The young guys in the Broken West might need to learn how to take a compliment. The Los Angeles band’s first album, 2007’s I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On, garnered the group copious comparisons to the stalwarts of power pop. But in the press, the Broken West voiced dissatisfaction with this pigeonholing. Lead singer Ross Flournoy decried “another goddamn Big Star comparison” in the LA Weekly. Sure, reductionism and definition-by-comparison in music criticism can get lazy and shitty, but it could get a lot worse than being mentioned over and over again in the same breath as arguably the greatest power-pop band of all time.
So how has the Broken West responded on sophomore effort Now or Heaven? By subtracting a large amount of the fun and joyousness that made I Can’t so likable. Now or Heaven is an altogether more somber affair. It isn’t until the fifth of the ten songs here, “Perfect Games,” that we finally get a shiny, happy song, this one particularly about the abandon of partying when there are so many important things to be done, with Flournoy singing, “We sit around spillin’ our ice cubes on the lawn.” It’s good that “Perfect Games” was the first song the Broken West released off the album, because its big hooks will hook in fans of I Can’t.
Those fans won’t find much else big and bouncy about Now or Heaven, though. The album starts with electronic beats on “Gwen, Now and Then,” but that doesn’t herald some turn toward the experimental; simple rhythm-guitar strumming is soon augmented by a descending lead guitar line that sounds like the falling rays of a setting sun, making for a perfect end-of-summer sound. The first half of the album stays in this melancholy mood. “Auctioneer” is based around a piano line Tegan and Sara, a group the Broken West is known to cover live, might put down. And “Elm City” is darkly atmospheric, Flournoy whispering late-night lyrics about moonlit drives.
Things stay up a bit after “Perfect Games.” “House of Lies” has some glam-rock swagger to it, with Flournoy emoting up in his high range. That song serves as a preview for “Got It Bad,” which finds the Broken West in the funky territory My Morning Jacket got so slammed for visiting on Evil Urges. The Broken West doesn’t have the stature that MMJ does, so “Got It Bad” won’t end up being as hotly debated as “Widely Suspicious,” but it is a similarly divisive song. Sure it’s fun, as Flournoy croons “All I want is what I can’t have" like a tortured loverboy and a drum break sounds like it’s lifted straight from “Billie Jean,” but in the end it seems like a genre exercise that wasn’t fully thought through.
Now or Heaven’s last two tracks end up back in the album’s comfort zone of lush '80s pop with noir overtones. In fact, a lot of the songs here sound like they might have been big radio hits 20 years ago. If I Can’t was the band’s '70s AM radio statement, Now or Heaven is the Broken West’s '80s FM radio record. That’s a step forward chronologically but a step backward in overall album success, at least for me. I've always preferred the arch Alex Chilton to the mopey Morrissey.
The Broken West's 2007 debut album was entitled I Can't Go On, I'll Go On. Looks like the band chose the latter, as Now or Heaven is full length number two from the Los Angeles-based band. If you think that album title sounds like it could be the moniker for a long-lost John Hughes movie from the '80s, you're on the right track toward the album's prevailing sound: think of the acts from that decade that made big, lush, yet somewhat somber music, like Tears for Fears or Crowded House. But Now or Heaven also retains some of the power pop of the Broken West's first album, especially in that most of the 10 songs here are tightly constructed three-minute affairs. "Got it Bad" brings a little funk to the proceedings; and no, Pavement fans, "Embassy Row" is not a cover of the Brighten the Corners track of the same name, but instead a forlorn closer to an album that, while still sunny, adds hints of SoCal noir to the Broken West's sound.