There’s a moment on “No Good,” A/B’s opener, that serves as a mission statement of sorts. The entire track’s a punch to the gut, a four-minute barn-burner that feels like two with roaring guitars and a vocal delivery from frontman Jökull Júlíusson that lends the track a sense of urgency. So when he implores the listener to “Kiss your baby goodbye / Come on, love, it’s alright / You never know unless you give it a try,” it’s all but impossible not to join in for the ride the band promises to take you on: one of blues-rock riffs, thunderous drumming, and frantic vocals.
However, this journey isn’t so simple: as the record’s title alludes to, it’s made up of two styles, two halves. The first side is composed of tracks in the vein of “No Good” – electric-guitar-driven blues rock with energy that rarely (but noticeably) lets up. The greatest shock on the record comes, then, when the acoustic guitar peeks in on “All the Pretty Girls,” only to be followed by a surprisingly delicate falsetto. The majority of the tracks that follow are similarly subdued, offering a polar opposite to the first half of the record. They manage, though, to keep either side from feeling too monolithic through smart track sequencing – notice how the two tracks following “No Good” slow it down but keep intensity high, making “Glass House” hit with a convincing gallop when it arrives; notice how the second echoes of the flashier first half shine through on closer “I Can’t Go On Without You.” But for all their efforts to tie each five-song sequence together, it still feels like two EPs that struggle to work in tandem due to stylistic differences despite the same band running the show.
The A-side ultimately fares weaker than its companion, although it’s not without its highlights: the one-two punch that opens the record, with “Way Down We Go”’s subdued haze offering a strong counterbalance to “No Good”’s stomp. But beyond that, it feels derivative or focus-grouped into a blues-rock checklist – “Broken Bones”’ work-song backing leaves a bad taste, and neither its lyrics nor lumbering, aimless rhythm section help; “Glass House” feels like a vapid track that would only work live due to its chorus. It’s slightly pulled up by “Hot Blood,” for its simple-but-great guitar riff, but that isn’t saying much.
It’s the B-Side, then, where the real action is; once the guitars pull back, Júlíusson’s lyrics push forward to compensate, bringing the tracks with them. His falsetto, it turns out, is gorgeous (“Save Yourself,” “All the Pretty Girls”); a folk-rock bent reveals itself (“Automobile”); they cover a track that makes an Icelandic LP from them a tempting idea (“Vor Í Vaglaskógi”). It’s a selection that puts the first half to shame, simply because that one relies on poorly thought-out ideas later on and this one relies on better tunes. It’s not without its lowlights, though – “Automobile” is immediately forgettable, with the Icelandic group aimlessly naming off American cities; the pair of tracks that close the record have string arrangements that weigh the tracks down rather than energizing them, although neither tune has them for too long. But it’s a wonderful side, all things considered; these are minor qualms when four of the tracks here are so solid.
As a joint project, though, it’s simply decent; its split-record nature keeps it from working straight through, and it’s got as many peaks as it does valleys. The group’s at their best when they focus on what feels natural – blues-infected stomps or delicate, falsetto-filled numbers. So it’s too bad, then, that they only spend half the record with that formula really honed, leaving the other half feeling dull in comparison.
RIYL: The Black Keys, Jack White, James Bay
Favorite Tracks: 1, 2, 8, 10