Whether you realize it or not, you’ve heard Salt Lake City’s Hello Amsterdam before. This may be the band’s biggest asset; it may also be its most looming curse.In the often-cluttered genre of American pop-rock, there seem to be fewer and fewer different ways exhibited to create engaging music within the confines of the verse/chorus/verse mold. On How Are You? – the band’s debut LP on newborn indie Spy Hop Records – Hello Amsterdam largely plays it straight-forward and safe, crafting a brand of radio-friendly pop-rock to which it’s easy to hum and sing along.
The songs can teeter on the obvious and formulaic at times, but they are also addictive in ways you may not realize at first. A week after first listening to the disc, you’ll still find yourself tapping your feet to a good number of the record’s guitar- and vocal-driven power choruses. Put simply, there’s something both familiar and comfortable about the band’s sound.
While working well within the walls of more mainstream and commercial pop-rock, Hello Amsterdam makes more than a few passing references to its more daring indie-rock brethren. Songs like “Blackheart” hint at the sometimes jagged, stop-and-start guitar shifts of Archers of Loaf; the rhythm guitars on the album-opening “Affirmation” and “Waiting” bear a resemblance to early Seam; demos of this material could feel at home alongside Flop.
The balance between the produced and the more obscure can be seen throughout the record’s 11 tracks; just as you’re convinced Matt Mateus’ voice could be found at the forefront of a southern California punk-pop act, in come the backing pop harmonies of “Voice Like Yours” or “Make Your Move.” The precision of the recording – the way the two-part vocals seem to perfectly gel together and accent each other – hints more at Ben Folds than it does to the D.I.Y. roar of SST Records.
It’s these little details that seem to make the record more familiar than predictable, as well as keep it from falling into a growing crowd of Matchbox 20 (or insert other Top 40 rock act here) impersonators. Proof? There are the pitch-perfect pop refrains of “Voice Like Yours;” the hushed rhythm guitars in the latter half of “Waiting,” a kind of walking bridge to the song’s final guitar solo; the drum line of “Mother’s Advice,” which just begs listeners to jump up and down; Erik Dodd’s bass grooves on “November.”
The attention to songwriting and smart production makes even the record’s occasional musical accidents forgivable. One of the most obvious mis-steps: the faux-climax of distorted rock guitars near the end of the unexpectedly mournful and amazingly lush “The Cold to Come.” The song can be devastating – who knew an e-bow could wail so effectively in a pop ballad? – but the push to make it more punchy almost forces the song to shed the emotional weight it does manage to muster. The band more than makes up for it in the end, allowing the song to breathe for its final measures.
All in all, Hello Amsterdam has managed to craft a sharply produced record here that serves listeners all they might expect from a pop-rock debut. This isn’t music to change the world or to reinvent the sonic landscape of American rock. But, for those looking for a fresh new voice in pop-rock that gives more than a little nod to the sound and ethos of indie rock, How Are You? is worth tracking down. – Delusions of Adequacy, March 17, 2003