Across The Board – Sonic Boom – Album Review
Back with their second full-length record already! The Canadian crew is set to release their follow-up album to 2016’s Jane On Fire with a brand-new eight tracks on Sonic Boom. They’ve released some singles in between as well, and the Amends EP…clearly, things are certainly moving quickly for Across The Board! As you’d expect really…they’re a quality band full of amazing songs inside them just waiting to get out there into the world, and fueled by the inspiration of the growing support for their music likely makes them want to push that much harder towards making their dreams their permanent reality.
That being said, it’s just like the old adage goes – ‘you get a lifetime to make that first record, and you get two weeks to write your next…’
Hmm. Wait a minute here. ‘Your next Rock-Opera?’
Strap yourselves in – Across The Board are getting all kinds of ambitious on this second record. Rather than quickly cobble together some tracks to keep themselves out there, they’ve put together a genuinely cohesive and highly focused adventure with a storyline thread that ties the entire album together. One of those there concept-album thingies…you know I’ve always got time for that & they’re far too rare out there these days – ATB makes the magic happen & brings it back to life on Sonic Boom.
LISTEN to the smoothness in those guitars and drums as “Sonic Boom” begins! The shimmering sound of this title cut is structured to deliver and make an impact right from the drop, designed to entice you into the story and songs on Sonic Boom, you can feel this entire cut develop, evolve, and blossom through the speakers. Ultimately it’s about that breaking-free and setting forth into the unknown, unafraid and ready to live life exactly the way that suits the character in this story…which is based on lead-singer Jaqueline Auguste’s own story at least in-part if not all together. “Sonic Boom” is the beginning of the tale and it opens-up with that kind of feeling in mind, delivering on a smooth-awakening in sound that echoes the sentiment of the song perfectly. Jaqueline’s melodic Aimee Mann-meets-Chrissy Hynde-like vocals are a perfect fit as she stylistically twists the rhythm in the lead and adds in a perfect backing layer to add strength to the song along the way. As much as I enjoyed the song itself, I think I enjoyed the way it unfolded and opened this record even more…everything that works to build this song works beautifully – Across The Board makes the most of the space & tempo on “Sonic Boom,” using a serene rock sound and strong hooks to beckon our ears towards the speakers. The guitars dazzle with that magic you used to hear from the early Coldplay records…definitely off to a fantastic start here.
“Back To The Tracks” is a tougher one for me…because there’s some really awesome stuff happening here and a few things that irk my own personal preferences…none of which matter ultimately when it comes to the quality of the music on this second tune, which is once again top-shelf. What works for me is the chorus – I think that’s absolutely awesome and the way into it is just as exceptional. The vocals and melody from Auguste in the chorus is full of bright tones that are absolutely candy to the ears while detailing what it’s like to travel Canada on the Via Rail train from coast to coast while on tour pursuing her dreams. The harmonics from the guitars are incredibly rad additions to the music, the keys play a big role in this as well…and ultimately, the hooks of the chorus kept me coming back to this track with a smile. I have no massive issues with the verse really…in some ways I felt like the sway of the vocal-flow was a bit too familiar…and although I’m Canadian myself, for some reason Canadian history, landmarks, references…when it comes to music, it’s oddly been something I’ve never gotten into. And yes, that includes The Hip…love the band, love the music, love the words, but it wasn’t the Canadian references that made the difference for me so much as a potential bonus that never quite cashed in for me. So…lyrically, I ended up appreciating how “Back To The Tracks” plays a role in the story more than I was able to get right into it; I suppose the best way I can put it, is that we as people can be passionate about a great many things…love, life, art, freedom…much of which is a feeling you can get in the vibe of the music in this song…but when it comes to subject-wise…call me crazy but geographical references just don’t typically get the motor running, that’s all I’m saying. Maybe they do for YOU! Maybe YOU love maps and traveling, hiking & trails, and all that good stuff outside our doors…and maybe YOU should! Even though I’ll be indoors bolted into my chair while YOU do all that, I still fully recommend it.
Jaqueline sounds absolutely spot-on in her performance on “I’ve Already Fallen For You” – a love-song based on discovering her life partner as they head towards turning their now collective dreams into reality, expanding the sweetness & scope of the story even further. I’ll say this…once again, I’d never take anything away from the way Across The Board performs, there’s never any argument to be made there…they do what they do very well and execute their parts with real heart & professionalism. I think they’ve out-written themselves from verse to chorus here…they’ve really created a subtle magic that delivers on that loving-feeling & emotion to match the words. The chorus in a sense matches the words as well, perhaps brightening up to reflect how powerful the spark of love can be…but I had a hard time convincing myself both these main elements of the song belonged together somehow. There’s definitely a large contrast in sound that may work for some, may not for others…like I said, at the end of the day you certainly can’t fault the performances or the writing really – both the parts are good, I just wasn’t entirely sure they fit together under the umbrella of the one idea. Dig the clean melody & tone of Andy Ramjattan’s guitars throughout the verse and really like the sweetness in the words on “I’ve Already Fallen For You” – is a colorfully dynamic tune that celebrates love, I’ve always got time for that.
If you’re following the storyline of this record, you’ll notice that these first three tracks also reflect the early optimism that an artist tends to have before things start to get tested along the journey. “It Shouldn’t Be This Hard” draws that line in the sand, slapping the starry-eyed optimism into a more realistic view of what life as an artist pursuing their dreams can be like for many. And just like the title implies – “It Shouldn’t Be This Hard” – I couldn’t agree more! That’s what life should be like…the ability to just go after our passions and dreams without having to worry about basic necessities or survival…but as many of us all know, that’s definitely how it all rolls. If you’re not careful, it’s that same routine that can imprison us…and even though “It Shouldn’t Be This Hard” to break-free from the daily grind in the pursuit of happiness – overall, I’d say that just by the fact that Across The Board is here to write and create this song speaks to the fact that no matter how hard it might become, it’s still all worth it. Though I’ve enjoyed myself on all these first four songs, I felt like ATB ends the first half with the real highlight of the set so far, “It Shouldn’t Be This Hard” completely connected for me on every level. Lyrically, I think it’s completely accurate and very well written – Jaqueline takes care of the rest from there in her performance by bending these words to her will and making the most of the vocal-flow. I think being written from that more…hmmm…let’s just say serious & realistic perspective verses the bright & optimistic sounds of the opening three cuts…that’s what really worked for me. ATB can clearly write in a happy gear and it’ll work out for them as they’ve already proven…but armed with a bit more bite here in the burning emotions that run through the words of “It Shouldn’t Be This Hard” seems to have them sounding their best. And as is true with many an artist or band out there, perhaps without the struggle, there is no breakthrough; in terms of this being a concept album, it’s likely no accident that the strongest song on the album so far occurs here at such a vulnerable point in the lyrics & story. It’s really that moment where Jaqueline can let the industry and its evil ways rip her and her band apart – or they can rise above it all and find a way to make it happen. Again, the fact they’re here today to write & create this song is all the proof you need to know that they’ve indeed, chosen the right path to follow.
Essentially, what I’m saying in terms of the context of this record, is that while things have started good – it’s not until that pinch-point of sink or swim that she encountered in life revealed itself, that things begin to become truly great…and that’s what “It Shouldn’t Be Hard” signifies as the album switches gears into even more compelling terrain. “No Curtain Call” might very well be one of my favorite songs from Across The Board to-date…I think Jaqueline is pure magic here and Andy’s put just as much heart into the delicate guitar parts. It uses just enough ambient sound in the atmosphere to feel like you’re right in the middle of a blissfully intimate live performance…and MAN does this track go on to satisfy on every possible level. Stripping back the glitz & gloss of their shiny pop/rock style somehow led to one of the most sparkling & stunning moments on the entire album – I couldn’t get enough of this song. As far as performances on this album go…I think you’ve really gotta hand the award to Jaqueline here for the brilliant way she sings this song…she’s got a classic songwriter’s touch when it comes to the melody and flow on this song. “No Curtain Call” is also a song that rests squarely on her shoulders to succeed – the guitar is a fantastic compliment and perfectly played, but with the sparseness of sound like an empty bar at the end of the night, it was really up to Auguste to compel us all to stay. I think she more than delivers on the potential of this moment, she full on exceeds every expectation and creates a lasting, beautiful & completely unforgettable moment in time…”No Curtain Call” is 100% spectacularly subtle and easily has one of the most endearing performances you’ll hear this year. It’s almost ironic in the sense that you can hear the people in the bar talking amongst themselves…if this song is on, there’s absolutely nothing else happening in my world until it’s done. No phone calls, no interruptions, no people, no nothing at all, other than listening to this exceptional song Across The Board has created.
They make a clever departure in this audio adventure with a quick stop at U2-mart for a cover tune that suits the band & the sentiment driving this record well with “Kite” from All That You Can’t Leave Behind. I’ll fully admit – wasn’t a song that was on my radar…I’ve had my time with U2 and have the feeling that much of that time is behind me now, though it’s nice to occasionally revisit. Still think they write a heck of a song and “Kite” is certainly proof that the band still has it, even if that album is…good lord, I just looked it up – it’s nearly twenty years old now! Okayyyyyyy…so…clearly I’ve been in a coma…I felt like that album still just came out yesterday. Anyhow…you get the point…reliable songwriting, then and now, at least I’m assuming. I believe Andy steps closer towards the mic on this tune as well – which works well to transition the sound smoothly into something different, taking advantage of the perfect moment to introduce his vocals more clearly with a switch to a cover instead of an original. They play “Kite” really well and pull this song off in their own charming & captivating approach, sound, & style. Andy does a great job in the lead with Jaqueline supporting him in the backing vocals, almost on equal ground volume-wise and sharing the spotlight – it definitively proves that there are two extremely capable singers in this band. Until now, they’ve been there backing each other up in spots along the way, but “Kite” becomes a duet where their vocals are tethered to each other throughout the entire song…and in my opinion, definitely a sound worth exploring further. No question that Across The Board sounds great when Jaqueline’s up front on the mic – but no denying that this sounds really great as well.
The hot streak of Sonic Boom continues with “Nothing To Say” – another strong contender for my favorite cut from this album. Right up there with “It Shouldn’t Be This Hard” for me…if it wasn’t for the absolutely magic moment they create on “No Curtain Call,” both of these tunes would have easily vied for the top spot on my list. “Nothing To Say” really draws on a lot of sounds I’ve grown up with and loved from the underground indie-scene like The Martinis or Echobelly…the emphasis on melody here is absolutely spot-on, shining in both verse & chorus clearly & confidently. In the storyline of this rock-opera, it serves as the hit breakthrough song – and in my opinion, they’ve chosen wisely here. I can understand the temptation might have been to use the song “Sonic Boom” in this spot to represent something similar, but the maturity in the sound, style, execution, and resulting performance speaks to a song like this coming out from an artist or band further on down the line. You gotta write a few cuts before you get to something this tight, you feel me? Loved the added energy in the drums in the bridge, loved the bring-back into the chorus…the verse is great, the main hooks bring it all to the next level just as much as you’d hope they would or even more…it’s as well-rounded as a song can be and remarkably well balanced. In terms of accessibility…definitely a tune I’d be looking at as a potential single from Sonic Boom if I were Across The Board. As much as I might like me some “No Curtain Call,” I know that what appeals to me there is likely more personal…as in, applying to my own personal taste – what you’ll hear in the catchy hooks of “Nothing To Say” are the sounds of music that resonate within us all.
In conclusion to the story, “Two Step” ends the album on resounding confidence. At this point, the dreams are within reach and fully worth investing in every second’s worth of time to bring them to life – just like the spot Across The Board finds themselves in now. I don’t want anyone to misread this review…because I do think they’ve put all the effort and heart into those first three songs as well and they came out great – but I really think the case can be made for the impact of the struggle on art & music, how it clearly propels a band or artist to where they belong, and how those songs from that first point of conflict on “It Shouldn’t Be This Hard” on-forward boldly reflect the creative freedom and artistic bliss that lies on the other side of the battle. Once the dust settles after being rattled, we regroup, refocus, and reclaim ourselves in ways we’d have never thought possible before our struggles began, leading to a version of us that’s even stronger than it was when we started. That’s the full-circle of Sonic Boom overall…this tale that Jacqueline has created…this story that she’s been a part of – it all comes back around to a point where she’s now at the beginning again perhaps somewhat, but with all the right tools to succeed now, in a whole new and exciting chapter of another story yet to come. Loved the guitars & drums once again right away on the last track “Two Step,” just like the initial impact of “Sonic Boom,” they stand out instantly, this time with a pepped-up energy that closes this record in a blaze of fireworks, distortion, melody, energy, and the confident sound of a band you know is well on their way to the success they deserve. Really well put together album from beginning to end…one that tells a genuine story and reveals the tale of Across The Board at the heart of it all…and right there at the end, one final strong cut that completely confirms this band is fully ready to entertain at all times, long into the future, doing what they love and making music for the rest of their lives. Commitment & focus run deep throughout Sonic Boom – the results are explosively expressive and impressively colorful.
Sonic Boom is officially released this upcoming May on the 4th – until then, make sure to stay up on the information & details and find out more about Across The Board at their official website at: http://www.acrosstheboardband.ca
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