When Manchester Orchestra released their fourth studio album Cope back on April Fools Day of this year, many music critics hailed it as the fully realized version of Manchester Orchestra’s live sound. Its aggressive, in-your-face, wall of sound approach won fans and critics alike over, with our own Donald Wagenblast hailing “Manchester Orchestra are back, louder and better than ever.”
I, on the other hand, was not sold on the record. I will still go on record as saying that while the songwriting was phenomenal, the way the record is arranged and presents itself sonically is not appealing to continuously return to. A great deal of that is that there is no dynamic to the record. Cope has only one volume; turning the dial up to 11. The songs, despite their beautiful melodies and wonderfully intricate metaphorical lyrics, are never given a chance to breathe,
How thankful I am then, that the band surprised everyone and released Hope, a re-imagining of the above album. I hesitate to call it an “acoustic” album, as that has become something of a denigrating title. Instead, Hope is a lush, beautiful, transformation of the songs written for Cope in such a way that they are nearly unrecognizable.
Starting off with the striking rendition of lead single “Top Notch,” the staccato acoustic guitar is merely a bit player in the interplay between the somber Rhodes piano and traditional piano, which provides the perfect musical accompaniment to the story of a haunting present in the song’s lyrics. The song is punctuated with some stunning harmonies in the bridge.
Perhaps the most “acoustic rendition” is the version of “Girl Harbor,” with a simple plucked guitar line repeated throughout. However, this standard adaptation is undercut by sharp jutts of a feedback heavy electric guitar which seems transposed directly from the original song.
The tracks that follow is “The Mansion” and “The Ocean” make use of tightly composed, soaring string arrangements which evoke a grandiose nature that is not present in the original songs despite their layered production. Just as the strings reach their climactic charge in “The Ocean” and wonderful horn section kicks in, giving the track a pomp and processional nature it may otherwise not have possessed. Meanwhile, the swelling ending of “The Mansion” calls to mind shades of Oasis’ anthemic “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” and has the former’s largess scale pinned down perfectly.
“Every Stone” brings that same somber piano sound from “Top Notch” back to punctuate the song’s sense of longing. As vocalist Andy Hull sings the line, “Every stone I’ve thrown has gone away” repeatedly, it isn’t difficult to hear the desperate, nostalgic, longing not just in his voice, but in the atmospheric swell of the track as well.
Even when Hope takes its foot off the swelling, climactic, gas pedal though, Manchester Orchestra still doesn’t stand for mediocrity. The deep, mournful arrangement of “Trees” is punctuated by one of the most heartbreaking violin lines I have ever heard.
If it sounds like I’m harping on the string arrangements on Hope, it’s because I am continuously impressed every time I listen by just how intricate the attention to detail is on each song’s arrangement. It almost sounds as if Hope was made specifically to be a movie score and then last minute the band decided to write an actual album with lyrics around it. This is not unlike something John Williams would have put out in the peak of his career. Simply put, Manchester Orchestra have finally lived up to their name.
But even when there are limited strings in a track, Manchester Orchestra still pull off this adaptation beautifully. Take for example the penultimate track, the nearly fully a capella “See It Again”. The track didn’t stand out at all on the original Cope record. But here it is a clear highlight. The densely layered vocal harmonies provide for a wonderfully soothing listen.
The brilliant thing about Hope, I think, is that it really cements itself as a compliment to its “aggressive” counterpart. Perhaps my favorite thing about the live sound Manchester Orchestra is their ability to mesh the quiescent moments of calm with the crashing swells of feedback and guitar riffs. Cope consists nearly solely of the latter, so it seems only natural that Hope will provide fans with the other portion of Manchester Orchestra’s dynamic stage presence. The two combined form something of an aural pathway by which Manchester Orchestra neophytes can quickly examine the band’s entire musical palate.