Perhaps many will have made up their minds about Straylight Run well in advance of hearing any of their music, due to their core's former association with Taking Back Sunday. That band never made much of an impact on me positive or negative -- I can't remember anything about any of their songs, although I'm sure I must have heard a few. Doing some quick research into their recent activity indicates a group that (for what it's worth) remains skilled at maintaining their brand presence and sound authentically despite constant lineup changes.
Straylight Run, on the other hand, don't sound the same now as they did when they started out, even though the roster is stable. A fair analogy for this ongoing project of Sunday founders John Nolan and Shaun Cooper is what Blake Schwarzenbach did transitioning from Jawbreaker to Jets to Brazil. Straylight Run are moodier, more varied in tempo, and much more harmony-conscious that the group Nolan and Cooper departed. At times when they add layered vocal parts and piano pokes to simple, guitar-chugging choruses, they can sound pretty mersh and pretty terrible. "I'm Through with the Past," with its clumsy repeating hook, sounds like The Fray or somebody. But at the very least they've evolved past their parent band in the ability to use different dynamics from song to song.
When the band lays back a bit and lets the rhythm section apply its aggressive instincts to a piano center that's less right on the beat, the results are solid. "Don't Count Me Out" sounds like a live band approaching a Depeche Mode or Human League kind of dance sound. The pumping bass gives the song a different shape than the rhythm guitar-heavy template of standard emo. "The Great Compromise" is more of a rock song, but with strong harmonies changing the shape of the leads during the verses and lots more backing vocals on the cool, well-written choruses. Then there's a big breakdown and false ending with barrelhouse piano and slamming drums, very nice.
I appreciate the range displayed on the four-song EP, with no song really intruding on the territory of another. A rewrite of "Compromise" might have been better than the lame "Mile After Mile," though; with its bludgeoning acoustic strums and broad lyric it sounds like subpar Mellencamp (from his John Cougar period). Though it remains to be seen whether they lean more towards their good instincts or their bad habits as a live band, some of the recorded evidence suggests that Straylight Run are finding a path in the post-emo era that's neither nonmusical nor boring.
Straylight Run play tomorrow, Tuesday the 27th, at Emo's.