X Ambassadors, "Orion" (Interscope/KIDinaKORNER)
You really have to hand it to alt-rockers X Ambassadors: They're not very pushy. This was the year they were supposed to shine but they've ended up helping others first.
In 2019 alone they've contributed and produced tracks for Lizzo's breakthrough album "Cuz I Love You" and lead singer Sam Harris co-wrote several songs for "For the Throne," the album inspired by "Game of Thrones."
Maybe those were appetizers, getting our stomachs ready. Now the main course has arrived with "Orion," the follow-up to their impressive 2015 debut "VHS," with the beautiful songs "Unsteady" and "Renegades." And it's clear they really haven't missed a step.
From the infectious rockers "Hey Child" and "Boom" to the acoustic-and-strings heart-tugger "History," the new album bristles with interesting songs and textures. Rising star K.Flay's voice blends nicely with Harris' on "Confidence" while "Wasteland" has a sort of U2-ish vibe. Lyrics that deal with economic insecurity fuel the super mid-tempo "Quicksand" and "Rule" is a little needy smoky piano ditty.
Producer Ricky Reed, who also worked on Lizzo's album, has come in to help oversee the band's sound and he's cut away at some of the band's tendency to clutter, providing guitar and bass work, too. "Orion" is a quieter album than its predecessor but allows Harris' voice and the songwriting to shine.
The album continues with the band's tendency for confessional lyrics, especially on "I Don't Know How to Pray," which has Harris on his knees in a bathroom fumbling a plea to heaven. That song fragment ends with a taped snippet of him spontaneously chatting with his brother, Casey, the band's keyboardist. It's hard to get more intimate than this.
After a strong first half, "Orion" drops off somewhat, with "Shadow" and "Recover" merely treading water. The band pulls it together in time to deliver a final blistering tune, "Hold You Down," an earworm of synth handclaps, quiet sections, explosive crests and electronic shards.
It seems to be another song about lovers enduring — "We'll be the last ones dancing/When the lights go out" — but as with most X Ambassador songs, there's more to it than that. It's really about the enduring bond of these special brothers. Having them back is a special treat.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits