Rating: 3 and a half stars (out of 5)
Neon Trees opened for The Killers in 2008, inviting a natural comparison to a band they clearly respect. A couple years later, the Trees are playing a gig at the upcoming Lollapalooza concerts, their lead single “Animal” gets some radio play, and…they’re also plugging Las Vegas vacations. OK, so they haven’t become Killers-level huge yet, but there’s enough on Habits, their debut LP, to suggest they can.
Whooshing through in a breezy 29 minutes, Habits is a fairly by-the-books dance-pop-rock album, with lots of nods to imperfect relationships and some endearingly catchy hooks. Yet the Trees manage to sound both mainstream and independent—like they’re doing their own thing, and it just happens to sound like this. “Animal” is suitably indie-quirky, with dance-friendly synths and a come-and-get-me refrain—“Oh, oh, I want some more / What are you waiting for? / Take a bite of my heart tonight”—but it tends to grate a little under heavy repetition. Fortunately, quality-wise, it’s really only in the middle of the pack here.
The real stand-out is the follow-up, “Your Surrender,” where U2 meets Rooney, with a hint of the Arcade Fire thrown in underneath. (If this sounds as appealing to you as it does me, buy this album; otherwise, don’t.) It works primarily because the refrain eschews that annoying sense of worthlessness found in too many of these songs, adopting instead the same kind of mischievousness as “Animal,” but with more confidence—“How long till your surrender?”
What truly sets Habits apart from its contemporaries in the somewhat-amateurish danceable post-punk scene, what makes it sound less pre-packaged than you’d expect, are the surprising shades of gray lurking underneath the songs. Neon Trees manage to infuse these songs with more than a few traces of muffled darkness, as though coming from just under a pillow, a technique that works effectively against their natural pop leanings. Songs like “Sins of My Youth,” “Girls and Boys in School,” and “Our War” bring forth cloudier arrangements than one might expect, which helps them sustain repeated plays. Of most interest is closer “War,” a touching near-ballad both uplifting (particularly in the vocals) and tantalizing, as one can envision it having been further developed at the hands of a more refined band.
Other worthy tracks include “1983” (sometimes, they don’t hide their influences all that much), with legitimately striking twists and turns; but, the thing is, with an eight-song album, you’d better have a very high batting average. Allmusic calls “Love and Affection” pure Bloc Party, but all it sounds like to me is a forced melody and those aforementioned irritating attitudes—the “I just don’t understand why my love isn’t good enough” kind.
That’s the only truly skippable song here, but a fair number of tracks combine traits with faults (formulaic ‘soaring’ choruses, uninspired lyrics, similar sounds); they’d do well to freeze-frame the “Fuck all the rest and forget the rules!” coda of “Girls,” their strongest boundary-pushing moment here. In the meantime, though, if you have an itch for this kind of music—and especially with Rooney’s Eureka looking like a disappointment—feel free to enjoy Neon Trees for what they are, rather than asking them to be something else.