Switchfoot’s big ‘Vice’

The follow-up to their sonically expansive 2009 LP “Hello Hurricane,” Switchfoot’s latest effort “Vice Verses” presents an even more adventurous and ambitious, yet ultimately flawed, effort.

The popular San Diego-based band began departing from their original post-grunge sound (found in earlier albums like “The Beautiful Letdown,” “Learning to Breathe” and “Nothing Is Sound”) with their last album “Hello Hurricane,” probably because of their switch to music label from Columbia Records to Atlantic.

This change led to a decision to revamp their playing style, “starting from scratch” as frontman Jon Foreman stated in an interview in late 2007. Generally known for making literate, soulful, Christian alternative rock with a sound echoing Foo Fighters, the band decided to experiment with more styles and lyrical themes with these two albums.

Tracks on “Vice Verses” range from acoustic ballads like the title track to spoken-word delivery over a pulsing Black Keys-style song on “Selling the News.” Quite a few tracks are still reminiscent of their older material. “Dark Horses,” the album’s first single, is one example.

“Vice Verses” ends up being a mixed bag of tracks that explore a wide range of styles found in the alternative rock spectrum, much akin to the Strokes’ latest effort, “Angles.” However, unlike the Strokes’ album, “Vice Verses” still manages to be cohesive as all the songs are unified together by lyrical themes throughout the album. This cohesiveness ends up being a strong point for “Vice Verses” as a whole.

Musically, the album is very rooted in the rhythm with focus on drums and bass, most notable from the start of “The Original.” Rhythm is also emphasized through repetition of lyrics in the songs, which flows and goes well with the instrumentals, making the songs sound upbeat and optimistic.

While production values are strong on this album and the instrumentals are engaging, the flaws lie in the lyrics. Thematically, “Vice Verses” is centered on the concept that “every blessing comes with a set of curses,” a lyric found in the title track. But in a number of songs the writing is clichéd and dull, attempting to be universal and open-minded when addressing topics such as race and poverty, using lyrics like “Put your hands up open wide / put your hands up side by side / age don’t matter, like race don’t matter / like place don’t matter like what’s inside” in “The War Inside.”

While it’s apparent that Switchfoot is undoubtedly honest behind their lyrics, the themes are familiar and expressed simply. Rather than sounding original or profound, the album comes off as cheesy.

It isn’t so much that Switchfoot is bad at executing their ideas through their songs, it’s that the ideas that they’ve chosen for this album (mostly they’re just talking about how life is complicated, shocker!) are just so ordinary and explored in better ways through other artists. “Vice Verses” tries to cover a universal theme, but this ends up making the album sound too ordinary.

Still, credit must be given to Switchfoot for making some of their songs catchy, and sonically they’re still pretty good. Jon Foreman’s gruff vocals are engaging and playful on tracks like “The Original” and “Dark Horses.” At other times, though, he can be heartfelt and somber on acoustic songs like the title track “Vice Verses,” a style almost reminiscent of Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold’s style of singing. This just only solidifies Switchfoot’s potential in creating exciting and engaging music over a wide array of styles, which would be more fun to listen to if the lyrics weren’t so uninteresting.

This LP is definitely accessible to the average alternative rock listener, but whether this latest effort is listenable after three or four times is really dependent on whether or not you’re a big fan of Switchfoot.

Diehard fans will most likely enjoy “Vice Verses” for its adventurous and rather ambitious sound, but other listeners would probably focus their attention on tracks like “Dark Horses,” “The Original” and the title track. While the other tracks are moderately enjoyable, casual listeners will likely not pay much attention to them simply because “Vice Verses” as a whole is hardly out of the ordinary.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5