Personnel: Zachary Barnett (vocals, guitar, background vocals); James Adam Shelley (guitar, banjo, mandolin, piano, background vocals); Matt Sanchez (piano, drums, background vocals); David Rublin (keyboards, background vocals); Aaron Accetta, Shep Goodman (background vocals).
Recording information: Captain Cuts Studios, Los Angeles, CA; Carriage House Studios, Stamford, CT; Dirty Canvas Studios, Mr. Kisco, NY; Electracraft West, Los Angeles, CA; The Office, New York, NY.
The sophomore set from New York-based American Authors doesn't stray too far from their debut Oh, What a Life, but they make up for the lack of freshness with scope. On What We Live For, the quartet refine their upbeat, foot-stomping brand of pastoral Mumford rock and set it on course for the tier occupied by pop/rock chart-toppers like OneRepublic and Imagine Dragons. Production and songwriting have also been polished, courtesy of Dirty Canvas label-head duo Aaron Accetta and Shep Goodman, resulting in a collection of songs that could all be potential singles. In their bid for arena rock glory, American Authors come close to delivering the best OneRepublic album that tourmate Ryan Tedder never released. The biggest tunes burst down the barn doors as the band -- vocalist/guitarist Zac Barnett, guitarist/banjo player James Adam Shelley, drummer Matt Sanchez, and bassist Dave Rublin -- deliver in earnest unison. "This Is What We Live For" sets the tone with the first of many singalong choruses, quite similar to Walk the Moon's "Shut Up and Dance" (incidentally, the track was co-written by Captain Cuts, the trio behind that hit). "Right Here Right Now" -- another Captain Cuts track -- and "Pocket Full of Gold" are rousing, hand-clapping hoedowns that build on American Authors' biggest single, "Best Day of My Life." That folk-pop spirit reaches an apex on "Nothing Better," which is essentially the '90s one-hit wonder "Cotton-Eyed Joe" updated for 2016. The major OneRepublic moments are the standouts: "Counting Stars" lives on in "I'm Born to Run," while the uplifting "Pride" infuses joy and positivity like "Feel Again" or "I Lived." A few breaks are allowed to let you catch your breath, like on the X Ambassadors slow burn of "Replaced" and the heartfelt "Mess with Your Heart," which features guitar work from Scott Harris (Shawn Mendes, Daya) and Bryan Fryzel (Misterwives). Whether inspiring singalongs or lighters-up reverie, American Authors have crafted an easy listen of enjoyable, feel-good anthems custom-made for the main stage. On the penultimate track, "Superman," they even include a killer guitar solo and an Arcade Fire-sized chorus of "I feel like Superman/I'm making waves/In my heart again." The sentiment flows throughout What We Live For, a solid pick for fans of passionate, radio-ready, summertime spirit. ~ Neil Z. Yeung