Midlake’s Eric Pulido conceived of ostensible supergroup BNQT – say “banquet” – as a break from the grind of indie rock semi-stardom, something he’s characterized as an interminable loop (“write, record, tour, repeat”). For that sort of work-related stress, the American Psychological Association recommends, among other helpful suggestions, “mak[ing] time for hobbies and favorite activities.” So, like the CPA who spends her downtime playing Sudoku, or the personal trainer who spends his days off at the gym, Pulido decided to invite some friends to help him write and record an album of original material that they could take on the road.
BNQT, the band, is Pulido and his musical compatriots in Midlake – McKenzie Smith, Joey McClellan and Jesse Chandler – playing backup for singers Ben Bridwell (Band of Horses), Fran Healy (Travis), Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand) and Jason Lytle (Grandaddy). Each vocalist, Pulido included, contributed two songs to the project, providing their ringleader with demos from which they worked together to build full arrangements. Healy and Lytle both showed up in person at Midlake’s home studio in Denton, Texas, to record their tracks, while Bridwell and Kapranos collaborated remotely.
The resulting album is entitled Volume One, which could be optimism (or prognostication), but is also a likely reference to rock’s model supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys, whose two albums were titled Vol. 1 and Vol. 3. Pulido has in fact referred to BNQT as a “poor man’s Traveling Wilburys.” Here no one’s light shines as brightly as Dylan’s, Harrison’s or Orbison’s, but BNQT is connected to the Wilburys by a lighthearted reverence for rock and nostalgia for the many sub-genres that have made up its patchwork history.
The end result of Pulido’s pet project is a listenable collection of 10 songs that are by turns genuinely catchy and easily forgotten. The album is nothing if not well produced, boasting a track-for-track anthology of accomplished, everything-in-its-right-place arrangements of songs that are each less or more deserving of their settings. In addition to the standard rock guitar/keys/bass/drums provided by the boys in Midlake, Pulido’s arrangements often feature strings, brass, winds and the like.
A song like “Failing at Feeling,” for instance, builds up from piano and drums to a thoroughly orchestral texture, lush and large. But no matter how satisfying it might be musically, the song itself is ultimately insubstantial. Like too many of the songs here, Jason Lytle’s “Failing at Feeling” has roughly as many lyrics as its title has words. In this case, repetition may lend itself to an incantatory quality that approximates depth, but other songs don’t deserve the benefit of that charity. Fran Healy’s “L.A. on My Mind” is also repetitious, as well as foot-stompingly formulaic. So too is Alex Kapranos’ “Hey Banana,” which sounds like it could be The Mike Flowers Pops telling its easy-listening joke to an audience of one or two – Is this the pop-music equivalent of Adam Mansbach’s “children’s book for adults,” Go the F**k to Sleep?
Other songs are more successful, though. Kapranos’ other offering, “Fighting the World,” is no less repetitive, but what lyrics there are glow faintly with the haze of a stoned epiphany. Meanwhile, Ben Bridwell’s “Unlikely Force” is a thoroughly infectious approximation of the kind of Steely Dan songs – “Reelin’ in the Years” or “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” – lampooned by the web series Yacht Rock. And “Real Love” – written by Pulido but featuring all five vocalists – is blatantly Beatles-esque yet constructed carefully enough to be worth repeated listens.
Another highlight is Lytle’s “100 Million Miles.” After a short intro, it alternates between a low-tempo indie-rock-romp and a pensive ballad (with strings) that takes a sharp turn into the Pink Floydian when it’s time for the solos. The guitar’s tone and phrasing give the song touches of David Gilmour, while the synth that follows could be straight out of Richard Wright’s Minimoog meditations at the start of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The lyrics too offer something more substantial, maybe even giving away the game: “It conquered him in Concord/ Off Highway 24/ They just don’t build ’em like that/ Not like that anymore.”
BNQT’s Volume One is an album for fans of rock ’n roll who lament the fact that no one makes ’em like they used to in the good old days. And though it’s earnestly reminiscent of rock’s venerated past, it rarely ever rises above being well-crafted but forgettable fun.