The Critics Corner | Albums

VHS Sound matures and moves forward in strong, solid sophomore effort
Alan HopAlbum name: VHS
Label: KIDinaKORNER/Interscope
Release Date: June 30, 2015
Rating: -- 3.25 out of 5

Review written by: Alan Ho
Pop-rockers X Ambassadors crashed right on to the top of the scene back in 2015 with their breakout debut album VHS. They brought a sound we described as Imagine Dragons meets OneRepublic meets Maroon 5 and boy what a sound. Radio charts, TV shows, movies later, we now fast forward to 2019, which in today's music world is an eternity. But they didn't rest on their laurels, they helped out others with their music, from producing this year's breakout artist Lizzo on her debut album and frontman Sam Harris put on his Tedder-like cap and wrote some really good songs himself for others.

So what does X Ambassadors have for their own creative juices in 2019? Turns out in between helping out others, they still found time to do their own thing and we now have their sophomore release Orion! And in this early listen, the group has not missed a beat and even picked up a few things along the way!

One of the issues with VHS was that the sound sometimes fell off the tracks and sounded too chaotic and loud. Four years later, the group has learned from some of the flaws of VHS (it's why we gave it a 4.0 out of 5, easily could have been 4.5-4.8). The album opens on a strong note with "Hey Child," a catchy and infectious booming rocker that just hits the right amount of boom and the right amount of Sam Harris' always strong vocals and songwriting.

"Confidence" features rising singer-songwriter K. Flay and she fits nicely into the R&B/soul infused track while Harris brings a The Script-like vocal delivery and cadence; simply put, a vocal masterpiece combined with some superior musicianship. This would have been a track in the past that might have gotten too cluttered, but four years later, "Confidence" has a wonderful layering of sounds and proves keeping it clean and simpler makes for a more powerful statement.

X Ambassadors proves right here in "Quicksand" that they can indeed get real with imagery, a trend in pop/rock music these days. The song opens with:
Momma don’t sleep well
She worried ‘bout the kids all night
And the kids don’t eat well
They worry ‘bout momma so they hustle on the side
Daddy’s working three jobs
The sweat keeps dripping in the Buffalo sunshine
So he drives that car
Promises someday momma we will be alright

Very powerful lyrics accented by an equally understated but punchy musicianship highlighting real life. "Quicksand" drives its real life point home with this refrain:
And I’ll be fine
I’ll get my feet on solid ground
Sometimes it feels like quicksand
Quicksand’s pulling me down, down, down

"Boom" has an opening line that will have you play it over and over and over in your head; it's an infectious breakup song once you go past the opening line, which might as well end up in a future Mazda commercial.

For those who like the seeming neediness from "Gorgeous," you now get the equally feeling from "Rule." "Rule" trades in the perfect punchiness from the aforementioned with a smoke-filled ivory touching with some hynoptic syncopated beats and Harris' ever present falsetto that gives the song the neediness it oozes; perfection hits it once again. You want good old fashioned acoustic goodness? That is in the form of "History" as it showcases Harris' immense vocal abilities through a surprisingly biting breakup piece. Lyrics like "Looked in your eyes as you lie right to my face/See through your disguise and yet I still take the bait/Used to be you and me, comrades in arms side-by-side/And I got love for you babe, but love ain’t enough this time" and its equally biting refrain are delivered in punchy, powerful fashion, you might even shed a tear or two."

But then like VHS, Orion falls off the rails a bit, but not as bad as the aforementioned. "Recover," "Wasteland" and "Shadow" all feel like filler, nothing too spectacular, nothing too daring. But after the preceding tracks, it felt like a major letdown. But then the confessional, intimate "I Don't Know How to Pray" comes around and they are back on track. The song features Harris essentially on the floor of a bathroom pleading and shouting to Heaven; it's very chilling and even more so as it features snippets of chatting with his brother and bassist Casey, who has Senior-Loken syndrome and left him with visual impairment and kidney issues but soldiers on.

Ending the album is "Hold Me Down," a song about enduring love and delivers in perfect harmony the entire X Ambassadors experience; the strong vocals, the crashing electronica, the handclaps, the explosive buildups and the contemplative moments. A wonderful coda to a solid sophomore effort.

What's the overall feeling to Orion? This album showcases the maturation and evolving process of their sound. They may have found right person to man the boards and cultivate their sound, Ricky Reed, who also produced the debut album from breakout act Lizzo. He found a way to strip the band's sound, create a relatively more quiet and tighter sound throughout and for the most part cut out the clutter that happened in VHS. But old habits still die hard as evidenced by the still somewhat noisy "Recover" and fillers like "Wasteland" and "Shadow." Those three tracks aside, Orion represents a huge step forward for these brothers and cannot wait to see what they deliver down the road.
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