A friend threw this Criteria song on the car stereo a few weeks ago and all of the sudden it was 2005 all over again. I hadn’t thought about When We Break in at least five years, which is a bit of a shame since I had it on heavy rotation in the months after it first came out. Even back then, their brand of muscular indie-pop wasn’t my usual jam, but it was hard to turn down those big catchy choruses, solid chunky guitar tones, and song arrangements just clever enough to be interesting without sounding like the band was trying too hard. I’ve undoubtedly listened to When We Break more than any other album to come out on Saddle Creek Records even though Criteria seems like one of the least prominent names on the stalwart indie-emo label.
It’s weird that Criteria seemed to come and go without much fanfare, particularly considering the kind of success that other Saddle Creek bands attained. They did some fairly high-profile tours in the wake of the album’s release, but there wasn’t much press for the band. I think it might be due, in part, to Criteria’s straight-forwardness. There’s not a lot of musical ground being broken on When We Break, and there’s certainly nothing new about four twentysomething white guys writing riff-driven guitar pop. They didn’t have the Faint’s kitschy Information Society-inspired groove, Cursive’s concept album narratives, or Bright Eyes' on-and-off-stage melodrama. They were just a bunch of conservatively dressed guys with practical haircuts and Travis Bean guitars. Yet as much as I liked Blank Wave Arcade, The Ugly Organ, and Fevers & Mirrors, they haven't held up as well for me as Criteria’s lone album.
The music business is a lottery. There isn’t always an explanation as to why crappy bands succeed and great bands fail. Listening back on Criteria, I feel like their only drawback was that they didn’t have anything for music critics to obsess over. I’ve mentioned this problem before, but sometimes a good record is just a good record, and there’s not much more to talk about. And unfortunately, music writers are less prone to spending their time thinking up the one-millionth way to describe how a guitar sounds than to describing how a band is poised to be a cultural Zeitgeist or have reinvented the musical wheel. We’re more likely to talk about a mediocre record with a great backstory than a great record with little more than strong hooks to its credit.
The praise may be seven years too late, but When We Break is still a solid record and a good summertime soundtrack.