One could make the argument, without too much trouble, that Athens, Ga. has been the premier music scene in the country for the last five years. So a lot of heads were turned when R.E.M.’s Mike Mills singled out Modern Skirts as his favorite Athens band. The quartet had only one album to their name when they caught Mills’ ear, and he helped produce their sophomore effort, “All of Us in Our Night.” Unfortunately, the star power doesn’t quite transfer, and despite a few highlights, the album can’t quite live up to the hype the band has built for themselves.
The main problem with “Our Night” is that it’s a pleasant enough listen, but that’s about all it is. “Radio Breaks” is the most notable exception; its driving piano and sunny melody is worthy of some of the Apples in Stereo or Mates of State’s best work. Trumpet and strings fill out the arrangement for a perfectly realized pop song. Elsewhere, the magic of “Radio Breaks” is perpetually out of reach. “Yugo” has a melody that’s not without a certain charm, but the social commentary is heavy-handed and ultimately toothless. A lot of the lyrics drag, but the guys can clearly craft a harmony, and vocalizing is the group’s biggest strength. These are the same sort of popular, inoffensive compositions that people like Ben Folds have made a career out of. They are, in a word, “nice.” It’s not so much that it’s bad as it’s disappointing, especially coming from a band that has been heralded as the next big thing.
Mills’ contribution, “Motorcade,” is a perfect example of synecdoche for the rest of the album. The acoustic, guitar-backed sing-along chorus is vivid and immediate, but the persistent backing rhythm and vocals can’t redeem otherwise boring verses. The song is bright, warm and innocuous, but most of all, unaffecting. Only two of the 12 tracks are elevated beyond “pretty good,” those being “Radio Breaks” and the minimalist “Astronauts.” And after 40 minutes, the sameness is almost suffocating.
Still, there’s really not a bad song on the album, and with the stamp of approval from Athens legends like Michael Stipe and the Drive-By Truckers, Modern Skirts has too much momentum to let one underwhelming album derail their plans for long. It’s become a cliché in music to talk about the sophomore slump, but it’s hard to interpret “All of Us in Our Night” any other way.