In 2017, Minnesota’s Remo Drive stole the hearts of alternative emo kids across the world with its debut album, Greatest Hits. In 2020, the band is severely shifting gears. Is this for the better? Not particularly, but it’s definitely going somewhere.
Remo Drive, currently made up of brothers Erik and Stephen Paulson, skyrocketed within the underground emo punk and alternative rock scene for its boyish charm, impressively mature songwriting and lively performances. But after the group signed to Epitaph Records and dropped drummer Sam Mathys from the lineup just following the first album release, things haven’t been quite the same.
The band’s newest record, A Portrait of an Ugly Man, was released June 26 as the group’s junior album. The style of the first and newest albums just couldn’t be much more different — while the first two maintained hints of punk in their production styles, this new record is more psychedelic than “Strawberita.”
The second album released in 2019, Natural, Everyday Degradation, marked the true in between for the band in terms of a genre change. This record added some organic indie folk elements, but maintained a generally light alternative punk rock sound. A Portrait of an Ugly Man, however, is heartland bravado, stripped of any punk elements in favor of theatrical rock.
It’s without doubt that the instrumentals on Remo Drive’s songs have been consistently flawless since 2017. This, however, can’t always be said for the vocals.
As the lead singer, Erik Paulson thrived in 2017, back when the band fell into a more youthful, alternative-centered crowd and a little bit of vocal thrashiness fit like a Vans-checkered glove. This production style doesn’t line up with all of the band’s new music, and yet, the Paulson brothers are still trying to make it work.
A Portrait of an Ugly Man’s first song, “A Guide To Live By,” displays this right off the bat: While the guitars and drums show the band’s experience, it’s the vocals that still sound like they’re being demoed, not quite living up to the quality of their backing tones. They sound the best in the subdued, muted bridge, pointing fingers at the clean-cut choruses for being overly bold and pronounced.
The enunciated drama of the new Remo Drive age fits much better on the album’s lead single, “Star Worship.” Here, the band seems to have shifted more comfortably into an Americana outfit. Minor chords ring heavy behind “Hallelujah” lyrical phrases — it’s hard to believe this was ever the same band who produced “Yer Killin’ Me.”
And in the end, there’s nothing wrong with switching genres. It’s apparent that the Paulson brothers have matured in their skills and expanded their music influences, but it seems they’re still trying to make old, mastered talents fit awkwardly into this new sonic aesthetic. The only place where fans can get truly nostalgic for the old sound is on the outro of “True Romance Lives” — one of the album’s only places where Erik Paulson’s belt is truly done justice.
What Remo Drive has always excelled at, however, are exquisite song intros and outros. The end of “Star Worship” blends almost seamlessly into the next track, “Dead Man,” only a slight tone change increasing brightness to match the latter song’s more upbeat feel.
On the same wavelength, the band pushed expectations in terms of lyricism. “If I’ve Ever Looked Too Deep in Thought” is one of the most poetic songs on the record, following a darker subject but telling a gripping story of internal conflict.
But the most peculiar song on the album, without a doubt, is “The Night I Kidnapped Remo Drive.” In essence, this song snaps back at every fan who still thinks the band went downhill since Greatest Hits. “Erik and I are the best of friends,” the opening verse starts out, and the song uses the phrase “you’re killin’ me” to counter its first hit single.
The band does make a good point: There’s no need to compare its current sound to the sound it’s obviously not returning to. But until Remo Drive has really fallen into a comfortable spot in its new genre, let the comparisons ring.