Photo courtesy of 4AD

On Aug. 24, the New York-based rock band The Lemon Twigs released their third studio album since brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario formed the band, titled
“Go to School.”

The album is a rock opera which follows the story of an adolescent chimpanzee named Shane as he is raised as a child by human parents. “Go to School” is done very much in the style and tradition of The Who’s classic “Tommy,” the 1969 album which originally popularized the concept of the rock opera. 

Much like “Tommy,” “Go to School” contains a variety of sounds and tempos, with broad swings in tone and energy. Both albums also feature operatic harmonizing between multiple vocalists and relatively long run times.

There is no doubt that this album is an ambitious project. It is an elaborate, sophisticated and at times tangled mass of different musical styles, varying themes and complex emotions. 

Like all rock operas, this album seeks to achieve the best of high and low culture by combining the artistic value of opera with the entertainment and broad appeal of rock music.

The only problem is that the result of this attempted fusion is often an album which combines the esoteric inaccessibility of opera music with the unrefined aesthetic of rock. The Lemon Twigs’ contribution to the genre unfortunately falls victim to this mistake. 

The trouble with “Go to School” is that its themes are difficult to extract from the music, and its music on its own is not all that great to listen to. 

After listening to the album several times, fans may eventually begin to appreciate the thematic complexity of the album, but it will take them significant endurance to get there. It’s not that the album sounds bad; in fact many of the songs have brief segments of sonic beauty of which most bands can only dream. As soon as one of these songs gets going, however, the D’Addario brothers abruptly shift tone and fly off into what sounds like a whole new song. 

The effect is jarring and makes listening to the album downright taxing. “The Fire,” for instance, features periods of abundant melodic beauty and episodes of percussive intensity which, if concentrated into their own respective songs, would make for two rather pleasant tracks. When, however, these two sounds are mashed up and punctuated with abrupt slow-downs for a staccato chorus, as on “The Fire” and various other tracks on “Go to School,” the effect is unpleasant, disorienting and cacophonous.

All of this is not to say that “Go to School” is significantly worse than other rock operas; it merely suffers from the same problems that all the others do. “Tommy” may be considered a timeless classic, but it can at times be just as difficult to listen to as this album. 

The difference between the two is that where the Who’s album has flashes of brilliance, “Go to School” has mostly mediocrity. 

The most enjoyable song to listen to on the album is probably “This is My Tree,” a Rolling Stones style track that combines elements of jazz and blues rock and features rather amusing Mick Jagger-esque vocals. While the song is quite fun to listen to, it is little more than a pop song of slightly above average quality. It is certainly never going to be compared to The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” or “Go to the Mirror!”

The most frustrating part about this album is that the listener is acutely aware that the D’Addario brothers are perfectly capable of making music which is enjoyable to listen to. The duo’s first full album, “Do Hollywood” is both musically and artistically complex and genuinely fun for the listener. 

“Go to School” is certainly no less ambitious; there is a profound artistic depth to the writing, and no one would argue with the courage the group shows in attempting to revive the long-dead concept of the rock opera. 

The problem is that the music is simply not as good as that on “Do Hollywood.” The Lemon Twigs could have done much better by simply trying to do a little bit less.

The group indeed is capable of so much more, and fans can only hope that they will somehow manage to find their way back to some of their past success in the future.