Adventures In The Underground Journey To The Stars

(Young American; 2006)

By David M. Goldstein | 30 December 2007

Truth be told, the only reason I ever started writing for CMG was to acquire a soapbox from which to sing the praises of South’s second record, With the Tides. The resulting review was typical of a first effort; an overwritten mess, bursting at the seams with fanboy enthusiasm and hyperbole. But none of that alters the fact that I still believe With the Tides to be one of the better releases of 2003, not to mention completely slept on by the critics and public alike.

Granted, South don’t do themselves many favors in the name recognition department. A relatively anonymous British trio, their chosen moniker sticks out as a liability in the era of Google, and though Giovani Ribisi-looking bass player Joel Cadbury handles most of the lead vocals, South lack a discernable frontman with star power leanings. Furthermore, their decidedly lush, bliss-pop sound would have likely met with far greater success had it been pitched to 120 Minutes in the early 90's back when that brand of Britpop actually moved units. Then again, South has already managed to score a television coup far greater than any Dave Kendall endorsed music video; their 2002 single “Paint the Silence” will be forever branded as the song that soundtracked Ryan and Marissa’s climactic ferris wheel kiss on the first season of The O.C. (it even surfaced on a Marissa-curated mix CD on said show three weeks ago). I feel no shame in knowing that.

While I have no idea to what extent said Josh Schwartz endorsement impacted South’s record sales, the resulting ASCAP royalties probably gave them more than enough wherewithal to record their unfortunately named third album, Adventures in the Undergound Journey to the Stars; the title of which I’m hoping is an inside joke to which I’m not privy. Though more thoroughly reminiscent of the wistful, Stone Roses-inspired songs off of 2001's From Here On In as opposed to the straight ahead rock of With the Tides’ best tracks, South’s fanbase will be pleased to know that they’ve hardly abandoned their signature sound. Joel Cadbury and Jamie McDonald’s overlapping harmony vocals remain as lush as ever, and their band’s expertly produced songs remain melodic and catchy.

In fact, arguably South’s greatest asset in the current Britrock environment is that they’ll never have to worry about any Gang of Four comparisons, or the word “angular” being used to describe their sound. South dare to construct actual songs requiring vocalists who can carry a tune, and they benefit from knowing a thing or two about milking a climax to great effect–doing the 30-second track-by track preview at your local book cum music store isn’t going to afford you the best impression of Adventures if only because South routinely save the best bits for the end. The undeniable bounce and Mani-esque bassline of opener “Shallow” alone make it an excellent tune, but the band expertly ratchet up the energy by mirroring the bassline with a ripping electric guitar at the climax. Likewise the mostly acoustic “Habit of a Lifetime,” which peaks with a sudden burst of yearning volume (shades of From Here On In’s title track) that while being more than a little cliche, is undeniably effective.

Nearly as important as South’s songwriting skills is their uncanny ability to make their records sound extremely good. Though not a huge surprise based upon the sonic excellence of their prior albums, if South should somehow get bored of the band concept, they could easily launch a second career producing other bands’ albums. No tracks on Adventures suffer from over-production, but the attention to sonic details and the clarity of the instruments is impressive; the dueling acoustic guitars on the breathy male/female duet “Know Yourself” are simply so pleasing to the ear you’d think they’d been sprinkled with fairy dust. The same applies to the harpsichord on “Safety in Numbers” or the understated bed of strings on “Pieces of a Dream.” South know exactly what they wanted Adventures to sound like, and their detailed approach pays dividends.

But Adventures also marks a somewhat dubious return to a habit that plagued South on their first, cluttered album; namely not knowing when to leave well enough alone and let the tunes speak for themselves. To this end they’ve taken the utterly pointless step of tacking on various sound collages to the fronts and backs of most of these songs, requiring the listener to always fast forward “Shallow” to the 56 second mark, unless he/she really wants to hear walking feet and a car engine every time he turns on the record. Similar faults mar the otherwise can’t miss next single “You Are One” and late album ballad “Meant to Mean.” Perhaps such samples were designed with the purpose of signifying the adventures promised in the album title, but c’mon guys, that shit was even stale on Wish You Were Here. And despite a larger ratio of solid songs to filler relative to their prior two albums, Adventures gradually grows tepid towards its conclusion, and lacks a knock-out blow along the lines of “Paint the Silence” or “Colours In Waves”. The only really questionable track, however, would be “Up Close and Personal”; an aimless mish-mash that despite proving that South know their way around a tempo change, sounds like it was snatched from Gomez’s C-side pile.

Indulgences aside, Adventures in the Underground Journey to the Stars is another very good album from a band that I fear will always be categorized (at least by me anyway) as criminally overlooked. South have an ear for melody, uniformly excellent production values, and a good sense of dynamics; all of which manifests itself in some very satisfying melodic Brit-pop. Though not quite the corker With the Tides was (still their best record), Adventures is hardly a step backward for South; more like a lateral. Well suited for the beginning of spring, Adventures provides a lush alternative to the increasingly annoying field of 21st century Brit-pop acts; the kids shouldn’t be forced to subsist on the Arctic Monkeys alone.