Take Me to the Trees by Modern English is ostensibly an album. Supposedly there are individual songs on it that sound different. But forty-five minutes and ten tracks later, it was honestly hard pick any of the songs out of a line-up. Take Me to the Trees has unified production where everything sounds the same and, unfortunately, nothing exciting happens. There’s no way around it: this album is kind of boring.
With Take Me to the Trees, Modern English plays everything safe. The production is just dull. All of the songs are played very middle of the road, very flat, with little changes with regards to instruments or playing style in between songs. Modern English take everything the same speed, the same tempo, the same dynamic. The guitars and drums don’t do anything. Most songs feature a two measure pattern, repeated ad infinitum. Vocalist Robbie Grey seems to be limited to a range of half an octave. All of the vocal lines are sung in this same half-sung, half-spoken manner. Occasionally an entire verse will consist of Grey singing ten or so words but sung monotonously on the same note. Repetition and minimalist vocal lines, when used properly, can prove a point or impart a certain meaning to the song. This doesn’t do it.
With the occasional bit of synth and repetitive guitar patterns,Take Me to the Trees is obviously trying to draw upon Modern English’s 1980s new wave sound that they’re most famous for. Likewise, the album briefly certain stylistic quirks of a 1980s darker post-punk aesthetic. Songs have traits of the post-punk genre or briefly remind you of Joy Division but never fully commit to the aesthetic. I can’t help but compare this album to Modern English’s most famous song “I Melt With You”, probably the only song of theirs that a good 80% of the population’s heard to begin with. “I Melt With You” contains the same sort of repeating guitar lines and guitar patterns. But at least with “I Melt With You” they change it up: the verses are guitar heavy, the chorus is synth-heavy. The bridge with the lyrics “the future’s open wide” brings us something else entirely different before returning to the familiar. It feels like an actual SONG. Nothing in Take Me to the Trees even reaches half of that status. Take Me to the Trees feels like a collection of half-finished songs where the half-finished part was copy-pasted in order to make the song reach the full running time.
Occasionally a song will stick out. The second song on the album, “Trees”, is a highlight. However, I wonder if that’s because the song’s just better written and produced to begin with or if it’s because the song’s verses remind me of an entirely different (and better) song in the first place: “Heroes” by David Bowie. You can seriously sing “I, I wish I can swim / like the dolphins, like dolphins could swim” instead of the lyric “I, I’m almost there / as the sun breaks through the darkened air” and you’ve probably got enough for a court case. Side note: I probably got the lyrics wrong. But the filter on the vocals combined with my noisy neighbors make understanding the lyrics harder than I expected.
The first track, “You’re Corrupt”, also stands out simply because Modern English is doing something DIFFERENT than the rest of the album. “You’re Corrupt” features fuzzy rock and roll guitars, pounding in the background over a drum and cowbell beat. The guitar riffs that punctuate the song are amazing, bringing life and disrupting the pseudo-spoken word poetry vibe of the lyrics. It actually succeeds as a callback instead of a conflagration of traits trying to be a callback.
I really wish this album was better. This is the first Modern English album in thirty years released with (most of) the band’s original line-up. It’s really trying to call back to the Modern English of Mesh and Lace, due to the album’s post-punk aesthetic as well as the fact that the album has Vaughan Oliver as the cover designer, whose first sleeve design was for Modern English’s “Gathering Dust.” I’m certain that all of these call-backs will please some die-hard Modern English fans. But at least for me? I wish that the band spent more time developing the songs as SONGS and less of the songs as throwbacks.