It’s easy to hate Paramore. With her diminutive stature, big vocals, and perpetually scrunched-up face, singer Hayley Williams comes across like a younger, snottier version of Avril Lavigne — an impression that the band’s 2007’s breakthrough album, Riot!, reinforced perfectly. A tightly wound ball of angst and righteous teen anger, Paramore’s music is the perfect soundtrack for emotional adolescents of all ages — and that, coupled with an appearance on the Twilight soundtrack, has helped make them one of the few legitimate breakout bands on the rock end of the radio dial. They’ve also been one of the industry’s more heavily scrutinized acts, thanks to their decision to sign one of the first major “360” deals. Bottom line: if your tolerance for Hot Topic bubblepunk is low, you probably burned out on Paramore a long time ago, and are greeting the release of the band’s new album, brand new eyes, with rolled eyes.
But here’s the thing: Paramore isn’t really worthy of your scorn. I wasn’t particularly fond of angst even as a teenager, and now that I’m in my mid-30s, I’m just about allergic to it — but even if you can’t identify with the “me against the world” melodrama that fuels much of the band’s music, it’s awfully hard not to respect them for at least having a pulse. Silly lower-case title aside, brand new eyes glows with a combination of pop songwriting savvy and ragged, messy intensity; even if she seems to see the world in black and white, Williams has a ferocious set of pipes, and she — along with guitarists Josh Farro and Taylor York — has a gift for leavening aggression with bright, easily memorable melodies.
The problem with the band’s music is one that isn’t entirely its own fault — specifically, the crushing waves of compression applied to every major-label album that’s come out in the last five years. Producer Rob Cavallo was handed a band raw enough to air its dirty laundry in its lyrics (“Looking Up” and “Where the Lines Overlap” seem to address the breakup Paramore narrowly averted during the making of brand new eyes), and he promptly proceeded to iron out every stray wrinkle, returning with another piece of brittle, high-gloss product that crushes the music’s emotional dynamic and leaves the listener with a hard wall of sound. Cavallo does have the sense to let the record breathe once in awhile; unfortunately, the songs in question (“The Only Exception” and “Misguided Ghosts”) are two of the album’s least interesting, and they come off sounding like love letters to VH1 more than genuine artistic statements.
Obviously, the compression fad isn’t Paramore’s fault, and even if any of them are old enough to remember a time when rock records didn’t sound like shit, they probably don’t have enough muscle to hire a producer who’d go far enough against the grain to really let them sound like a band — but it’s still their name above the title, and ultimately, brand new eyes is more of a punishing than a rewarding experience. It’s unfortunate, because there’s some real talent struggling to work its way out from under this album’s shell, but in 10 years’ time, it’s going to sound as dated as a Nu Shooz record. Here’s hoping Paramore sticks around long enough to really define itself. In the meantime, parents of tweens, consider yourselves warned: you’re about to hear a lot of brand new eyes.