X Ambassadors Show Incredible Potential on Debut Album ‘VHS’
X Ambassadors • VHS • Interscope • US Release Date: June 30, 2015
The following silly, probably pointless story will make some people quite sad. So, I often peruse iTunes to see what’s new and hot. For the longest time, I see this album from X Ambassadors and its pretty high on the totem pole – aka the albums-sellers list – and I wonder, who are these guys (add an expletive to that for fun if you’d like)? So I decide upon release to take a risk because there’s been so much talk about this alternative band, plus Imagine Dragons guest on the album, and the album was $6.99 – my iTunes card will cover most of it. Then I hear “Renegades”…it wasn’t the first time I had heard “Renegades”…I didn’t realize that it was X Ambassadors who performed “Renegades.” Yep, a sad state of affairs for the supposed-to-know-who-everybody-is music critic…
But this isn’t about me; it’s about these spirited, talented New York newbies X Ambassadors. They’re pretty good to say the least! If you have heard “Renegades” or maybe even some of their collaborations prior to the release of their debut VHS, then you know there’s plenty of talent their. Overall, these dudes get it done, but there are a few flaws along the way. None ultimately derail or kill the vibe set though.
“Renegades” is among the biggest attractions from VHS and certainly X Ambassador’s biggest hit within the mainstream. “Renegades” has all the cues working for it – it grooves, it’s catchy, and ultimately well delivered. Follow-up “Unsteady” is another well-rounded track, anchored by its urban sounding hard drums. The soulfully invested vocals of frontman Sam Harris are definitely a selling point.
“Hang On” is ambitious, maybe overambitious given the busy production. Still, give the band credit for having an experimental side that is prevalent throughout VHS. “Gorgeous” easily eclipses “Hang On,” embracing the popular urban-pop sound. In fact, “Gorgeous” sounds like a variant on Nick Jonas’ hit “Jealous.” With “Gorgeous,” think blue-eyed soul – Maroon 5 sensibility – always a pro.
“Fear” featuring fellow alt-rock band Imagine Dragons is quite an interesting listen – how could it be any less? The ambitious, experimental side rears its head, so “Fear” requires a couple of listens to follow it completely. Even if “Fear” is confounding, the big time chorus certainly exemplifies the spirit of rock…or alternative…something like that.
The overactive, hyper-busy (is that even a word?) groove of “Nervous” definitely suits its title. Yes, indeed it makes you a bit ‘nervous’ to listen to, but even if it is the slightest bit overproduced, the chorus is a pro. “Low Life” follows, slowing the pace and stripping back the heavy instrumentation of “Nervous.” Is “Low Life” as interesting without as many sounds? Actually yes, thanks to British singer/songwriter Jamie N Commons’ gruff, expressive vocals, which accentuate the song. Does it best “Renegades” or “Gorgeous?” That would be a NO.
The sounds on “B.I.G.” are definitely also true to it’s title – BIG! Heavy it is, there is more balance on “B.I.G.” compared to the jittery “Nervous.” You can argue what more comprises the substance of the lyrics than girth itself (LOL), but if crowd pleasing with sensational production is the modus operandi, X Ambassadors have it on lockdown here.
The timing (and of course the groove) of “Feather” makes it worthwhile, even if some may find its lack of straightforwardness a bit confounding. Give ‘em credit for going beyond common time or six-eight. The heat is ignited with “Superpower,” which definitely embodies the industrial sound – think Nine Inch Nails. Sure, it seems unlikely Trent Reznor would be quoting/referencing Superman, but you never know. Besides being among the elite, “Superpower” happens to be one of the reasons VHS gets the parental advisory sticker.
“Loveless” ditches the profane for the manic, characterized once more by quick pace and driving, hyper rhythmic groove. While it’s once more heavy, “Loveless” one-ups “Nervous,” even with so many similarities. Jamie N Commons returns for a second time on “Jungle,” which benefits from its epic, gargantuan sounds. Final full length joint “Naked” concludes VHS enjoyably and consistently.
Overall, X Ambassadors’ debut album is a strong showing. There are ample enjoyable records to whet any music fan’s taste buds. The eclecticism of the band is definitely one of their selling points. Is the album imperfect? Yes, but is there anything wrong with some imperfections? Nah, there are few perfect albums and the flaws on this effort by no way eclipse its pros. Worth the listen and money? Yes – go support X Ambassadors!
Favorites: “Renegades,” “Unsteady,” “Gorgeous,” “B.I.G.,” “Superpower, “Jungle”