My first exposure to Neon Trees was when I saw them open for Duran Duran in December 2011 at the Chicago Theatre. They had some hooks that reached me, even though I had never heard any of the songs before.
Following up after the show, I got into "1983" and "Your Surrender," both great pop songs. Then I found their appearance of Daryl Hall's Live From Daryl's House, where, in addition to solid versions of the two songs I just mentioned, they also did a lovely reading of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams," and totally burned up a relatively obscure Hall & Oates track called "Head Above Water," as well as Hall & Oates' "Adult Education" (a song I don't generally care for). I was sold.
Neon Trees write just the kind of retro-80s-epic-romantic pop anthems that I live for; songs that make me feel 17 again--the kind of pop anthems that engender hope and foster dreams of grandeur. These are the kind of songs that make me feel like something great could happen at any moment, that a transcendent love is around the corner, and that there's time for me to be great. That's what music is all about for me. That's what got me truly excited about listening to music as a tween, and that's what made learning to play an instrument and write songs so magical.
You know that feeling when you think you've heard everything that's going to be new and great, that there's no undiscovered gems left out there? And then you do discover something new that gets you excited and hungry for more? That's what these folks are doing for me. When the lead single "Everybody Talks" came out in advance of the Picture Show album, I was genuinely excited to hear the album and eagerly awaiting the release. And it did not disappoint.
In addition to "Everybody Talks" (listened to it repeatedly), there are a generous handful of great songs. "Weekend" is an energetic jam; it has a cool, unexpectedly funky verse and a pre-chorus that perfectly sets up the wide-open chorus, which kicks into an extra gear after the main hook--the "Outside the night's as young as us . . ." part opens the big chorus even further. Great bridge, and then into "oh-oh . . . na na na" business, then the "Nobody knows . . . " variation of the chorus . . . forget about it! This is pop gold. The composition and construction of this is masterful. If you don't like this, you don't like hooks.
Speaking of construction, producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen should be lauded for his work on this record. Of course, nobody really knows what role a particular "producer" played on a particular project, and it can be anything from a person who hired the session players and the songwriters, to someone who was really involved in shaping the song arrangements, sounds, and even writing. So, I don't know exactly what this cat did on this record, but the arrangements, sounds, and song structures are all stellar, so he certainly deserves some solid credit.
"I Am the DJ" is another uptempo track with monster hooks and a great lyrical premise.
"Still Young" has an epic yearning sound, complete with a The Edge/Cure-style chiming guitar siren. Great bass playing/sound on this one, too--smooth and snakey with just the right amount of syncopation, then laying it down with 8th-notes in the chorus.
The totally 80s, sweet-and-catchy "Mad Love" is a wonderful pop song. I was about to call it a "pop confection," but that might come across as patronizing or somehow diminishing, whereas I am a firm believer that concentrating ideas into this sort of focused, ultra-hooky composition is actually one of the hardest things to do in writing and producing. Also, Elaine (the drummer, who is a wonderful singer) gets a little bit of lead-vocal time on this one--really sweet.
"Close to You" is another great track--more of a haunting (in a 80s-synth way) track, but lovely. Tyler Glenn's more intimate singing in a lower register (and a bit of falsetto) is great, as well being a nice change of pace from his higher-register belting, which by the way, is great. Dude has the chops and the tone across his range--love it.
There are a few tracks that are so-so, but the standout tracks on the record are really great. Neon Trees is what Shiny Toy Guns could have been. This band is great and seems to really have the goods in terms of songwriting and having a solid sense of their sound.
This has turned into a "review" of the record, but I wanted to unpack some of the specific reasons I think the record is great, rather than just saying, "It's great." But the point is that not only is it great, it made me really excited about listening to music, about writing songs, and about producing recordings. And that is great, and something for which I am very grateful. So, to Tyler, Elaine, Branden, and Chris (@neontrees), I want to say thank you. Keep doing your thing--I'm inspired.