Paper Lions sound young; their latest album My Friends doesn't sound like it was made by a band that's been together, under different names, since 2004. They rip through upbeat tracks like “Pull Me In” and “Bodies in the Winter” with the vitality of a pop-punk group, although the only band from that world that's worth comparing to Paper Lions might be Motion City Soundtrack, who manage to strike the right balance between not taking yourself too seriously and being obnoxious. The bands' singers both share a kind of voice that's perfect for pop – fluid, with a wide range that reaches into falsetto without sounding forced, able to belt a chorus clearly and smoothly, although the Lions' John MacPhee doesn't have that playful charisma that Justin Pierre does.
Paper Lions aren't pop-punk, but there's not a huge difference between what that is and what they are: upbeat radio-ready alt-rock. Album opener “Bodies in the Winter” has that crisp fidelity that makes every instrument fun to listen to, from the drummer playing on the rims to the rumbling bass. You can hear everything – Paper Lions understand how to hold back during a verse to let loose in a chorus. Maybe that's some of the ten years of experience kicking in. If they learned that lesson from its reigning masters, The Pixies, they might have also drawn from that band's ability to trim and compress a song into its essential elements, removing repetition and filler to make quick little pop songs that draw you to your old-fashioned boombox's repeat button. “So Lonely” is such a song, by the way.
But that combination of youthful energy and experienced compositional chops doesn't make its way onto every song on the album. Songs like “Philadelpha,” “Sandcastles,” “San Simeon,” and “Little Liar” have perfectly catchy, distinct radio choruses, but there's not much else to them. Their parts all work, but aren't particularly inventive, and repeated listens don't treat them well – the choruses get tiring, the verses forgettable. Perhaps aware of the possibility of making a one-track album, Paper Lions did throw a few curveballs in there, like “Ghostwriters,” which starts gracefully with a chiming stomp that recalls Beach House, although they can't hold onto that slippery surreality for long.
Ultimately, My Friends sounds like it comes from a good band, experienced but still full of potential, aiming to make an album that's good for their career, even if it isn't the best they could come up with. This album has everything it needs for some modest rock radio success, but it won't be anywhere near anyone's top of the year lists, because originality isn't Paper Lions' chief concern. That's not to say they're ripping anyone off; rather, they're honing their sound towards a particular format that countless bands have targeted before them. And although Paper Lions might not have enough personality to distinguish them from the pack once they get more exposure, this album is at least good enough to get them that far.
Also, alternate versions of some of these tracks are part of a free EP that's being given away on their website. Enjoy.
1. Bodies in the Winter
2. Pull Me In
4. My Friend
5. Little Liar
7. So Lonely
8. San Simeon
10. My Friends Are Leaving