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Have Mercy -- The Earth Pushed Back (Topshelf)

RATING: ** out of 4 The build-up leading to "The Earth Pushed Back," the debut album from Baltimore emo quartet Have Mercy, placed the young band in a favorable position. The group had recently signed to Topshelf Records, the Boston-based label currently releasing records by some of the best acts in the wide-spanning genre (Into It. Over It., Baltimore's Pianos Become the Teeth). Even more promising was the producer named for "Earth": James Robbins, better known as J. Robbins, the former lead singer of Washington's Jawbox and a forefather of Have Mercy's brand of melodic emo. With the right label and producer in place, the rest was left to the band to deliver. It came up short. Have Mercy has written a serviceable album here, but it's also heavy-handed and far too reminiscent of older bands that executed the sound with more precision and refinement. The quartet joins the countless number of acts following the Jimmy Eat World blueprint first established with 1996's "Static Prevails." Songs abruptly shift from pretty, hushed tones to full-band, distorted assault and back, often multiple times in the same song. It's a dynamics-driven formula meant to keep listeners on their toes, but instead, the results quickly become monotonous and predictable. Tracks such as "Ancient West," "The Gates" and "Weak at the Knees" (the last of which was first heard on the band's 2012 EP, "My Oldest Friend") all blend together because they lack distinct characteristics. Singer Brian Swindle does something similar with vocals: Most of his lyrics are delivered in a comfortable, generic tone, until he explodes with a guttural bark that recalls The Early November's Ace Enders -- rough-edged but surprisingly harmonious. It does not help that the lyrics are mostly trite cries of post-breakup neediness ("I still listen to your favorite songs / wishing you were in my arms," Swindle sings on "This Old Ark"). When Have Mercy matches the right hook ("Let's Talk About Your Hair," another rerecorded EP song, is the best example) with its familiar sound, the band's potential and appeal are most evident. But most interesting is the understated alt-country ballad "Living Dead," the most affecting song on the album. It's no surprise that it comes when the band drops the formula completely. -- Wesley Case
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