Monday, September 19, 2005
After four full-length albums and extensive touring, The Billions have developed an audience of hundreds (maybe thousands?) of listeners who appreciate the band's unaffected approach to crafting distinctive pop/rock songs. Too often overlooked in their own backyard, the Lawrence band adds another chapter to their fine string of releases with the topflight "Trash or Treasure."
The 11-song record takes The Billions' penchant for shamelessly catchy rock tunes to absurdly pleasurable extremes. "In Japan" mixes old-school drum machine sounds with the kind of "authentic" Japanese instruments you'd likely find on modern keyboards. "On the Road (with the Guyz)" shouts out ELO with its over-the-top synths and stadium-rocking chorus, while "You Are My Girl" plays out like a lost Wings track with its faux strings and bubbly refrain: "You come into my mind/Almost all the time."
As with The Billions' previous releases, the band excels at keeping a sense of playfulness afoot in songs that address emotionally heavy subject matter (i.e. religious faith, death of family members, lasting love). This spirit is enhanced by myriad sonic textures - keyboards, percussion, violin - that the band takes full advantage of in a home-recording setting (a rural farmhouse west of town serves as the band's studio and rehearsal space).
While "Trash or Treasure" hits the mark more often than not, it has its share of potential stumbling blocks that could turn away otherwise receptive listeners. The band's trio of songwriters - Sam Billen, Dan Billen and Simon Bates - write lyrics in a casual and unpretentious style that can either be refreshing or, quite frankly, a little cheesy. "Rosa Lee" and "You Are My Girl" find both Billens addressing their wives by name. I imagine Rosa Lee and Yuka are pleased as punch about this, but the rest of the listening audience may feel a little left out.
Then there's the Jesus thing. The Billions are indeed Christians, and they let you know it with lines like "With Jesus as our anchor we will stay strong" ("Movin' On"). You can't fault the band for faithfully sticking to their guns and singing about what's important to them, but those who don't share their JC love might feel alienated. It's only one line, but it sticks out like a sore thumb for listeners who can't get past anything that remotely smacks of a religious agenda. Then again, religious topics have worked fine for Pedro the Lion, Starflyer 59, George Harrison and many more respected artists.
Such things are easy to pick on, but they are also the things that make The Billions extremely likable - they're unabashedly honest, and they treat their music with the same sense of humor that they apply to everyday life. Most importantly, they've proven themselves capable of consistently putting out great rock records. Listen closely and you'll hear a wide-ranging batch of contemporary influences such as The Shins, Sufjan Stevens, Pinback and The Postal Service. These touchstones can only begin to describe "Trash and Treasure," however, as The Billions truly are ... The Billions.