The arena wannabes need to up their game if they’re ever going to be more than just pretenders to the Kings’ throne
If you had to sell [a]Mona[/a] like some high-concept ’80s action movie, with a single, simple soundbite that told people who they are and what they do, you’d only need three words: Princes Of Leon. To the ears of profit-hunting record execs everywhere, that pitch must’ve sounded as lovely as a Shakespearean sonnet. It also happens to be extraordinarily accurate.
Bands tend to outgrow those epithets, because there’s usually something about them that’s more complex and unique than anything three words can reasonably describe: nobody, for example, still refers to [a]Kings Of Leon[/a] as ‘The Southern Strokes’. For [a]Mona[/a], however, that transition is proving problematic. See, there are superficial similarities that can’t be helped – the hometown and the unconventional religious upbringing they have in common, for example – but stylistic ones that can’t be ignored. For all that Nick Brown talks himself up as a rock’n’roll classicist, many of his songs could have been written by someone who only became aware of recorded sound after the release of ‘Only By The Night’.
Obviously, this is not the hallmark of would-be critical darlings. [a]Mona[/a] must know that, but their eye is on a bigger picture: Brown talks about saving popular culture from its own “artistic bulimia”, and has declared his intention to become “bigger than Bono”. Jesus wept, you might be thinking to yourself, someone has only gone and invented the American Johnny Borrell. Yet, it’s precisely because Brown is so mouthy and hyperconfident, so brass-balled and unashamedly ambitious, that you find yourself rooting for him to succeed. He’s a character, and we like those. Unfortunately, that’s never enough on its own.
It doesn’t help that, from the opening notes of [b]‘Cloak And Dagger’[/b] onwards, this album has so obviously been made with instant, self-gratifying mega-success in mind. It comes at the expense of almost everything else; the production is big, spacious and soulless, as if a swirling black hole of reverb sits at the centre, sucking the vitality out of everything around it. Writing songs in broad, radio-friendly brushstrokes clearly comes naturally to Mona, but they struggle to keep it from sounding phony and contrived.
In spite of Brown’s best clenched-arse emoting, [b]‘Lines In The Sand’[/b] – the biggest of the record’s Big Ballad moments – contains all the romance and melodrama of [a]U2[/a] filing their tax return. Similarly, [b]‘Say You Will’[/b] – which finds the frontman pursuing a mysterious beauty who, “[i]Some say is carrying the devil’s child[/i]” (wince) – promptly collapses under the weight of its own overwroughtness. And we’re not trying to be needlessly cruel here, but when we first heard [b]‘Shoot The Moon’[/b], the comparison that sprang instantly to mind was Steel Panther [ludicrous glam metal band from LA – Hair Metal Ed]. Then we remembered that their comedy is intentional.
The frustrating thing is that [a]Mona[/a] aren’t utterly devoid of promise. [b]‘Listen To Your Love’[/b], the song that alerted us to them last summer, still sounds good. [b]‘Taboo Lights’[/b], too, has a chorus catchy enough to make you forgive its other shortcomings (which we suppose makes it their [b]‘Sex On Fire’[/b]). But that’s a worryingly low hit-to-miss ratio for a band who claim to have written over 500 songs; you have to wonder if these 11 are really the cream of them, or just the ones Brown calculated had the best chance of railroading him into the world’s EnormoDomes.
[a]Mona[/a]’s biggest problem, however, remains their lack of identity. That, in the end, is the reason we’ve spent sizeable parts of this review comparing them to other bands, and we’re about to do it one last time: in spite of all the hype and bluster that surrounds them, they’re still essentially playing [a]The Bravery[/a] to another band’s Killers. This album was their biggest and best opportunity to change that perception, but no matter how many freight-loads it ends up selling by, it hasn’t succeeded.