Last time around, the Gary Lightbody-led Snow Patrol brought us a solid, albeit twee, album via 2001's When It's All Over We Still Have to Clean Up. More recently, Lightbody made a second album with his mostly Scottish supergroup the Reindeer Section, which features members of Teenage Fanclub, Belle & Sebastian, Arab Strap, Mogwai, Idlewild and others. In the time since those albums were released, Lightbody and his day band seem to have ingested an enormous amount of steroids, as evidenced by the hulking sound found on Final Straw.
Hyperbole? You bet. Still, Final Straw represents a significant evolutionary move for Snow Patrol, as the group has done away with much of the fuzziness that had me checking my CD player's laser for dust on their last album. It's replaced by a cleaner, layered sound that takes advantage of everything a modern studio and, perhaps, a major-label advance has to offer.
Final Straw opens with "How to Be Dead," which employs xylophone, a treated guitar strum and Lightbody's singsong delivery to neatly bridge Snow Patrol past to Snow Patrol present, with the band's newfound fondness for bigness kicking in just past the halfway point via a cacophony of bells and beats courtesy of producer Garrett "Jack Knife" Lee, better known for his work with TLC and Basement Jaxx. "Wow" follows and uncages the rock beast, layers and layers of guitar underpinning the distorted vox, a trick repeated on the next two cuts, "Gleaming Auction" and "Whatever's Left." With the tracks sequenced in this way, one could be led to believe that Snow Patrol are flirting a bit too hard with generic alterna-rock in a bid for some airtime, but these are still some solid tunes.
And the little girls, they understand, and relentlessly poppy songs like "Spitting Games" replete with oodles of "oooh"-ing and Lightbody and new member Nathan Connolly's urgent guitars should grab them. The album's centerpiece, "Run," is the song that Coldplay dream of making, a moving ballad that benefits from the absence of that other band's dreadful, Dave Matthews-esque voice and omnipresent electric piano. The swelling strings and sweet singing blend beautifully with the guitars to create a Spector-ish wall of sound that conjures up images of Snow Patrol playing at the indie prom. This song walks on water while threatening to bring it forth from your eyes.
That the remainder of Final Straw comes as a letdown after such a great tune is no great surprise, as Snow Patrol seem to let their chameleon-like adaptability run away from them, with songs veering too close to the Cranberries ("Grazed Knees") and Sgt. Pepper's-era Beatles ("Ways & Means"). The tired art rock-inspired vocal tricks and gymnastics on "Somewhere a Clock Is Ticking" similarly detract, though the sleazy, glam-inspired "Tiny Little Fractures" elevates the album's latter half.
Final Straw represents an interesting gamble on Snow Patrol's part, with the band's embrace of big rock production values potentially alienating fans of their earlier indie work while hopefully exposing them to a broader audience. At the same time, their newfound versatility detracts somewhat from their own identity. But if they can craft a few more tunes as brilliantly entrancing as "Run," Snow Patrol may yet earn space on your shelf and in your heart.