We, The Vehicles
eorge Mason, I hope you enjoyed your time in the spotlight, because we very well may have a new frontrunner for the Cinderella story of 2006. Not to downplay making the Final Four out of the Colonial Athletic Conference—but GMU does happen to be the biggest school in a talent-rich state, and a senior-laden squad with solid coaching always has a puncher's chance in what's becoming an increasingly watered-down tournament pool. It was inspiring, but not all that inconceivable. But what about Maritime, an Audioslave-esque amalgamation of The Promise Ring and Dismemberment Plan's erstwhile members? 2004's Glass Floor was so uninspiring, it didn't even get reviewed on All Music Guide and the only Promise Ring album meant for people of legal drinking age was a concept album about quitting music that came out four years ago. Meanwhile, We, The Vehicles turns out to be one of the biggest surprises of the year. That's overcoming the odds.
The album's entryway consists of the album's strongest, most cynic-proof tracks, "Calm" and "Tearing up the Oxygen," laying to waste the worry that We, The Vehicles won't win over those who aren't predisposed to the past work of Promise Ring (singer Davey Von Bohlen and drummer Dan Didier are alumni) and D-Plan (bassist Eric Axelson's old gig). Occupying the area between the Anglophilia sampler of Wood/Water and the spacious Change, the group ends up with a sound that would evoke the Pacific Northwest and taking in breezes by large bodies of water even if it wasn't made by a band called Maritime. It might as well have a Sub Pop sticker slapped on it. And while "Calm" is a driving and reassuring mission statement ("we are powerful despite our injuries"), "Tearing up the Oxygen" might be the best song Von Bohlen's ever put his name to. The winding, winning melody makes lyrics like "when your eyes are off me I'm alone / And they can be anywhere / I should be so lucky" glorious in their navel-gazing before the wordless chorus blasts off and gives Delays a run for their bliss-pop money.
The rest of the album breaks ties from their previous work for a sound that's so streamlined, its closest comparison is Spoon's Kill The Moonlight. It's not the widest palette, but Maritime finds enough nooks and crannies to make We, The Vehicles a rewarding listen. The big hooks come early, but Maritime can also ingratiate more subtly, as on "No One Will Remember You Tonight," which scores a knockout with a thousand acoustic uppercuts. Don't let the title of the delightful "German Engineering" fool you; the peppy bounce and adorable keyboard hook are far more indicative of Japanese Whispers. Even when they flirt with the tired trope of disco-pop, it never crosses the line to becoming a cheap ruse. As is the case with the aforementioned Spoon, every instrument is working together for a rhythmic purpose—although the chorus "Parade of Punk-Rock T-shirts" has a typical upbeat hi-hat figure and choppy guitar strokes, they serve as nervy complements to the "break[ing] through to the one that you love" sentiment.
A large part of the credit needs to go to Von Bohlen, who may be guilty of single-handedly sprouting the cloying, cutesy branch of the emo tree back in the mid-90s. The early-morning rasp will still ring familiar, but he must have had some sort of laser lisp surgery in the last two years. No longer relying on precious topic matter to sell his songs (mixtapes, Delaware, etc.), Von Bohlen's developed the vocal presence to nail breathy harmonies ("Tearing up the Oxygen") as well as some swagger ("Twins").
The most important aspect to his new demeanor is the maturity in the lyrics. While there's mention of "young alumni," "modern cocktail drinkers," "kids with directionless hair," and a parade of punk-rock t-shirts, Von Bohlen's never bitter and more importantly, he’s non-judgmental. Keeping their respective histories in mind, it seems strange that Davey would finish up in a lyrical sense what Travis Morrison started on the definitive post-collegiate album Emergency & I. Closure was certainly needed, since for all of its positives, Change ended on a sour note with "Ellen & Ben," an inside joke that failed to distance itself from mere scenester gossip. Meanwhile, Travistan riled critics by being the equivalent of Abraham Simpson's "I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was" speech. We, The Vehicles sheds the self-absorption, and serves as a comforting reminder that one day, you're going to tire not just of the "scene," but evaluating it as well.
If there's any quibble to be made about We, The Vehicles, it's the lingering question of what Wood/Water producer Steven Street could've done with it. Perhaps it was out of financial necessity, but the sound can be too brittle in parts, often times at the cost of Axelson's always-fluid baselines. And with Axelson leaving the band on amicable terms to spend time with his family, it's up for debate whether this was a one-shot deal or the beginning of a bold new era. No matter; as with George Mason, even though Maritime may not have gone all the way, it's still been a hell of a run.