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Leaves: Breathe



Album: Breathe (2002)
Label: Dreamworks

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Don't any European rock bands want to sound like Big Country anymore? Or Thin Lizzy? Or Yes? The Icelandic art-rock group Leaves is roughly the thousandth band in the past five years whose debut album could pass for a more accessible Radiohead, or for Coldplay, the rightfully reigning king of Radiohead-lite. Breathe is fine for what it is, but each time Leaves bandleader Arnar Gudjonsson launches into yet another midtempo space-rocker in which he shifts from a mushy monotone croon to a lilting falsetto, the move becomes less a genuine expression of personal style and more a shameless attempt to get with the new rock mainstream. Breathe sounds as opportunistic in its way as the watery grunge of Nickelback or Fuel, though not as bland. Such accusations probably aren't fair to Leaves, since there are plenty of rock genres (like rockabilly, or hardcore punk) with rigid stylistic concerns and the capacity for surprise. But Gudjonsson's songs aren't distinctive enough to overcome their familiarity. For example, the album-opening ballad "I Go Down" has a nice drifting quality, but no special spark to set it apart from dozens of similarly yearning Euro-drones. "Sunday Lover" pairs nonspecific lyrics about neediness with the same chiming guitar pattern that everyone from Travis to Muse has deployed, while the dreamy "Silence" pings back and forth agreeably without finding a real hook. One of Leaves' biggest overseas hits, the sweepingly string-aided "Catch," has a surface appeal, but Gudjonsson's flat, gruff voice acts as an anchor, like what turns out to be, on closer inspection, only a half-melody. The best song on Breathe, the title track, scrapes up a simple, hummable piano ditty and creates a real, individualized sonic environment, but even that's more a triumph of production than songwriting. In the end, Breathe sounds like A Rush Of Blood To The Head without the elegance, conviction, or tunefulness. So Leaves does prove useful, but only for making Coldplay sound that much better by comparison.