The Robot Ate Me’s debut album, They Ate Themselves, was a quirky and dark release that found the band getting compared to everyone from Radiohead to Neutral Milk Hotel, despite not really sounding like either. Their off-kilter sound was inventive and colorful, taking little influences from all over but turning it into something completely different, and at their best they managed to craft some really beautiful indie pop songs.
But the album was not without its weak spots. In fact, there were many. With close to twenty songs, it was a rather lengthy release, and it could have been trimmed down for a much stronger release. The lyrics were rather bizarre and slightly pretentious, with just about every song being about cannibalism or death, and hearing such grim lyrics got a bit irritating after awhile. Lastly, the cold, frail, and detached vocals of singer Ryland Bouchard, and at times he was talking more than singing.
Despite its shortcomings, though, the band had an interesting enough sound that I was looking forward to hearing what they had up their sleeves next. Thankfully, the band has managed to overcome most of the weaknesses they showed. On this, their second release, they are crafting much stronger and more daring songs, and have substituted pretension with charm and humor.
The first disc opens with “The Genocide Ball,” and it is truly representative of how they have progressed musically while having retained the dark lyrics. A nice little romp of a song, “The Genocide Ball” sounds just like that: with the lo-fi recording of a brass band and the hiss and crackle of a recorder, you get the feeling that you’re attending some glitzy party in the ’20s or ’40s. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either wacky and fun or spooky and bizarre. That kind of World War II swing dance style shows up again on most of the tracks of the first disc. “The Republican Army” sways back and forth with organ, saxophone, and more lo-fi crackles, while a clanging and screeching beat threatens to overtake the song.
Whereas their first album was rampant with themes of genocide and cannibalism, this album’s first disc is all about World War II and, well, more genocide. Nowhere is this more prevalent than on “Oh No! Oh My! (1994),” the album’s weirdest and silliest moment, where Bouchard sings “All the human Africans are statistics, doesn’t matter if they die,” to a cheery and dainty little Vaudevillian melody. The catchy “Crispy Christian Teatime” is just as fun, sounding like a ’50s commercial with its tooting horns and playful vibraphones. On their first album, lyrics like “And sometimes we play crispy Christian teatime with Barbies, tea, and toast” would just come across as irritating, but here they manage to sound charming, and it shows that the band doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The first disc closes out with the album-titled “On Vacation,” which is a slow dirge with far-off organ, weeping strings, and the sound of fighter planes and a rumbling engine. The song itself may drag a bit, but it’s a good example of just how sonically dense the band has managed to make their sound, and the production is masterful.
The second disc is the stronger and more conventional of the two. It’s also much more upbeat. Rather than being full of gloomy songs beamed in from the second world war, it’s sunshiney and immensely catchy.
The opener, “On Vacation” (strangely, they use the title twice for two completely different songs), is arguably the best song the band has ever done. Bouchard’s cheerful lyrics about going on a vacation are carried along by fuzzy bass and steady drum beat, building up to a chorus so catchy that it’s impossible not to sing along. The third track, “Apricot Tea,” is also one of the group’s finest moments, and certainly one of their prettiest. Mixing warm keyboards and organ, gentle acoustic guitar, and an effervescent choir, it’s just as sweet as its title implies.
If the band earned comparisons to Radiohead and Neutral Milk Hotel on their first outing, they sound more like The Flaming Lips than anything else on their second. “Watermelon Sugar” and “The Tourist,” with their colorful palette of sounds, Bouchard’s Wayne Coyne-ish vocals, and, in the case of the latter, a light-as-air choir, sound like they’re straight out of The Soft Bulletin. But to cast the band off as mere imitators would hardly do them justice when the songs are so good, and The Robot Ate Me do enough with their sound to make it sounding like a complete ripoff.
Although overall the band is writing much stronger and catchier songs, there are times where the release reaches that sort of directionless, arty-for-the-sake-of-being-arty sound. The Mt. Eerie-esque “Jesus And Hitler,” while interesting musically, never really goes anywhere, and its lyrics, which detail Jesus and Hitler making out in the back of the car, are offensive if anything. “You Don’t Fill Me Up the Same” never really gains shape, as any drum beat it begins to develop quickly goes away after a few seconds.
One of the most notable changes about the band is the vocals of Ryland Bouchard. He has gained much more confidence, and whereas on the last release his voice got on my nerves once in a while, I wouldn’t mind hearing more of it on this one.
What’s slightly puzzling about the release is why it was released on two discs, when each disc, at twenty minutes, is no longer than an EP. Condensing the two and taking out the weaker tracks might have made a stronger release overall, but considering the fact the two discs are so musically different, separating them is the most logical choice.
On Vacation shows the band progressing much more musically, writing stronger and catchier songs and keeping all the good parts of their last release while getting rid of most of the bad ones. Whether or not it’s worth your $18 (most of the money, I’m guessing, goes towards the elaborate and lovely packaging) is up to you, and I would suggest downloading two or three songs off their website to get a feel of their sound. For my money, though, this collection of inventive and brilliant avant pop songs is well worth it. I only wish it was longer.
Written by Richie DeMaria.