There’s something to be said for sticking with what works. Especially when the thing that works can net you a worldwide hit song and all that comes with it. Following the success of “Hero”—which was prominently featured in the widely acclaimed, Oscar-nominated Richard Linklater film, Boyhood—Family of the Year seems more than happy to ride the wave on their self-titled third album.
The quartet, consisting of singer/songwriter Joseph Keefe, his brother Sebastian Keefe on drums, keyboardist/vocalist Christina Schroeter, and guitarist/vocalist James Buckey, were living the struggle of so many other bottom-tier acts prior to the success of “Hero”. In a June 2015 interview with the New York Post, Keefe explains that the band was on tour so much it didn’t have a permanent apartment, opting either to rent short-term via Airbnb or visit his mom on the east coast.
That all changed when Linklater decided to use “Hero” in his film. Keefe explains in the interview that Linklater originally “told me that the song was almost too perfect and that he was worried it hit the nail on the head a little too hard. But he went with it and we’re glad he did!” Because of that decision the single gained new life, absorbing and harnessing the emotional power of the film that exposed it to millions of new listeners.
For their third album, it seems the band would like to capture that sort of magic again. This collection is less of a follow-up to 2012’s Loma Vista and more of a hopeful soundtrack to the (for now) non-existent Boyhood: The Sequel. For the most part, their sunny, carefree style remains intact and if you’re looking for a backing track for your coming-of-age film project, Joseph Keefe probably wants a word with you.
The album opens with the lead single “Make You Mine”, a song about a summer romance that would work well for a couple spins at your next pool party. Driving piano and strumming guitar chords provide a straightforward and melodic earworm. Keefe’s bright and airy vocals keep things light and the repetitiveness of the hook ensures you’ll be singing “summertime gonna make you mine” for weeks whether you like it or not. The good vibes turn ultra-shallow in “Facepaint”, a song about some sort of teen-turned-festival queen. I imagine the lyrics “feathers and face paint is all that she wears,” were jotted down just a few minutes after The 32 Best Looks From Coachella showed up in the band’s Twitter feed.
The album’s weapon of choice reveals itself in the next six songs: Bite-sized, Tumblr-ready lyrical pontifications on love, loss, life and death. Keefe, heavily armed with his rhyming dictionary, has a knack for riffing on these thoughts in two-line phrases but doesn’t seem to feel the need to connect those phrases to any larger theme.
In “We Need Love”, we see the best version of this formula. It’s a fine pop song, with soaring melodies, jangly guitars, chorus-style harmonies and an arena-ready drum track. Keefe’s vocals shine in the chorus, singing, “We need love even when they say we’re not good enough / We’re good enough.”
Elsewhere, Family of the Year is both sad and hopeful. Keefe presents an incredulous perspective on death in “May I Miss You” (“I’ll live my life and I’ll die, cause everything dies /But it don’t seem right”), and an alternately accepting view on the same topic in “Give A Little” (“You gotta speak a little louder / You gotta be a little prouder / ‘Cause you know that someday your bones will be in the ground.”).
The album, so broad and accessible, lends itself completely to help from the independent film industry. Perhaps out of necessity. Keefe’s songwriting ability is apparent but could benefit from breaking away from his dependency on generic rhyme schemes. After multiple listens it becomes tiring at best (“Dead Poets”) and trite and predictable at worst (“The Dance”). Family of the Year isn’t out to forge any new paths, so maybe we enjoy it for what it is—an inoffensive collection of pop songs–and not think about it too hard. Soon enough, a film could come along and help us out with that. C PLUS