Sound: The followup to 2005's 'Chroma', Cartel's self-titled sophomore release never quite lives up to their debut album, although that's not to say it isn't a good album. The album was written and recorded in just twenty days as part of MTV's 'Band In A Bubble' series. The band were locked inside a recording studio filled with webcams and the MTV hordes then watched as the Georgia five-piece wrote and recorded the album, Big Brother-stylie.
As a followup to 'Chroma', I was left feeling slightly jilted; the band's style had become noticely less Pop-Punk, and more Pop-Rock, although for a major label release recorded in less than three weeks, the production quality is excellent. However, you can hear that Epic were keen to exert some sort of influence on the band's sound, and while they still downtune, and their lyrics are as intelligent as ever, the rhythm section is less dominant in the mix than in 'Chroma' and the feel of one extended piece of music evident on the last album has been lost.
Indeed, musically, the very idea of living up to 'Chroma' must of have been a difficult task for the band; their first album took your generic Pop-Punk music, and took it up a level. With singer Will Pugh swapping from third guitarist to keyboardist throughout the album, and exerting his formidible intelligence through his lyrics, 'Chroma' fel like one continuous piece of music, but not in a tiresome fashion. Indeed, while most of the tracks overlapped each other, the musicianship and his excellent voice (whihc I must say is one of the best and most powerful in the genre) made it entertaining and I rate 'Chroma' as one of my all-time favourite albums with the triple-barrelled album closers 'The Minstrel's Prayer', 'Q' and 'A' being, in my opinion, difficult to beat in brilliance, surpassed only by Coheed and Cambria's 'Willing Wells' and 'End Completes',
'Cartel' however, is not 'Chroma' and never will be. Yes, the songs are still radio-friendly, but this album sees the band sometimes leaving their comfort zone to experiment more. 'Wasted' offers up programmed drums and more keyboards than ever before (not including wholly piano-based tracks like 'Save Us' on 'Chroma'). 'If I Were To Write The Song' offers hidden delights with guitar and keyboard soloes in the second half of the song, and Juliet Simms' vocal harmonies on 'Lose It' really energise the track.
While the band did come under some critisism after the release of this album, I still see this is a good album. However, my judgement of the album is clouded by my love of 'Chroma' and so would not rate it as high as I would were this their debut effort. This is a good album, but the band has definately had second-album syndrome, and writing and recording this album in just 20 days has definately led to a drop in quality. Perhaps if they'd spent more time on it, 'Cartel' would have been ever better than their debut album. // 6
Lyrics: I have said it before and I'll say it again, Will Pugh is one of the greatest vocalists Pop-Punk/Pop-Rock has, and ever will have. His vocal delivery is strong and self-assured, and his lyrics have always been intelligent. Those on 'Cartel' are no exception. His subject matter ranges from boundless optimism ('The Fortunate', 'This Is Who We Are' and 'Tonight') to love for his home ('Georgia') and even the futility of modern existence ('Wasted'). However, one theme present throughout the album is how the band (and in particular their vocalist) have had to deal with fame and keeping grounded.
The band lost their bassist between albums and the addition of Jeff Lett has brought a greater sense of optimism to Pugh's lyrics, even 'Wasted' has a hopeful side: 'When I'm 32 will I be miserable? /With everything around based on principle? /Will I have a clue? /Oh, wouldn't it be nice/To never be alone in this wasted life... ' However, even this sense of optimism and expectation 'Then we shall come home and become the best ones we could have been... ' ('The Best') can't replace familiar topics perused in 'Chroma' such as the very act of writing music, 'If I were to write the song/That could somehow change the world/... /Would it sound like all the others? /Would it sound something like this? '
Maybe it would, Will, maybe it would... // 9
Overall Impression: Compared to other bands in their genre, Cartel are persuing something while may not be massively original, it is exciting. Now, with a new (Indie) record label, and their second album out of the way, I away their next effort with baited breath. If they can combine the freshness and craftmanship from 'Chroma' with the confidence and lyrical dexterity of 'Cartel', they will truly be a force to be reckoned with, and not a wholly underrated band.
However, I must focus on THIS album, and I must reitterate that this album is not 'Chroma Pt II', this is a completely different album. Yes, it has the brilliant lyrics and subtle guitarwork that leaves you smiling when that odd solo appears. It has those songs that are so unashamedly catchy that you'll be humming them for day, and this band can still work wonders with the simple powerchord.
This album is not perfect though, and while it has it's great songs ('The Fortunate', 'I Will Hide Myself Away' and 'If I Were To Write This Song') it has moments when you might wonder what the hell were this band thinking? I bring up the unpleasant subject of a wholly unecessary remix of 'Wasted' by Wyclef. It's cute, but why?
If this album were stolen, I wouldn't buy it again, I'd merely download my favourite tracs from a suitable client where the band would receive fair payment for their work. I'm not so bothered about doing that as this band doesn't need all it's tracks to be such a cohesive soundscape like 'Chroma' did.
And 'Chroma' is another problem with this album. How can anyone hope to fully appreciate 'Cartel' knowing how good their first album was. It is important to remember, the band are evolving and only time will tell into what. Regardless, it will be great and this album might just be looked at as a somewhat less awesome blip on their path to greatness. // 7