By now, you’re probably all too familiar with ARMS’ back-story: frontman Todd Goldstein launched it as a solo project upon his move to New York City in 2004. Four years later, he released the pleasant Kids Aflame, an album “recorded in a series of basements and bedrooms around Brooklyn,” according to ARMS’ Bandcamp page. Once Goldstein’s band — the Harlem Shakes — dissolved, he expanded ARMS to a full-on quartet and they wrote songs toward a formal debut album. Released in November, Summer Skills is the result of those writing sessions, a free-spirited project that grows more dynamic as it plays, transitioning from twangy country rock fare to atmospheric soul. Here, the instruments swell abundantly by the album’s second half and provide for a more enticing listen. “[It’s] a sci fi break-up album,” Goldstein told Mission Critical in a 2011 interview. “It’s a bunch of pop songs, but we work a lot to keep it coherent.” To that end, ARMS hits the mark as a quirky depiction of soured romance.
“There’s a state line, out in those pines / Buried in frozen ground, we’ve chosen our sides.” With those words, spoken in the album’s opening moments, the group embarks on a course far beyond its urban roots, opting instead for the open-road appeal of rustic Americana. “If we go, who’s to know, dead by morning if we stay,” Goldstein continues. For the most part, ARMS maintains a comfortable pace throughout Summer Skills, keeping the soundtrack mostly upbeat with stomping percussion and wispy guitar riffs before slowing it to a gentle crawl. Songs like “Dog Days,” “Face-Gravity,” and “Glass Harmonica” pound with exuberant fervor.
Eventually, nostalgic lo-fi rhythms give way to a hushed ambiance, the backdrop a reminiscent portrayal of lovelorn angst. “Sore,” the first example of such melancholy, begins with scant guitar strings and echoed vocals before it builds into a percussive cascade of heart-wrenched anguish. By the time “Curtains” rolls around, the moods — both lyrically and sonically — descend into full-scale depression (“You were the liar and I was on fire, in my way”). At certain points, it almost feels like you’re listening to Coldplay: Goldstein’s droning baritone glides across an assorted mixture of pop melodies, while acoustic guitars and synthesizers tumble throughout the background. That sound, much like ARMS’ 2010 EP, lends to a smooth auditory experience. Overall, Summer Skills is a rich collection of breezy rock, nothing remarkably groundbreaking, but intriguing nonetheless. Then again, break-ups are painstaking enough.