Bands pick a mighty Everest to surmount when they choose power pop as their predominant sound. Or, more correctly, they pick a whole huge range to cross. From any Big Star record or the dB’s Stands for Decibels through New Pornographers releases and A.C. Newman’s The Slow Wonder, there have been a lot of peaks in this particular genre. The Broken West’s debut doesn’t reach such great heights if for nothing else than the very lofty competition it has to live up to.
I’ll give it to this young band, though: I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On fires up with some immediately winning songs. “On the Bubble” is probably the best power-pop opener since Newman’s “Miracle Drug.” “Down in the Valley” is the best of the bunch. Just as Big Star’s “In the Street” was famously used as the theme song for That ’70s Show, this song could play over the opening credits of a sitcom set in the San Fernando Valley. (The band is from the nearby Echo Park neighborhood of L.A.)
When lead singer Ross Flournoy belts out the chorus-“Sundown, blood horizon, now it feels alright/ No one feels the darkness down in the valley tonight”-it becomes apparent that his mass-appealing voice is a large part of what makes the band work. “You Can Build an Island” is something Yo La Tengo wouldn’t shy away from, but with Ira Kaplan’s idiosyncratic timbre, it wouldn’t be as universally pleasing as it is in the Broken West’s hands. And when other band members harmonize with Flournoy, as on “Brass Ring” and “Big City,” things get even more sweetly sunny.
It’s almost a given that an album with this much energy is going to trail off toward its end. In this regard, I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On very much resembles Phoenix’s album from last year. (I was ready to crown It’s Never Been Like That album of the year when it first came out yet increasingly found its sweetness to be empty calories.) After repeated listens, the fact that the end of the album doesn’t live up to the beginning really starts to stick out. “Hale Sunrise” wants to be more anthemic than it is. “Abigail” doesn’t take the wooing of its title character into the rich emotional territory Elliott Smith would have. “Slow” is rote power pop paint-by-numbers. And closer “Like a Light” tries to be an epic ender but doesn’t come through, the type of song Pavement was mocking with “Filmore Jive.”