In many ways, Relient K is the perfect band to grow up to. Before you crack out the tomatoes and boo me off my proverbial stage, give me just a moment to defend this statement. For starters, few bands make music as genuinely likable as these guys (regardless of faith groups or markets); and this is coming from someone who utterly hates pop punk, that sickeningly watered down iteration of real statement-making hard rock. Secondly, Relient K’s hooks rival those of industry kings, Fall Out Boy, and like that Pete Wentz-centered outfit, their lyricism is playful and sarcastic. Is it simple and satisfying for little brother and sister alike? You bet.
Nowhere to be found are the depths of substance or social consciousness so many artists strive for, yet Relient K has remained strong competition because of one simple truth: they refuse to negotiate the terms of their “artistic vision.” Kid-friendly, teen relevant, and hilariously un-cool, we’ve been fed this fluffy baby-rock for five albums now, and the quality of each release is so consistent, it’s hard to remember that they fall into the category of “guilty pleasure.” Each album is something of a minor masterpiece in ear candy.
In between all the major studio releases, we’ve been pelted with EPs, b-sides, acoustic sessions, and all other forms of cash flow generation—essentially money grabbers, set to fuel hardcore fans with in-between product to take the edge off having to wait so long for another LP. What’s nice about The Birds and the Bee Sides is that Relient K have graciously compiled all of this previously released side material in one location, and it serves as both a frugal means of collecting band rarities and as a sort of crash course in the power pop group’s rich history.
With the last EP expansion—Let It Snow Baby…Let It Reindeer—the primary complaint came from the fact that the band’s Christmas covers were so predictable they failed to adapt their classic source material for a target audience who couldn’t help but crack up when they belted out “Don we now our gay apparel!” As such, it was something of a disappointment, a traditional Christmas release, albeit with electric guitar and peppery drums. Thankfully, this time around the boys are dealing with their own material, and even if some of it still falls flat (remember, much of it comes from rejected album ideas), it does manage to pull a few punches before bowing out.
Not conforming to a set-in-stone thematic idea or common musical properties, it’s a safe assumption that most of the tracks hodgepodge between engaging and embarrassingly mediocre, the latter coming close to making even hardcore fans hide their CDs in shame before their criticized for their tastes. “You’ll Always Be My Best Friend” is a perfect (or rather, not so perfect) example of the worst in country-pop that can’t even manage to pull off a silly hook without imbibing the listener with involuntarily cringe-inducing lyrics and lazy vocals.
On the other hand, when Matt Thiessen and company gets something right, the results are persuasive in spite of their presentation. “The Last, The Lost, The Least” is such a success. Lyrically, it’s nothing new, but the fist-pumping chorus is infectious and the production (while borrowing heavily from other squeakily-polished modern rock bands like Anberlin) bolsters the energy even more. Is it derivative? Certainly. Is it crazy-cool fun? You bet!
The rest of the project follows in the same vein of hit and miss. Oddly enough, though, there is a pattern of acoustic ballads, many of which that dance awfully close to some faux-melancholy version of modern country. The vocals are slack on these occasions, and the lack of guitar distortion or brisk percussion could definitely disorient even faithful followers of Relient K’s work. Sure, they’ve always liked to incorporate playful shrines to other genres and more important artists, but I would be lying if I said that it didn’t sound as if Thiessen wasn’t preparing future audiences for something a little mellower in the future.
Other standouts include the witty, sunshiny “Beaming,” the slow-grower “Curl Up and Die,” and the reflective, swaying “The Lining is Silver.” If you’re downloading the strongest bits of the collection, without purchasing the whole project, then do whatever you must to stay away from “You’ll Always Be…” and “Where Do I Go From Here.” Relient K aren’t the smartest band in their scene today, and every time they attempt to stretch beyond the confines of their conventional sound, their appeal suffers drastically.
All in all, if you aren’t the biggest Relient K fan or an extraordinarily curious newcomer, then it would probably be best to stay away from this album, and give their breakout hit, MmHmm a few spins instead.
John Wofford is the editor of Soul-Audio. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.