It’s been 10 years and I’m still not completely sure how to use the word “Santi” in a sentence. Employing an inside joke from your high school days as the title of your sophomore release and potential mainstream breakthrough is admittedly curious, but The Academy Is always seemed to have an affinity for doing things their own way.
Two years before Santi’s release, the Chicago rock act had their breakthrough on Fueled by Ramen with Almost Here – a scene classic that helped define an era of snide emo pop, even as the album itself remained a relatively underground gem. The ensuing years would see a cast of the band’s label mates rise to pop radio stardom (Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco, Paramore, Gym Class Heroes) while The Academy Is seemingly remained a buzz band on the brink.
Enter Santi – an album that seemed primed for success. With a stellar debut under their belt, one of the most exciting young frontmen in music behind the mic, and the benefit of rising Fueled by Ramen stock in their pocket, The Academy Is tabbed the legendary Butch Walker to produce the record. The resulting effort remains the band’s most divisive album to date, but is arguably their best.
I still remember purchasing Santi on the day of its release at a Hasting’s book store in Enid, Oklahoma. As a huge fan of Almost Here and a firm believer that the band was destined for stardom, I was giddy to see the CD’s front and center placement when I walked into the store. I also remember those subsequent first listens as I tried to process what I was hearing. Despite spinning the album for weeks on end, I couldn’t decide if I actually liked it.
Everything about Santi (aside from its peculiar title) seemed primed for a breakthrough. The album’s cover, featuring the band’s name in flashy neon lights. The Pete Wentz cameo in the band’s video for first single “We’ve Got a Big Mess on Our Hands” (which was later referenced in a Fall Out Boy video). A prime slot on the summer’s premier Honda Civic Tour. William Beckett’s cocky swagger blossoming even further, placing ruminations on impending fame to tape: “It was a big bang and a bright white light from nowhere / It turned my coach class window to a first class seat on the evening news on NBC”.
Despite all of the signs, Santi never quite took off. True to the band’s free and unconventional tendencies, the album was a complete departure from their debut. Gone were the pop punk leanings and snappy production of Almost Here, replaced by gritty guitars and stark changes of pace that gave Santi a garage or indie rock type feel. As the scene around the band began embracing the successful sheen of pop radio, Santi may have been ahead of its time, simply by avoiding an obvious approach.
If you were to dare administer criticism in the direction of Almost Here, you might draw attention to its lack of variety. That debut, for all of its worthy praise, avoided diversity at all costs, choosing to play to one very commendable strength. Santi, on the other hand, is so full of range that it’s hard to pin the album down to one particular genre.
While rich melody is present throughout, its presentation changes from track to track. Here you’ll find homages to classic rock (“Bulls in Brooklyn”), dance-y post-punk (“Same Blood”), mid-90s alt rock (“You Might Have Noticed”) and even a gentle ballad (“Everything We Had”). A signature Butch Walker underbelly of raw guitars serves as Santi’s refrain, even as the songs themselves vary wildly.
It is my firm belief that there is not a bad song on Santi. In fact, many of the album’s tracks would quietly prove to be the best work The Academy Is produced during their eight year run. Unfortunately, a lack of cohesiveness accompanied by a hard right turn from the sound that put the band on the map made Santi a tough pill to swallow for most fans, even though most seemed to have softened on the record over the course of the past decade.
The Academy Is released three very different albums during their short existence, each showcasing the kind of range that many bands could only dream of. In the case of The Academy Is, this penchant for variety potentially hamstrung the band from cashing in on a definitive sound that could have propelled them to greater heights. Instead, they remain mysterious legends, respected for their refusal to follow the crowd. If I had to make a guess, the band would likely say that they wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Honestly, I don’t think I would either. On a warm, sunny summer day, Almost Here can be found in regular rotation on my stereo – the perfect background music for the season. But when I want to remember how great of a band The Academy Is truly was and ponder on what could have been, I reach for Santi.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.