Somehow Challenger released a slightly more modern album by going back in time. When I reviewed Challenger’s debut LP a couple of years ago, I noted all of the ‘80s influence that was oozing out of the electro-indie pop tracks. For their second LP, Back to Bellevue, producer/songwriter/frontman John Ross went back to his childhood home in Florida to write, record, and produce what became a more modern album than their first. Though there are still ’80s influences throughout (how can there not be when you’re working with synth-heavy electro pop?) this time around, there are only a couple of songs that sound like they could fit on a John Hughes soundtrack. Challenger has previously drawn comparisons to Peter Gabriel, but on this album only “Sweater Weather” called him to mind. It’s not a bad thing to leave some of the ‘80s in the past, Challenger is coming into its own and raising its voice.
One of the most notable difference between Challenger’s two albums is the vocals. On the first, Ross whispered all of the lyrics. Now he’s taking the volume up a notch and letting his voice be heard. The vocals are imperfect and raw, which makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the smooth synth. It’s an organic sound on an album with only a few touches of acoustic sounds (“I Want You to Love Me” is just vocals and an acoustic guitar, otherwise it’s dominated by electronic sounds.) Somehow it all works. Perhaps it’s that the imperfect vocals are delivering lyrics about flawed relationships that makes them fit so well.
Despite some of the dark titles and themes, the overall sound of the album is fairly happy. The beginning of “How Terrorism Brought Us Together” is downright cute. The bubbly, punctuated percussion makes me picture tiny Doozers from Fraggle Rock banging away with perfect rhythm. Mixed with sweeping synth sounds and sweet, brutally honest lyrics like “I’m sorry I kept you at arm’s length when I can’t stand to be without you in arm’s reach,” it just makes for a beautiful song. “Sorry,” the final track, has a hopeful sound to its shimmery synth and peppy drums despite the lyrics recounting a fight that turns physical. The lyrics have some hope to them as the couple tries to work things out, linking the hopeful sound to hopeful words. “Sweetheart in San Francisco” delivers high energy that reminds me of Cut Copy (with fewer samples) though it’s mixed with incredibly melancholy vocals. “Sylvia” stands out for being the one sad-sounding song. There is a darker sound to the synth, even with slight reverb. The vocals include longer notes and the lyrics call the title woman a “dream destroyer,” among other things. The layered vocals add drama on this all-over melancholy song. Things get experimental on “American Air Part 1” with what sounds like samples played in reverse, creating an ambient track that builds up and then ends abruptly without a true climax. After a short silence, we’re dropped into the high-energy “Part 2” with more reversed samples.
As mentioned, some of the themes can be a little dark. What worries me most is all of the references what could be too a serious health problem. The album title and cover suggest that going back to Bellevue is to return to a hospital. “Birthday at Beth Israel” kind of says it all, too: someone is spending their birthday at a hospital. Ross begs for one more Thanksgiving with his family in “I Want You to Love Me.” In “Terrorism,” one line goes “ducking cancer is something, I don’t know about you.” It is something, Challenger, and I for one want to wish you good health. Since they’re two for two on delivering solid indie electropop albums, I hope they’re around for a long time to come.
MP3: Challenger “How Terrorism Brought Us Together”