Album Review: Transit, “Young New England”

Transit, “Young New England”
Released by Rise Records on April 2, 2013
Produced by Ted Hutt and Gary Cioffi; mixed by Gary Cioffi

Rating: 5/10

Young New England is a record about who we are and where we are from.” Transit presents this quote to their listeners at the end of the video for “Weathered Souls”, released a week before the album, and in the record’s liner notes, as well. If we are to take this as the band’s mission statement for this collection of thirteen tracks, it would be all but impossible to say that they didn’t meet their goal. After all, if these songs define Transit for the band members themselves, who are we to argue? But this only raises another question. Does Young New England define Transit for the fans, too? Does Young New England do an adequate job of capturing and developing the elements of Transit that fans fell in love with?

“Nothing Lasts Forever” kicks off the album with the crackling of old vinyl as Joe Boynton enters with his first lines. Almost immediately, it becomes apparent that Boynton’s vocal delivery has taken on a new quality of some sort; after a number of listens, I think I’d describe this quality as “looseness.” Compare how tightly Boynton spits out the chorus of “Long Lost Friends” (from Listen & Forgive) to how the words of “Nothing Last Forever” seem to simply roll off of his tongue without much of a push. Young New England is a “loose” album, from start to finish, and this is evident primarily in Boynton’s work as a vocalist and lyricist.

When the music does tighten up, however, the songs shine. “Second to Right,” “Sleep,” and “Bright Lights, Dark Shadows” demonstrate that Transit’s music hasn’t lost its punch. On the other hand, “Thanks for Nothing” showcases the band’s new penchant for mid-tempo, easy-going songs that just sort of trot along for a few minutes before fading out. This track is also a prime example of the head-scratching lyrics that Boynton has penned this time around: ”Love is a song, follow my melody to sing along. Tell me how do I sing along?” and ”I can’t fix you, you’re already broken” are lyrical clunkers if I’ve ever heard any.

“Thanks for Nothing” also serves as a representation of the album’s biggest flaw: piss-poor engineering. As the lead vocals and the backing vocals trade whoa-oh-oh’s during the pre-chorus, the backing vocals sound comical, and almost pirate-like (don’t you just want to sing yo-ho-ho when you hear that voice?). During the last minute of the track, the backing vocals during the chorus itself actually become painful to the ears; the attempted harmonies do nothing to improve the hook of the chorus, and instead come off sounding like tone-deaf howling.

The band stumbles with its use of backing vocals elsewhere, too. They threaten to ruin the otherwise highlight of “Lake Q” when Boynton doubles the phrases “too young to let go” and “speak up or speak slow,” the second iterations sounding like they were sung through a cell-phone. This effect returns during the bridge, the distortion a strange choice for an otherwise clear and clean song. The bridge of “Sleep,” too, is marred by an odd choice to layer Boynton’s spoken delivery of the lyrics beneath the melody sung by him and Tim Landers.

Tim Landers: the most underutilized member of the band remains underutilized in these songs. Sure, his guitar lines are sharp, and when partnered with Torre Cioffi, the guitar work rises to the forefront of the album and serves as its best quality. But we’ve seen from his work in Misser that Landers is a talented vocalist, as well. Why is he only given small pieces of “Second to Right” and “Sleep” to take the helm as the lead vocalist? This is a particular troubling absence on Young New England, more so than the band’s past work, because Boynton’s lead vocals have never been worse. His delivery of “Hang It Up” at the heart of the album is a disaster; not only does he sound off-key as he reaches outside of his range, but he tries to tap into vocal stylings that are clearly not natural for him. The effect is jarring, and the performance comes off as forced and not genuine.

There are two errors in the album’s production and engineering that are so blatant that they’re practically unforgivable. At around two minutes and forty seconds into “So Long, So Long,” when Boynton sings the word “stars,” a sharp volume drop occurs for no reason whatsoever. In “Bright Lights, Dark Shadows,” Boynton has a terrible case of mumble-mouth as he begins the chorus, slurring the phrase “mask the pain” into something very close to “masturbate.” Surely many pairs of ears listened to this album between the time when the mixing and mastering were completed and the masters were sent to be pressed. The band, close friends, the record label, etc. How were these errors not caught? How is it even remotely possible that nobody told Boynton to go back into the vocal booth and enunciate a bit more clearly?

When all is said and done, Young New England is the most disappointing product that Transit has ever released. Very few tracks escape the curse of laziness, whether vocally, lyrically, or sonically; and these become the highlights of the album (“Second to Right,” “Sleep,” except for the aforementioned caveat during the bridge, and “Don’t Go, Don’t Stray,”). Aside from these cuts, nearly every track features a cringe-inducing choice by the band that simply does not work. It’s one thing for a band to take a more relaxed and looser approach to their craft, and such a choice doesn’t necessarily result in a lesser quality. What does result in a lesser quality, though, is meaningless and uninspired lyrics, strange, unnatural, and off-key vocal inflections, and unobservant mixing and engineering.

I can’t bring myself to call the album as a whole a failure, because Tim Landers, Torre Cioffi, Daniel Frazier, and PJ Jefferson all excel in their individual roles, and the musical foundations of these songs are exactly what fans of Transit have come to expect from these talented musicians. Even the songs themselves are not poor songs, per se – they are just poorly executed. If everyone involved with the creation of this album had taken a closer, more critical look at what they’d made, and if they’d just cleaned it up around the edges and re-recorded a few of the vocal mishaps, this could be a worthy follow-up to Listen & Forgive. Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened, and Transit’s fans are left with a record that is troubling and bruised.

-Matt R. Metzler