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Album Review: The Non-Commissioned Officers – Money Looking For Thieves

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The Non-Commissioned Officers, or Non-Comms as they’re often lovingly abbreviated, are one of the hottest acts bubbling out of Nashville right now. Ask any geologist and they’ll tell you — that’s hot. They’ve torn up the local scene, played Bonnaroo, produced and scored a feature film, and just this weekend dropped their second album, Money Looking For Thieves. Though Money Looking For Thieves is indeed their sophomore album, in many ways it’s also a debut. You see, The Non-Comms have a strange origin, and before we dive into this album review, it’s one worth telling.

The Non-Comms were founded by brothers Jordan and Eric Lehning to score the 2008 coming-of-age zombie thriller Make-out With Violence. The “band” became a means of raising money toward the film’s completion and turned into a full-fledged act with their own following. The double-disc soundtrack to Make-out With Violence was their debut album and is an astounding collection of music, awe-inspiring in its scope. Tracks range from beautifully moody scoring to powerful and passionate pop-rock and touch on every genre in between — not a conventional debut album by any means. It’s for this reason that Money Looking For Thieves can be looked at as the band’s first stand-alone release.

The Non-Comms’ lineup is newly reassembled, with lead writer Jordan stepping into an exclusive writer/producer role, and their sound… is completely different. Many of Make-Out With Violence‘s “singles” have a strong Joy Division-esque, dream-rock vibe with some great synth interludes, but on Money Looking For Thieves, the Non-Comms have opened their threshold to full-on OMD synth-pop. The change isn’t such a stretch as to be completely sideswiping, but the overall difference is immediately noticeable. Yet, despite this uncanny transformation and drastic shift in sound, the band’s essence is gracefully unchanged. Their cinematic style is present and accounted for, as is their layered songwriting and lyrical mystique. If you like your synth-pop tough and adventurous, look no further. The Non-Comms have got it in the bag.

Opening track “The Message” is a sci-fi fantasy showstopper. The song’s lyrical narrative is loose at best, but musically this track paints broad strokes to send your imagination into whatever ThunderdomeHighlander-Time BanditsZardozLabyrinth realm your mind cares to conjure. Fingers crossed that this one gets the music video it deserves. Any old fan uncertain of the Non-Comms’ new sound will get “The Message” loud and clear. The Non-Comms do “epic” very well, and this is one of two tracks that embody that. The other, “Fire Standing Still”, appears later in the album. It’s got a rhythmic pace made for riding your cybernetic steed across the desert into a nuclear sunset, “chasing the thunder to the rain.” Moodier and more personal than “The Message”, “Fire Standing Still” has a gritty man-on-a-mission, bounty hunter feel. The lyrics are still non-specific, but in true pop fashion, they carry the punch they need to punctuate the emotionalism of the music.

“Fire Standing Still” bleeds into “Love Will Conquer All”, an anthemic song that riffs off “Fire”’s epic scope, as though the brooding antihero of the previous track has had his heart opened and now he fights not for vengeance but love. It’s a strong track, simple in its intention but powerful in execution. Synth accents sparkle like electric glass, and lead vocalist Eric Lehning’s climactic vocal layering makes for gorgeous, sweeping pop magic. “Love Will Conquer All” calls to mind The Killers’ Day & Age, but while that record struggled to find its identity in the glittering fields of synth-pop, The Non-Comms navigate it expertly.

The first two singles from the album are “Rich Stuff” and “Telling Me Lies” (both can be picked up for free at the band’s bandcamp page). “Rich Stuff” is pop gold. Catchy as hell lyrics, begging to be sung along with, are set to a brilliantly distinct synth line, a cool beat, and the occasional warble of simulated whale song. Ask the chef behind any gastropub and they’ll tell you nothing beats a tried and true recipe well executed with some personal flair. “Rich Stuff” is just that, pop rock at its purest, qualifying it as the standout track of the album. “Telling Me Lies” is “Rich Stuff”’s funkier cousin, trading one piece of social crit for another. Whereas “Rich Stuff” renounced chrome-plated friends, “Telling Me Lies” is a darker journey into common social deceits. The chorus and the mid-song breakdown are echoing and dark spaces perfect for running from sinister assailants.

The track most reminiscent of Make Out With Violence is “Fair Verona”, a romantic ballad set to strumming surf guitars. It’s inarguably gorgeous and one of a trio of tracks less grounded in synthpop than the rest of the album. “Salt of Earth” is a definitive Non-Comms track. It’s not nearly as bold as the other songs on the album, but it’s brooding and drenched in cool nuances such as a brief psych-surf guitar solo and a backing track of synth counterpoint, accompanying marimbas, and a country guitar. “Take Me To Your Teacher” is another song with a noticeable Killers-esque vibe, summoned up predominantly by Lehning’s pleading vocals. Again, the comparison compliments The Non-Comms’ own path, waving to Brian Flowers as they pass on by.

The album ends with the unexpected “Party for 40 Bucks”, an erratic jam with Animal-style percussion, Lehning singing in falsetto, and hilariously deployed sound effects. It’s not a throwaway track; it’s far too fun for that, but it does feel wrong following “Love Will Conquer All” and ending the album. Money Looking For Thieves is short, just over 30 minutes. Granted, that’s standard fare for a pop album, with most tracks lingering between three minutes and three minutes and 30 seconds, but it can’t help but feel slightly off. Maybe it’s the abrupt ending caused by “Party for 40 Bucks”, or maybe it’s just one song too short. Back in November, The Non-Comms released their first post-Make-Out With Violence single,Evolve”, a stellar track, more than worthy of album presence. Snuggled between “Love Will Conquer All” and “Party for 40 Bucks”, it would make a nice cushion, rounding out the experience. Why isn’t it there? That’s for the Non-Comms to know and us to find out. Either way, the album is a gem, and the length is nothing a playlist can’t fix.

Money Looking For Thieves is available now at all major digital retailers, you can also pick up the album on CD (with instant download) for the same price as the digital album, via the band’s  bandcamp page. Select tracks from Make-Out With Violence can also be purchased at the band’s bandcamp, and the film and soundtrack can be purchased at the film’s official website.

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