Bowling Green, Kentucky seems to be the city to come from when it comes to rock groups in the past decade. The city has produced two of my favorite acts of the late 2000s: Cage the Elephant and Sleeper Agent. A few months ago Cage the Elephant came out with an album called Melophobia which to me didn’t really live up to the hype that their first single “Come a Little Closer” achieved. So when Sleeper Agent announced their sophomore album, About Last Night, for spring 2014 I was very excited, especially because their debut album Celabrasion was my favorite album of 2011.
There were a lot things about Celabrasion that I liked, such as the sense of excitement in the music that made each song such a joy to listen to, that I expected them to put into their second album. Did they deliver? Yes, and then some. Each song still has that sense of freshness, that innocence that only the vocal duo of Alex Kandel and Tony Smith can deliver. The lightheartedness of the lyrics plays real nicely with the very chord-centered guitars and keyboards. The album plays with genres like pop, rock, and even the Latin America influenced song “Sweetheart.”
The album kicks off with the more poppy and quite good songs “Be Brave” and “Waves,” and the drum stick tapping that was very prominent in their first album makes a return in “Be Brave.” The ending of that song showcases the fun that Sleeper Agent has with their writing with a chorus featuring Lee Williams (bass) and Josh Martin (lead guitar) coming in to sing backup vocals. “Waves”, meanwhile, is a quintessential feel good song of spring with its upbeat beat and keyboards that are perfect for the blooming of flowers and getting pelted with rain. Then the album moves along with the more bluesy and edgy “Take It Off,” which is one of the album’s best tracks, with its chorus containing a respectable amount of woos and a breakdown section containing some great vocals by Smith.
The next two songs take the pace down a little bit with the heavily bass-infused “Haunting Me” and the slow acoustic song “Lorena.” The middle song “Bad News” then picks it back up with flourishes of keyboards and a very cool breakdown halfway through the song. “Me On You” is a decent, heavily vocalized song that is a bit more pop influenced. From there they go into another slow song called “Shut” that is quite reminiscent of “Shake Me Down” by Cage the Elephant. So much so that the similarities were kind of distracting while listening to the song. For those that don’t see the similarity it’s probably a great song (which has great vocals), but for me it just screams cheap knockoff.
The last quarter of the album is a lot better than the rest of the album with great songs like the hard hitting “Impressed,” which has a very catchy refrain and great instrumentation. “Good Job” is probably my favorite song on the album, displaying everything that Sleeper Agent is capable of. “Good Job” is, put simply, just a pump up song, but everything works. The guitars rise and fall at the right times and the vocals are perfect. The last two songs, “Eat You Up” and “Sweetheart,” both have a southern rock feel that hearkens back to the group’s Kentucky origins.
In all the album comes together quite well. The only downfalls to the album that I could see were that some parts of the songs outshine other parts; in “Sweetheart” the beginning blows away the rest of what the song has to offer. About Last Night, as compared to Celabrasion, utilizes many more keyboards and synths, and this is a huge benefit for many of the songs, like “Waves” and “Good Job.” All the songs still have the sense of laid back songwriting that characterized the first album. None of the songs really felt rushed; they all were quite polished and could even be, dare I say, radio ready.
About Last Night never gets as sloppy as its (terrible) cover suggests. Sure, the songs imply heart-on-sleeve romanticism, drunken belligerence, and morning-after ruminations, but the band’s reemergence as a straight up indie pop band after their more Cage the Elephant-influenced debut has eliminated a lot of the mildly wild idiosyncrasies that made them worth noting a couple years ago. Thankfully, the band seems right at home within a more rigid and straightforward songwriting context, busting out sing-along chorus after sing-along chorus with no major missteps. The result is a more consistent, less exciting, and ultimately surprisingly enjoyable second album that seems poised to be the band’s closest thing to a breakout hit yet.
One thing that hasn’t changed: lead singer Alex Kendal remains the band’s strongest asset. Her deep, twangy voice gives these songs a recklessness that is sorely needed given the album’s tendency towards the middle of the songwriting road, and she elevates simple melodies like “Lorena” and “Shut” far above more upbeat but less engaging fare like the undeniably catchy “Bad News”. Only “Waves” truly balances these two ideals, as its gentle guitar line and numerous melodic digressions don’t detract at all from the power of the power pop choruses.
Because a lot of these melodies are so strong (and because they’re delivered so forcefully), it’s a shame that the rest of the band seem absolutely terrified of doing anything interesting. The choruses are all power chord thrashing and simple drum bashing, but the verses often end up falling prey to the same fate. There are some intriguing snippets here and there, like the bass and piano intro to “Impressed,” but the songs are severely lacking in melody that isn’t provided vocally. It makes the album difficult to listen to all at once, especially because the lyrics do hardly anything to distinguish themselves. Like the backing band, they deal in broad generalities and minimal depth.
When the band is in its element though, with Kendal’s voice being buoyed by countless others and the guitars slamming their loudest and the drums trying their best to keep up, it’s hard to argue with the results. This post sell-out world seems like the best place for Sleeper Agent as they exist today: their songs are at their most engaging during the choruses that have already tracked a number of commercials and will probably continue to do so until their next album comes out. In that context, when the energy doesn’t have to sustain and the songs don’t need to change, Sleeper Agent absolutely kill it.
About Last Night is out now on RCA Records.