Brooklyn's own X Ambassadors may well represent a new trend in mainstream music or revive one, depends on the point of view. Before this year, X Ambassadors had a well-built indie cred, which caught the eye of producer Alex Da Kid and led to their subsequent signing to Interscope over 2 years ago. A mildly successful EP followed but late last year, Fiat-owned Jeep Motors used a song called "Renegades" to help sell their revived Renegade SUV line to much success, leading people to wonder who are the voices behind this catchy tune.
Wonder no more. X Ambassadors, with their take on arena-ready pop/rock are here to stay. If your first impression of the group is Imagine Dragons meets OneRepublic with a healthy dash of the unpredictabilty of what makes Maroon 5 tick, you nailed it right on the head. After such high hopes for the successful "Renegades," how would the Brooklyn group deliver on their major label debut album?
VHS is the aforementioned major label debut, a culmination of the journey that has taken X Ambassadors to this very spot. Interspersed in this reviewer's particular copy are various clips from home videos and recordings, likely from before the group's discovery from Da Kid and their signing to Interscope and the British super-producer's imprint KIDinaKORNER. Kicking the album off officially is the well-known "Renegades." In case anyone missed it, the song launched them into this point when Fiat-owned Jeep used the single to promote the Jeep Renegade, Once you get past that, this is in the wheelhouse that the group has clearly mastered in their time as a group. The anthem is quite catchy and quite relatable, a seeming ode to the rebels and trailblazers of the past, the present and the future.
Next full song "Unsteady" is another one in their wheelhouse, a bit slower, soul-baring and more raw than the comparatively slicker "Renegades." "Unsteady" has some musical shades in the multiple drumlines used of OneRepublic in their Dreaming Out Loud days. Another memorable single but unlike "Renegades," which showcased musical mastery of the group and the vocal chops of frontman Sam Harris, "Unsteady" puts Sam at the forefront (a very personal track outlining one of the more painful moments late in his childhood involving his parents) and also shows shades of OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder.
The Imagine Dragons comparison comes full force in "Hang On" with the powerful drumlines and the in your face vocal delivery from Sam Harris. It is not though as stand out as the opening two full songs, but this one can hold its own, appropiate for the song title ironically.
The third stage of their wheelhouse, which was on brief display in "Hang On" comes all together in the awesomely fantastic song "Gorgeous." Like the song's namesake, there is an impressive musical layering with the powerful lyrical delivery from Harris you saw in the first two songs of the album (which makes a brief reference to the opening single), the powerful electric guitars and drumlines from "Hang On" and the final layer the raw emotions from "Unsteady." A lot of groups would not be able to master such a thing, but X Ambassadors nails perfection in "Gorgeous." Indeed!
Unfortunately for the group, "Fear" in a snappy 2 minutes and 42 seconds runs their train off the rails and loses significant momentum. A likely smart on paper collaboration with Imagine Dragons, the final product you hear is an absolute mess from start to finish. You can point out everything that went wrong, but we don't have enough time and space to outline. Suffice to say, you don't get much of X Ambassadors in this one, more Imagine Dragons like the latter did not trust the former with the vision, which this reviewer assumes was smart and well-planned. Too bad, the plan went off the rails and oddly made the final tracking list. Ouch.
Even more odd is "Nervous." Odd from the standpoint that the song continues the sonic chaos
from "Fear" but when in the hands of X Ambassadors, it actually sounds well done, well planned and a lot tighter lyrically and sonically compared to "Fear." "Low Life" is a stark and clear stand out from the entire album's aim at uplifting, hope and aspiring. The deep deep deep guest vocal of Jamie N Commons keeps this particular piece grounded and humble. Compared to the more "jump on your feet and clap" style of lyrics throughout the album, "Low Life" brings a sense of candidness and presents itself somewhat of a soul-baring confessional. It is also interesting to note that in spite of it's understated feeling, the listener does not actually feel too down throughout the piece.
"B.I.G." to this reviewer is a lot like "Fear" in that it sounded and looked great on paper but in the end falls flat on its face. The refrain fits its namesake but sonically comes out as way too loud, way too BIG. "Feather" is another flat one as they make a half-hearted attempt at big bass-drum driven R&B/rock, which is beginning to permeate rock radio lately. Sam Harris' vocals save the song somewhat but too late for it to be an actual hit of note.
"Superpower" and "Loveless" also falls into the same category as "B.I.G." and "Fear," especially the badly chaotic "Loveless." Like "B.I.G.," "Loveless" is somewhat redeemed by Harris' lyrics and vocals but again, too little, too late.
"Jungle" is another song that has made its way to television, used in promoting the final quarter of Season 11 of the CW hit TV show "Supernatural," the second season trailer to the critically acclaimed Netflix show "Orange Is The New Black" and more recently, to promote the final games of the 2015 NBA Finals. "Jungle" finally hits the sweet spot that "Fear," "B.I.G.," "Superpower" and "Loveless" could not hit. It's got the right amount of big, right amount of power and more importantly, right amount of in your face. Jamie N Commons once again provides his deep vocal on this song and unlike "Fear" for Imagine Dragons, this one works a million times over. And this one pounds harder, grinds even more than anything the group put forward on this album so far.
The album ends with the catchy drumline of "Naked," which is all you need...and don't forget the killer saxophone line as well. A great way to end a pretty solid first foot forward for X Ambassadors.
In the end, X Ambassadors delivers for the most part in their major label debut. VHS showed signs of losing steam, especially after "Low Life" but gets their collective mojo back in "Jungle" and ending with a flourish on "Naked." The clips of Harris' home video clips offer a sense of great personal whatever you want to call it, but it certainly humanizes the album and showcases the long, hard and sometimes arduous journey that took Sam and his group all the way to this point. Big things are expected for this bona fide breakout going forward and it should be really fun to see it happen.