Los Angeles’ Astra Heights, consisting of the four Morales brothers and “honorary brother” Bernard Yin, is the newest entry into the list of sibling groups. Bassist James Morales attributes the start of the band to the influence of a guitarist father and grandfather, both of whom also sang in a choir with the boys in their hometown of Palacios, Texas. During their college years, they decided to form a band. They soon moved to L.A. and searched for a record contract. The rest is history and their debut, Good Problems, is a promising output from an ambitious yet humble ensemble.
Upon hearing the first tracks, listeners are reminded of several other bands. However, it’s a positive melding of influences to create a personal sound rather than a deliberate copying to substitute a lack of originality. Indeed, they list their influences as T-Rex, Queen, The Kinks and, as all artists should, The Beatles. Add to the mix Mark’s vocal timbre of Johnny Rotten (though much more melodic) and, in the case of “The Whole World Changes,” harmonies akin to S.F. Sorrow by The Pretty Things and “Because” from Abbey Road. Taking all of this into account, one has a good idea of what Astra Heights sounds like. Even so, the quality and energy of this debut is surprising.
Opener “Good People” would be perfect for a bar full of drunks to chant together (though it is more organized than that may lead you to believe). The ballad “It’s Alright” is a soft song with subtle string accompaniment. “Never A Reason,” with a guitar tone similar to a sitar and a trebly cymbal sound, is definitely inspired by middle-eastern musical conventions. Perhaps the best track is the closing one, “Greg The Illuminator.” Its two-three chord verse melody carries the nostalgic, story-telling feel of The Decemberists, and Mark’s falsetto is reminiscent of Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz). It’s a great contradiction to the liveliness of “Good People,” and this bookend illustrates the range of Good Problems.
No work is without its faults, and the main one is fairly common. Basically, much of Good Problems sounds alike. The highlights have already been acknowledged, and while the rest of the album is very good, it’s not distinctive enough to warrant mention. While it is commendable to have even a few hooks while so many other bands have none, the other side of this logic is also true. There are many bands that scream uniqueness and diversity, and considering these factors as a possibility, Astra Heights should strive for them.
It is comforting to know that, if nothing else, Astra Heights creates for the art and not the money or fame. They’ve had music in their family for generations and are not amateurs when it comes to singing. While the influences may sound too familiar, they also show accessibility. They aren’t the most innovative band of this generation, but they certainly aren’t carbon copies of anyone else either. They embrace the music they grew up with and clearly wish they had made it. Good Problems is a combination of emulation and honest aspiration. It is an enjoyable record.