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Bob Moses - Battle Lines Music Album Reviews

The New York duo’s second album is tasteful to a fault, joining gentle electronics with polite indie rock and vaguely wistful lyrics. Despite the title, it’s a record that avoids discord at all cost.

The band Bob Moses sounds remarkably like Coldplay on Battle Lines, from the soaring vocal melodies to the stately piano chords to the overall air of slightly apologetic celebration. Most of all, though, Bob Moses sound like Coldplay because singer Tom Howie sounds like Chris Martin. The resemblance is there in Howie’s hushed vocal tone, his tendency to reach for the falsetto and only just arrive, and the way he stretches out his words like a politely howling coyote, so that “insanity” becomes “insanity-y-y,” the last syllable tugged along by vast slabs of singalong phrasing.

Coldplay’s role as perpetual media whipping boy might make the comparison sound like an insult, but it’s not meant to be. Especially on their first two albums, Coldplay had a fantastic gift for melody that soundtracked more autumnal breakups than many people these days might care to admit, and Bob Moses share some of this melodic nous. At their best, the Vancouver band’s tunes are like seeds in the desert: imperishable hooks that lie dormant for months only to flower at the first sign of heartbreak. Album opener “Heaven Only Knows” has the same boisterous stadium melancholy that Chris Martin and co. might use to slay a boggy Glastonbury Festival, while “Listen to Me” is a wonderful earworm mix of fragility and defiance.

The problem lies in what Bob Moses do—or rather don’t do—with these melodies. For all that the band straddles the worlds of dance and guitars, the arrangements on Battle Lines are incredibly tame, as if the duo mistakenly joined the blandest of electronics with the politest of indie rock. The typical Battle Lines song starts with solemn piano chords and a mournful vocal refrain; a beat starts up, earnestly marking time; then guitar and synth join wearily in, a pattern so unbelievably muted it makes you wonder if electronic music could really have originated in the delirium of disco or was instead soldered together in a suburban laboratory with the express goal of putting drummers out of business. There are minor exceptions to this rule: “Listen to Me” introduces a weighty bass pulse, giving Battle Lines its first suggestion of grit eight tracks in, while “Don’t Hold Back” recalls the schaffel beat of the band’s Grammy-nominated hit “Tearing Me Up.” But these are isolated islands of change in a warm sea of drift.

Allied to this are lyrics so deeply ambiguous they make choose-your-own-adventure books seem dangerously decisive. “Sacrifice/Don’t think twice/Wear your faith as your only disguise/It’s justified, don’t ask why/’Cause heaven only knows,” runs the second verse of “Heaven Only Knows,” clearing up precisely nothing about what it is, exactly, that heaven only knows and why we should care.

What makes this drabness all the more galling is that Bob Moses should, on the face of it, be a pretty fascinating band. Jimmy Vallance, the other half of the duo, started his career making trance and progressive house, and Bob Moses are one of few acts to have played EDM wonderland EDC, the earthier Bonnaroo, and London underground clubbing institution Fabric. You can hear the subtle influence of trance on tracks like “Back Down,” where the slightest suggestion of fluoro folly in the interplay between synth and voice briefly raises hopes that the duo might leave the leaden comfort of beige for rampant electronic abandon. After all, even Coldplay went EDM on hands-in-the-air Avicii collaboration "A Sky Full of Stars.” But these hopes are soon dashed as Bob Moses chug back down through the gears, leaving their second album feeling less like Battle Lines drawn and more like the carefully negotiated de-escalation of a crisis—a situation that is great for international diplomacy but unlikely to set the heart on fire.

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