It’s just so unassuming. Underlined Passages’ latest nine-song LP, “The Fantastic Quest,” feels so humble at times, you can almost picture a set of sad eyes looking up at you while all these songs are being performed. Something about singer Michael Nestor’s indie/emo vocals makes you want to hug him. He’s bashful, reserved and diffident, and the easy-going pop-rock that backs him only makes that impression more palpable as the set moves along.
“Everyone Was There” is ‘90s alt-rock that at one time would have been perfect for your favorite episode of “120 Minutes.” Perhaps the most straightforward track of the set, it moves at a mid-tempo that would make Spacehog proud. Plus, you can’t dismiss how Nestor’s layered vocals recall a more drowsy version of forgotten half-hit-wonders Taxiride and their 1999 single “Get Set.” It’s a welcome reminder of a time in music when bands like these could exist in the mainstream.
Equally as accessible is “Calamine,” which opens with the same clean guitar but takes on a new texture as a tom-tom pattern fills the verses. The song also highlights one of Underlined Passages’s secret weapons: The dichotomy between Nestor’s low-register croon and the words escaping his lips. “Remember, you’re all right,” he insists as the guitars drone on and his deferential voice fades down. It’s a fun, nuanced trick that these guys perfect.
Kicking things up a notch works just as well. “Those Endless Fields Of Wheat” is quicker than its sisters and brothers making for a structure that wouldn’t be out of place on your older brother’s college radio station. It’s simple, upbeat rock music for those who never bought into the Cookie Monster approach. “The Driver” replicates that formula with a slight uptick that, musically, doesn’t not sound like a toned down version of Foo Fighters. As an added bonus, a falsetto is occasionally added and it breaks the monotony of murmur that sometimes plagues the production.
The tedium is at an all-time high with “Rearview Blue,” which could probably put somebody in the right mindset to sleep. Dragging just ever so slightly, the track comes off as a platform for Nestor to whine in ways that feel overwrought and predictable. It’s a thin line to walk, the one that these guys embody, which is a commitment to monotone vocals that rely more on sheets of sound than they do singular shouts. Here, they come up just a bit too bland for comfort.
The same cannot be said for “Broke Up With Your Friends,” which proves that this trio can indeed succeed in balladry. Swinging along at a 6/8 time signature, it’s a twist on the stereotypical failed-relationship narrative that’s already been done about five trillion times in popular music. But don’t bail on it early: As the track spends its final minute winding down, Nestor repeats, “In a way, I’m so tired” with a sense of longing that’s impossible to fake. It’s victory in defeat.
Another victory? “Arabesque,” which is the only song that really allows drummer Jamaal Turner to play. Funking up the verses with the pitter-patter of busy hit-hat work and occasional tom-tom hits, it stands out as the most engaging track of the bunch. It makes you wonder why they don’t try to spice up some of their grooves elsewhere. Because if this is only a tiny indicator of how far these guys can take it, their ceiling may be much higher than some of these songs suggest.
But that’s for another day. For now, “The Fantastic Quest” is a solid-enough collection of songs that will stick with you for days, even as they begin to blend together after multiple listens. Yet even if they become obligatory, these are still songs that exemplify a very specific sound that Underlined Passages has mastered: Harmless rock led by droning guitars and a voice that couldn’t harm a fly. It’s the kind of stuff that takes pride in being inoffensive, and that’s OK.
Because it’s always better to suggest there’s more underneath the surface than it is to reveal everything only to find that limits have already been met. And with “The Fantastic Quest,” it appears as though Underlined Passages’ journey is far from over.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***