When was the last time you heard a band credit their breakthrough to PureVolume? It almost feels as if that site was a phase, something you love in high school and then grow out of. Nowadays we’ve got oodles of options like Spotify, Pandora, and MoonPlayer to help us find new music and Bandcamp, SoundCloud, and old man MySpace to help us listen to it.
In 2009, shortly before being absorbed into the same media conglomerate that runs Kim Kardashian’s website, PureVolume gave a big bump to a couple of kids from Tacoma, Washington playing under the moniker He Is We. Twenty-four hours and tens of thousands of plays later, Rachel Taylor and Trevor Kelly were on someone’s radar. Because no matter how many indie/emo kids “graduate” and start putting PureVolume in a corner, the leaders of the music industry always save it a dance. In December of 2010, He Is We’s debut album My Forever was released on Universal Motown.
For me, it’s tough knowing whether to appraise My Forever as an album or as a collection of songs. Not that every record needs a unifying concept; but artists are made great in my eyes by their ability to produce a cohesive whole in which it sounds like all the parts grew in the same garden. He Is We displays a precocious knack for arrangements that bring out the best in every song, with the drawback that the differences between songs are all the more pronounced.
Let’s start with commonalities, to give you a basis. Lyricist and vocalist Rachel brings a Sara Bareillesque strength and a rock sensibility, like a modern-day Michelle Branch. (I’m being told that Michelle Branch is still making music. We’ll see how that pans out for her.) Tie that in with all the romanticism of a Colbie Caillat or a Taylor Swift and you’ve got… you know, for all the chicks out there on the mic, Rachel might be fitting into her own little slot! That’s certainly true of her quick poetry: it flows like water, better than anyone else on the pop market. Rachel’s voice is what defines the sound of He Is We.
The music is based around straightforward, classic song structures featuring whatever instrumentation works on a song-by-song basis. You’ll hear some songs with a deeper bass than you’d expect, including “And Run”, where the bass is featured and foundational. Guitars and pianos vie for playing time across the album while multi-tracked vocal harmonies float in the background more often than not. The use of orchestral strings is effectively tied to the drama of each piece. Occasional timpanis and concert bass drums give you the impression that there’s actually an orchestra involved, not just a bunch of session violinists.
As much as the diversity of sounds enhances each track, it’s where I start to wonder about the cohesion of My Forever as a whole. “Love Life”, a slow-and-fast break-up ditty, brings in a brass section for the final minute. There is exactly one duet, “All About Us”, in which Underoath’s former drummer and “clean vocalist”, Aaron Gillespie, passes verses back and forth with Rachel. Poor Aaron was replaced when, in August 2011, a new version of the song was released featuring Owl City singing the boy parts.
From the charming lovey-doveyness of “Forever & Ever”, “Everything You Do”, and “Happily Ever After” to the frustrated adolescent stirrings of “Blame It on the Rain” and “Fall”, the overall quality of the writing and production maintains a ready-for-radio standard. Normally I’d expect track 2 or maybe 3 to be the anchor, ready to hit shelves as the lead single. Here it’s not so clear. If anything, I’d expect the sing-along “Happily Ever After”, a manifesto of hopeful love if ever there was one, to be the fan favorite, but it’s all the way back at track 5. And the bonus acoustic track – which I admit was an eyebrow raiser for me on a debut album – is a reprise of track 4, “And Run”. It’s hard to grasp the logic behind the sequencing, though I guess it’s a moot point if each song is terrific individually and most iPods are tuned to Shuffle anyway.
So let me get to the one song that is just from a completely different place from the rest. Right in the middle of the album, before the tunes about being single and after the tunes about being adorable, is a song about a double murder. “Kiss It Better” tells a story of a vengeance kill after a man’s wife is shot, from the perspective of the surviving subject who is sharing a prison cell with his overwhelming memories. No reason for the initial action is given. If we can handle the lyrics, the music itself alternates between sparse acoustics and haunting full-orchestra crescendos. My impression of the album as a whole would change radically if this emotive elegy were the final track and the final thought we were left with, so different from all that came before. As it is, the mood it creates so tangibly is difficult to shake when we return to tra la las and oh, oh, ohs.
We can’t know for sure who’s responsible, but I’d like to credit the atmosphere and musical realism of “Kiss It Better” in part to producer Casey Bates, whose work with Pacific Northwest bands like Portugal. The Man and Gatsby’s American Dream I have loved for a long time now. Casey worked on “Blame It on the Rain” and “Fall” as well. Aaron Sprinkle, another of Washington’s best producers (see his work with Eisley, Anberlin, Acceptance, etc.), did his magic with “All About Us” and “Prove You Wrong”.
I’m still not sure where Rachel and Trevor were coming from as they pieced together My Forever. Their artistic focus is something we might get to see develop over time. But their ability and quality is already ahead of their age. To find out for yourself, go ahead and stream their whole album for free off MySpace. Or take a look at their PureVolume, where they’re streaming 40 tracks and giving away eight and where, at the time of this writing, they’re getting ready to ring the bell for their 5,000,000th play.