*** (out of four)
"Howl," the 2008 debut full-length from Chicago rockers Empires, did lack cohesion. It practically defines the difference between an album and a collection of songs. Yet that enjoyably erratic record demonstrated a wide variety of songs Empires was good at and showed promise that these locals would not just be locals for long.
Good thing these don't seem like guys that believe in breaking promises. In the wake of tour dates with the Temper Trap and the Kaiser Chiefs with a slot at Lolla to come in August, Empires drops the focused, consistent "Garage Hymns." The band may not have an identity outside of "solid rock band," but that's enough at a time when there aren't many bands who can throw clean strikes down the middle. The explosive "Hell's Heroes," unveiled when Empires landed in the final four in Rolling Stone's competition to land an unsigned band on its cover, demands a big venue from which to soar. The driving "Hard Times" and dirty sneer of "Surrenderer" compel even when impassioned singer Sean Van Vleet's words ("You got me where you want me, come and get me come on") fail to stick.
"Keep It Steady" hews too close to the superior Gaslight Anthem, while single "We Lost Magic" threatens to move earnestness into corny territory. Still, there's something refreshing about a band that boasts conviction where others have only attitude, and create anthems (like "Night is Young") through quality songwriting, not just an annoying chorus that won't go away.