklyn against guitarist Robert McDowell’s strumming and drummer Ben Homola’s simple backing beats, while on “Pytor,” Hull sings of Russian queen Catherine the Great’s affair, sounding much like his own solo project Right Away, Great Captain!
Despite its short length, minimalist pop ballad “42” is one of the album’s strongest tracks, most likely because it’s been given so much time to develop. Hull has been playing it in some form or another since MySpace was still a thing—through which the demo was initially released.
Both Hull and Devine are known for their quiet acoustic fare, and it’s often those tracks that fans have come to love most at their respective live shows. On II, however, the final two acoustic tracks “Lost Creek” and “Ambivalent Peaks” are II’s weakest tracks. Musically and lyrically, they’re both beautiful songs, but they just don’t stand up to the rest of the album. II starts with a bang, but ends feeling a bit sluggish.
Despite a musical progression toward cohesiveness, II maintains the lyrical diversity of Bad Books’ debut, which is one of the album’s weaknesses. Ideally, the album would flow more seamlessly. But all things considered, it’s very solid. I’m giving it 4/5 stars.