Thursday, January 21, 2016

Album of the Day: Randy Rogers Band - Nothing Shines Like Neon

In the week where we lost Glenn Frey, the Eagles guitarist who played on and co-wrote "Take it Easy" (among several other hits), it seems appropriate to focus a blog on an album that draws a huge amount of inspiration from the Eagles' music. The album in question, Nothing Shines Like Neon, is the latest record from Texas country outfit Randy Rogers Band. Like Front Row Seat by the Josh Abbott Band, Randy Rogers is an artist that I've only recently become familiar with, and this is the first full album of his that I've heard (aside from Hold My Beer his 2015 collaboration with Wade Bowen). In other words, I can't comment on the influences that run through the entire Randy Rogers Band discography, but I can say that Neon is so drenched in the sound and atmosphere of 1970s Mellow Mafia folk-rock that it's legitimately baffling this album is only a week old. I mean hell, even the production on this thing sounds classic, giving the songs a dusty, organic feel that is a far cry from the airbrushed gloss and brickwall compression that you hear on most mainstream-leaning country albums these days.

Looking at the cover and reading the title for this album, I thought for sure it was going to be a sell-out record. Sure, I didn't know a thing about the Randy Rogers Band's past, but the word "neon" in music tends to align with synthesizers and poppy choruses--whether you're talking the neon lights of that first Killers albums or the better-left-forgotten era of "neon pop punk." Add the album cover, which, like so many other recent country records, evokes Friday night at the bar, and I was bracing myself for something I probably wouldn't enjoy when I pressed play.

Needless to say, I was surprised at what these 11 songs actually contained. It turns out that the bar actually is the main setting for most of the songwriting here. However, instead of romanticizing a night of drinking like so many members of the "bro-country" persuasion do, Rogers finds the humanity in the gin joints and honky tonks of his native Texas. Indeed, rather than being loud and celebratory, most of Nothing Shines Like Neon is reserved and achingly sad.

That's not to say this record is one filled with oppressive heartbreak or tragedy, but there's a certain melancholy in how it depicts normal people and their reasons for heading out to the bar on a Friday night. In "Neon Blues," the focal point of the song is a woman who "ain't in the mood for anymore lies or pickup lines," but who comes to the bar every night to drown her sorrows and forget about the man who walked out of her life. "Tequila Eyes" sees the narrator meeting a new potential love interest in a bar, but instead of the initial moment of attraction coming due to looks, the song is poignant, gentle, and classy, portraying the thought process of a man who senses a wounded heart and wants to mend it. And "Meet Me Tonight" is a softly wrenching ballad about a husband trying to recapture the magic of a romance whose flame has long since gone out. "Meet me tonight/In a memory somewhere back in time/That old dive just south of Santa Fe/When you used to look at me that way," Rogers sings in the first verse. It's a simple bit of plainspoken poetry, but the way Rogers delivers it, in a weary and weather-worn voice, truly conveys the fatigue of a relationship that may or may not have lasted past its expiration date.

Surprisingly, given the album's title, the majority of Nothing Shines Like Neon is made up of mid-tempo balladry. There's also a road trip song (opener "San Antone"), a whiskey-soaked bar band rocker ("Takin' It As It Comes"), and a B3-washed groover ("Rain and the Radio"), but for the most part, Neon thrives on slow-flowing beauties that examine the romances and heartbreaks of heartland America. Country music, of course, is a traditionally "sad bastard" genre of music. Following a breakup with a longtime girlfriend, my cousin once said to me: "She dumped me and took my dog; I feel like I'm living in a country song," and that's about the best and funniest encapsulation of this genre I've probably ever heard. But the characters on Nothing Shines Like Neon are resilient, willing to keep trying and to put themselves out there again even after they've had their hearts broken over and over again. What could be more human than that?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Album of the Day: Brothers Osborne - Pawn Shop


"Let's put our hearts together/Two parts love and a pinch of good weather/And top it all off with the sun and mix it with rum," sings T.J. Osborne in "Rum," Brothers Osborne's first hit on the country charts. On record, those lines signify Osborne's recipe for a good time. A similar recipe could describe what makes the band's debut album, called Pawn Shop and released last Friday, such an enjoyable powerhouse. Mix the sunniness and gloss of mainstream country music with the wistful romanticism of 1980s rock and roll, douse it in whiskey and top it off with a singer whose voice is equal parts Bruce Springsteen and Chris Cornell, and you've got a pretty good idea of whats makes this record spin.


Unlike yesterday's "album of the day" (Front Row Seat by the Josh Abbott Band), there's not a ton of depth to these songs. Brothers Osborne aren't aiming for the detailed character studies of Jason Isbell with their brand of country music. They're more along the lines of Chris Stapleton, delivering a soulful sound (and more than a few mentions of booze) and then decorating them them in more mainstream-appropriate wrapping paper. "Rum" is basically a sunnier version of Stapleton's "Tennessee Whiskey" (which was itself a cover), while the surging, riot-starting closer "It Ain't My Fault" sounds like it would have been right at home on the raucous back half of Stapleton's Traveller.

Pawn Shop isn't as good as Traveller, of course, but it's a promising step forward for the radio country crop. "Rum" was a minor hit last year," as Brothers Osborne broke through with a promising EP, while second single "Stay a Little Longer" has wormed its way very close to the top of the charts. The latter is the obvious highlight on this record, a fairly straightforward song about a friends-with-benefits arrangement that quickly blossoms into something more--regardless of how much the narrator tries to deny his true feelings. The chorus hook is infectious and hummable, but the song's defining feature is an epic three-minute guitar solo from the second brother of Brothers Osborne, John. This is the kind of free-form, southern-rock-tinged solo that we simply don't hear anymore, a technically magnificent and intentionally overblown bit of indulgence that will probably mark "Stay a Little Longer" as the climactic moment every live set these guys ever play. It ain't "Freebird," but it's closer than you might think.

The songwriting on Pawn Shop is solid and varied, ranging from big road trip anthems like "American Crazy" to swampy groovers like "Dirt Rich." But it's the musicianship that really sets these guys apart. Similarly to A Thousand Horses, who scored a number one country hit last year with "Smoke," Brothers Osborne are a band who you can tell are a terrific live outfit just from listening to their album. Producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, the Wallflowers) takes care to make sure everything on the LP sounds organic and live, but the distinctive talents of John on the guitar and T.J. on the vocals do most of the heavy lifting.

Indeed, T.J. Osborne's whiskey-soaked baritone is brewed with a perfect mix of blues and rock, lending a smoky otherworldliness to ballads like "Loving Me Back" (which features an effective vocal feature from Lee Ann Womack) and plenty of yearning earnestness to "21 Summer" (a wistful beauty that recalls the back half of Born in the U.S.A.). Not every song hits: "Greener Pastures," for instance, is a bit to on-the-nose in its depiction of the weed-smoking lifestyle to be effective. But for the most part, Pawn Shop is a remarkably accomplished and enjoyable LP, an album where the band finds such a natural groove that it's hard to believe they're playing on a debut. The biggest complaint I have is that I have to wait five months to blast this record in my car this summer.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Album of the Day: Josh Abbott Band - Front Row Seat

Okay, so an intro: I want to get back to blogging more over here, and writing shorter bits of content in addition to what I've been doing at AbsolutePunk.net. With that in mind, I'm launching an "album of the day" series where I'll give recommendations of new albums that I'm really digging or old favorites that jump back into my rotation on any given day. Or new discoveries from years past. There's a good chance that I won't post every day, but I will try to keep up with it and shine a light on more albums (and hopefully, more unheralded albums) than I've been able to do just writing long form reviews. I didn't get a chance to write about a lot of my favorite albums and EPs from last year, just because there was so much stuff that I fell in love with. I hope that, with this series, I will be able to chart my year of listening a bit more comprehensively.

To start this series, I'm featuring Front Row Seat, an album that Texas country stalwarts the Josh Abbott Band released in November of last year. This is a record that an AbsolutePunk user recommended to me in the thread for my Best of 2015 list, which means that it didn't make it onto that list. However, after spending a lot of time with this album over the past week or so, it probably would crack any revisited top 30 I might compile for the year. Ever-changing lists: such is the life of a music fan.

Front Row Seat starts out as a bright, mainstream-leaning country record. The hooks are big, the fiddles sparkle like sunlight, and the lyrics are about stuff like drinking with your buds, falling in love, and making every second the night count. The opening track, "While I'm Young," is a pretty standard boy-meets-girl-in-a-bar story, the kind of story that we've heard from a million different country songs at this point in time.

The difference with "While I'm Young" is that it isn't the whole story, but just the start of it. For Front Row Seat, frontman Josh Abbott decided to go the autobiographical route, charting his entire relationship with his wife--from their meeting to their divorce--over the course of a five-act, 16-song LP. So while this album starts with the euphoria of falling in love, that's not where it stays.

The first eight or nine songs on this record are uplifting and invigorating, perfectly capturing the electricity of meeting someone who you know is going to be incredibly important in your story. "Live it While You Got It" is a send-up of taking chances and being adventurous with the person you love, while "Wasn't That Drunk" sees two lovers (with the female perspective personified by a note-perfect feature from up-and-comer Carly Pearce) allowing the lowered inhibitions of a wine-drenched night to finally kickstart a romance they've both been yearning for. The title track, meanwhile, is the album's centerpiece, a big-hearted, big-chorus piece of roots-pop about how, when you fall in love with someone, you are the only person in the world who gets a front row seat to their life and to everything they do and everything they are.

With songs that feel this alive and that capture the spirit of being young and in love so perfectly, it's tough not to wish that this album could just stay in that vein for always. But on the sobering "Born to Break Your Heart," everything takes a turn for the worst, and soon, we're past the path of no return. Abbott's marriage--which was the subject of at least one of his previous albums--obliterated after he cheated on his wife, presumably while on the road and living some incarnation of the rock and roll lifestyle. The last seven tracks of this album chart the disintegration of the relationship and find Abbott wallowing in progressively deeper pits of longing and despair. On "Ghosts," you can hear him choke up right before launching into the second chorus. On "This Isn't Easy," he sings a song from his ex-wife's point of view, with clear understanding of how much he hurt her. And on "Anonymity," he closes out what began as a bright and warm Texas country record with a dark, cold acoustic heartbreaker, a song so raw and barren that it almost hurts to listen to.

We've all heard albums about falling in love before. We've all heard albums about heartbreak. What makes Front Row Seat fascinating isn't just that we get both, packed into one cohesive narrative, but also that Abbott actually stops being the protagonist midway through. Even if you go into this album not knowing that Abbott cheated on his wife, not knowing that his own unforgivable mistakes destroyed a huge part of his life, you can hear it in his voice on those last few songs that he knows he's not the hero. What makes a song like "Amnesia" so powerful is that, even as Abbott is singing about how forgetting his ex-wife entirely might be better than learning to live without her, it's so obvious that he knows he doesn't deserve "better"--whatever that is. He's in hell because he put himself there, because he drank too much and cared too little and let himself get sucked into a moment of temptation that decimated everything. This is not a "How could you do this to me?" kind of breakup record; it's a "how could I do that to you" breakup record, and it's all the more devastating as a result.

Listen to Front Row Seat here.

Monday, April 27, 2015

You've haunted me all my life: Reflecting on the wrongful dismissal of Death Cab for Cutie's "Kintsugi"

It's tough not to get emotional about a band like Death Cab for Cutie. For a lot of people my age, these guys weren't just a band; they were the band. For every Seth Cohen wannabe between here and 2003, Death Cab might as well have been The Beatles. Their songs gave an intimate nobility to the science of heartbreak, provided a gleaming façade for the concept of lonesome solitude, and built a world apart from everything that sucked about being a teenager or young adult in the first decade of the new millennium.

Suffice to say that every person who ever laid in bed feeling sorry for themselves to the sounds of "A Lack of Color" and "Transatlanticism"—and you can bet that there are a lot of those people out there—holds Death Cab for Cutie to an impossible standard. And how could they not? Kids from my generation, they grew up with this band; they learned the hard lessons with this band's music playing in the background; they made mixtapes for their future husbands or wives featuring songs written by this band. Those kinds of nostalgic, emotional connections don't go away after five years or 10 years or 20 years, and while they will immortalize Death Cab for Cutie forever, they will also guarantee that Ben Gibbard and company will forever deal with the problem of impossible fan expectations.

That fact became very evident on the band's 2011 effort, Codes & Keys. Fan entitlement is a weird, off-putting thing in the best of circumstances, but I don't think I've ever seen a fanbase backlash against a band with quite the same level of noxious vitriol that got laid upon Death Cab following the release of Codes & Keys. Essentially, fans blasted Gibbard for getting married and writing a happy record, because it didn't mesh with their memories of being depressed and lonely and listening to Transatlanticism and We Have the Facts… in the dark. In some circles, Zooey Deschanel, Gibbard's (ex-)wife, even got labeled as Death Cab's Yoko Ono. The critical and fan consensus was that Gibbard was happy, so he wrote shitty songs. Fans in turn wanted him to stop being happy, so that he would write good songs again.

Leaving aside the fact that Codes & Keys is hardly the gleeful "we're married and in love" album that many made it out to be, it is still fucking inexcusable that fans reacted to it in the way that they did. It's one thing not to like an album; it's another to act like a band owes you because you forged an emotional connection to their songs 10 years ago; and it's quite another thing to suggest that a songwriter doesn't have the right to be happy because it impairs his artistry. Let's be clear: the Death Cab for Cutie fanbase is full of assholes.

Still, a lot of those assholes got their wish when Ben Gibbard and Zooey Deschanel separated and subsequently divorced within the year and a half that followed Codes & Keys. Ben Gibbard was heartbroken and lonely again! Hooray, maybe he would write Transatlanticism part two! But Gibbard's break-up album—which doubles as Death Cab for Cutie's eighth LP, Kintsugi—has hardly been greeted as a return to form. Instead, now, Gibbard is being lambasted for being too much of a sad sack sap, and for writing precisely the kinds of songs that a lot of fans wanted him to write three years ago. "A group resting on its laurels," PopMatters called the disc; "overwrought," said The Guardian; "boy-next-door, paint-by-numbers indie pop," Pretty Much Amazing wrote.

Such poor reviews illustrate the kind of no-win scenario that bands of Death Cab's age and profile often face. The band took chances and evolved their sound with Codes & Keys—as well as with 2008's Narrow Stairs—and neither album got a warm reception. Kintsugi, meanwhile, is a return to form—filled with the kind of aching melodies that populated Plans, and with the scathing and mournful guitars that filled Transatlanctisicm—but it has resultingly been called safe, bland, flat, predictable, a step backwards, a band spinning its wheels, etc. Where does a band go when they can no longer do anything right? What kind of songs do you write when fans want your heartbroken boy-next-door honesty when it's missing, and then mock it when it returns? Which direction do you take when your fanbase turns against you?

From listening to Kintsugi, it's pretty clear that Ben Gibbard and the rest of Death Cab for Cutie (including departing guitarist and producer Chris Walla) didn't worry much about pleasing their unappeasable fans here. Rather, they made a tuneful and honest record that perfectly captures the feeling of breaking apart and putting yourself back together again. The highlight is "No Room in Frame," the opening track and the song where Gibbard most directly addresses his recent divorce. "Was I in your way, when the cameras turned to face you?/No room in frame for two," he sings on the brief chorus refrain. Later, he delivers the kind of devastating lyric that many came to Death Cab for in the first place: "And I guess it's not a failure we could help/And we'll both go on being lonely with someone else." On first listen, I was immediately thinking, "this is the band people fell in love with." When that line is followed by a wash of some of Walla's most evocative electric guitar work, it just feels like home.

The rest of Kintsugi is every bit as lonesome. On "Little Wanderer," Gibbard communicates with a lover through texts, as she travels the world and leaves him home alone. The song is a beautiful encapsulation of both love in the digital age and of long-distance relationships. In the second verse, the narrator is "doing the math to the time zone you're at," falling asleep just as the sun is rising for his significant other on the opposite side of globe. And in the final passage, he imagines the moment "when our eyes meet past security" and "we embrace in the baggage claim." Anyone who has ever been in a long distance relationship will relate to the urgency of this song, and to that moment in particular. When you spend days, weeks, or months away from the person you love, you are constantly counting down the moments until you are together again. You make up these reunion scenarios in your head, envisioning them as sweepingly romantic moments worthy of film.

If you're lucky, you get to experience those moments in real life—the most powerful of which is the one where the distance finally disappears for good. If you're unlucky, your machinations are never realized. They remain stuck in your head, playing on loop in frenzied montage of the things that could have been but will never be. For Gibbard, it's the latter: at the end of "Little Wanderer," he's imagining a moment that will never happen. Like City and Colour's "Hello, I'm in Delaware"—another great song about long distance relationships—"Little Wanderer" is about a couple whose bond won't survive the weeks they have to wait until they see one another again. The problem here is one that technology and constant communication can't fix, and that closing snapshot, with the imagined reunion in Gibbard's head, is such an effective twist of the knife that the song becomes his most vivid heartbreaker since Plans.

Throughout its 11 tracks, Kintsugi wanders the dark back roads of heartbreak, covering every stage of the end of a relationship. During "Black Sun," Gibbard rages at Zooey. "How could something so fair be so cruel?" he asks, before a ragged guitar solo from Walla gives his anger a corporeal shape. On the white-knuckled "The Ghosts of Beverly Drive," he rages at himself, repeatedly remarking, "I don't know why, I don't know why/I return to the scenes of these crimes"—the song careening around corners like a train about to go off the rails. And on "Binary Sea," he finally finds acceptance and resignation, bidding his old love farewell as the album drops its curtain.

Make no mistake, there is a lot of bitterness in these songs, from "Everything's a Ceiling"—where Gibbard implies that Deschanel thought of herself as the center of the universe—to "Ingenue," where he asks his young and beautiful ex-wife what she will become "when age's glacial pace/Cuts valleys into [her] face." But there's also contrition and self-loathing, as Gibbard, who has often played the victim in his songs, recognizes that there are two people to blame for the end of his marriage—and he's one of them. In "El Dorado," he berates himself for letting jealousy prevent him from being proud of his wife's accomplishments; on "You Have Haunted Me All My Life," he wonders why he gave up on someone who was such an important piece of his world for so long; even on the resentful "Ingenue," you can hear a lingering fondness in Gibbard's voice as he advises his ex to "escape from this town"—presumably Hollywood—"before [her] sand runs out." It's his last plea, for her to live her life and be herself instead of letting the pressures of stardom change her, and coming as it does after the break-up, it feels poignant and heart-rending.

As Kintsugi draws to a close, Gibbard finally closes the book on his failed marriage. "Lean in close and lend an ear/There's something brilliant bound to happen here," he sings in the final bars of "Binary Sea." It's a hopeful ending to a record that rarely reflects optimism, but a sign that, with these songs, Gibbard has worked his way through his heartbreak and is ready to start the next chapter of his life. In that way, it recalls Coldplay's Ghost Stories, another downbeat breakup album from a massive band that was unfairly maligned upon its release. Regardless of critical thrashings or fanbase backlashes, though, these two records were the albums that their creators needed to make at the time. This kind of exorcism of personal demons is essential work for any artist, and as someone who believes necessity often begets the greatest art, it's work that I gravitate toward personally. Kintsugi might not be a departure from Death Cab's past style, and it might not appease all of the old fans. But to me, a band being this honest and open on record is far more interesting than a band trying to reinvent the wheel for the purpose of reinventing the wheel, or to reach a group of people who outgrew them five years ago.

Friday, February 27, 2015

I Can Still Hear the Trains out My Window: The Nostalgia and Perspective of Mat Kearney's 'Just Kids'

Mat Kearney has always been a bit ahead of the curve as far as pop music was concerned. In 2006, he burst onto the scene with Nothing Left to Lose, a lingering set of songs that blended elements of pop, folk, and hip-hop into a sonic cocktail that sounded like no one else in the industry. The album brought a bit of mainstream success—for the summer pop tune, "Nothing Left to Lose"—but the most interesting songs were the ones where Kearney bent or blended genres on a whim. With spoken word or rap-driven songs like "Undeniable," "Bullet," "Can't Break Her Fall," "In the Middle," and "Renaissance," Kearney not only marked off his own unique corner of the sensitive Greys Anatomy balladeer market, but he also established a charismatic personality that rarely comes through on debut albums. The freestyle nature of his rap sections allowed Kearney to go much deeper into autobiographical territory than he would normally have been able to do with a three or four-minute pop song, and as he told us his stories of growing up, falling in love, getting in car accidents, and launching a music career, he suddenly felt like a guy we'd been listening to for five or 10 years—rather than for just 13 tracks.

I've remained interested in Kearney's story ever since, but it would be inaccurate to claim that his next few records were as unique, nuanced, or autobiographical as Nothing Left to Lose. 2009's City of Black and White ditched the hip-hop aesthetic entirely, in favor of Laurel Canyon-favored folk-pop. 2011's Young Love, meanwhile, was produced like a hip-hop record, with booming beats and a small handful of samples, but pulled its punches rather than allow Kearney to return to his roots. Songs like "Ships in the Night" and "Chasing the Light" had sing-speak verses that recalled Nothing Left to Lose, but even on those numbers, Kearney still seemed hesitant to go full-rap or be as daring as he once was. And ultimately, Young Love could be summed up less as a return to form for Kearney, and more as a harbinger of the kind of bombastic pop that fun. would popularize on the next year's Some Nights.

This narrative explains precisely why I'm so taken with Just Kids, Mat Kearney's fourth major label LP, and his first in three and a half years. For the first time since Nothing Left to Lose, Kearney seems comfortable jumping genres again. He reveals that fact right away, dropping a rap over the militaristic beat of opening track "Heartbreak Dreamer." It's a potent introductory statement, flitting between a sample of childish singsong chant, Kearney's lyrical verses, and an eye-of-the-storm chorus. When the song hits another sample—a two minute excerpt of Anis Mojgani's moving beat poem"Shake the Dust"—the song ascends to a higher place. The poem, an inspirational paean for the forgotten and downtrodden, meshes perfectly with the handclaps, drumbeats, and keyboard melodies of "Heartbreak Dreamer," and feels like it could have been recorded for the specific purpose of being used in this song. The fact that is wasn't only further establishes "Dreamer" as Kearney's most adventurous and ambitious piece of songwriting in nine years.

For its part, Just Kids is never as melodically lovely or lush as City of Black and White, and it can't quite match Young Love on a hook-for-hook basis. The record shows its flaws when Kearney tries to do a song without a spoken word segment, with numbers like "Heartbeat," "Let it Rain," and "Miss You" arguably tilting toward generic pop territory. That's surprising for Kearney, especially considering the fact that Young Love made a play for the mainstream without sacrificing the quirkiness and charisma that has always made him great as an artist. This record's plain pop songs aren't bad at all, but they do sound like standard radio fare, which has never been a problem before. The ballads aren't quite as striking this time around, either, though numbers like "Ghost" and "The Conversation" are still more than welcome additions to the Kearney catalog.

Where Just Kids really does thrive is in its commitment to storytelling. This is the closest Kearney has ever come to replicating the feel of the jagged and personal Nothing Left to Lose, and that fact shines through when he ditches the traditional pop song format and goes off in exploration of different genres. It's not just hip-hop, either: the title track, an autobiographical song about Kearney and his wife, has an unhurried R&B feel that recalls both Drake and Frank Ocean, while the booming "Billion" has elements of everything from EDM to African chant to 80s funk-pop. Both "Moving On" and "Shasta," meanwhile, play around with vocoder in a fashion that nods to Bon Iver and Kanye West.

By throwing all of these different elements at the canvas, Kearney is able to mold song structures to his will. And just like he once bent genres to tell audiences who he was in the first place, here, he's expanding his story further. As the album title implies, the core narrative here is about growing up. The title track illustrates his earliest music influences (Bob Marley and Wu Tang Clan, to name a few), while recounting his first experiences laying down raps "over instrumental tapes." "One Black Sheep" starts with Kearney in Oregon, feeling like the guy who will never fit in, and ends with him heading off to Nashville to pursue his dreams. And "Los Angeles" is like Butch Walker's "Going Back/Going Home," a full career manifesto that takes Kearney from a "thousand cap room…only eight people came" to hearing his name called on Letterman.

For all of its different threads, Nothing Left to Lose was, at its core, a record about growing up and finding a place to belong. It's a theme that Kearney has explored again and again throughout his career, from a hometown slipping away in the City of Black and White, to one last carefree summer of Young Love. Just Kids continues the story, though now, all of those old stomping grounds feel a bit different. That's intentional: Kearney knows that his listeners have grown up along with him, and that most of us have now traded unpredictable youth for adulthood routine. As a result, Just Kids is Kearney's most openly nostalgic record ever, an album that gazes back fondly on the places we used to call home, the people we used to call best friends, or the dreams we used to carry around with us. 

"Hometown remind me where I come from," he begs in the reverb-soaked beauty, "Shasta," before reminding himself that "we've got miles left to go, to a place that I don't know." Those two lines perfectly sum up what Just Kids is all about. It's a record meant for looking back at all of the good times, while simultaneously recognizing that there are so many good times still to come. It's for those mornings when you check Timehop and get warped back to high school antics or summertime adventures, or to the people you lost touch with along the way. But it's also a record for cherishing the people in your life now, and for soundtracking all of the remarkable adventures still waiting further on down this big old dusty highway that we call life. Springsteen has always said that he followed specific themes, characters, and stories throughout his entire career. Not enough artists make those kinds of interconnected discographies anymore, but Kearney is absolutely one of them, and Just Kids is a vital new chapter, both for the songwriter and for the people who came of age listening to his songs. It's one of the first great records of 2015.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Yellow Umbrella: Losing my past in the endings of "How I Met Your Mother" and The Dangerous Summer

“In exactly forty-five days from now, you and I are gonna meet. And we're gonna fall in love. And we're gonna get married, and...we're gonna have two kids. And we're gonna love them and each other so much. All of that is forty-five days away. But I'm here now, I guess, because I want those extra forty-five days. With you, I want each one of them. And if I can't have them, I'll take the forty-five seconds it takes before your boyfriend shows up and punches me in my face. Because... I love you. I'm always gonna love you. Until the end of my days, and beyond.”

-Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother (from "The Time Travelers," Season 8, Episode 20)


This week hasn’t been an easy one for me from a pop cultural standpoint. In fact, it’s probably been the toughest one I’ve ever faced on that front, if only because the fates seemed to be conspiring against me with the singular goal of taking a hatchet to the memories that surrounded the last three months of my senior year of high school.

Five years ago this week, I started watching How I Met Your Mother. I wasn’t one of the people who loved and believed in the show from the get-go, partially because I just didn’t watch TV much when it started airing, and partially because I have this tendency to jump into sitcoms late anyway. But I had enjoyed the few episodes I’d seen leading up to late March 2009, and with my spring break coming around and nothing much to do to fill the time (I was never one of those people who jetted off to exotic locates), I downloaded the first season on a whim and began to watch.

I immediately fell in love with the show, attracted to the magnetic charms of the talented ensemble (which kept two of the funniest men in show business, Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segel, steadily employed for nine years) and drawn to the unorthodox premise of the plot’s structure. Mostly though, I loved How I Met Your Mother because I saw myself in Ted Mosby. As the central protagonist of the tale, Ted seemed to go through one false start after another, missing romantic connections, sacrificing or compromising his own dreams for the happiness of others, and yearning for some shard of hope and happiness that always seemed to allude him at the last minute. There was something intensely relatable there, and there still is.

Where other people thought Ted was an uninteresting lead or a character that didn’t belong in a show with so many more colorful personalities, I saw Ted as the honest, lovable core of the show. In a group full of larger-than-life characters, Ted was real; Ted was vulnerable. Ted was funny when he needed to be, but his jokes never betrayed the deep romantic sadness that was always lurking just beneath the surface. Played by Josh Radnor in one of the most underrated television performances of the past decade, Ted became – for me at least – the reason to watch How I Met Your Mother. I enjoyed the gags of course: the slap bets and misadventures and the ridiculous womanizing tactics employed by Barney. But I, for one, never lost sight of Ted in the midst of all of that; I never stopped thinking that this story, this tale of Ted’s many failures and flaws, would ultimately be perfect because he would find the love of his life and get the happy ending he deserved.

All of this led me to watch the first three and a half seasons of How I Met Your Mother in the space of a week and a half. I started the show the Thursday before my spring break and I wrapped up the most recent episode the next week on Sunday, a day before it would be back on the air and I could start watching for real. It was and is the most insane bit of television binge watching I have ever participated in, and it got me more excited to follow this show through to its conclusion than I had probably ever been about any television event.

I watched How I Met Your Mother through each of my college years, even as I grew and changed and found the love of my life while Ted was still out there searching for the love of his. But despite the fact that How I Met Your Mother was a consistent part of my week for five years, when I hear the simple melody in the show’s introduction, it still takes me back to my senior year of high school. The same is true for The Dangerous Summer’s Reach for the Sun, an album that came into my life probably a month after How I Met Your Mother did, by a band who called it quits two days before How I Met Your Mother did. And that cruel but poetic bit of irony has been tough for me to take this week, to say the least.

Much like How I Met Your Mother, my love for The Dangerous Summer came on fast and strong. I downloaded the album after reading a rapturous review of it by Blake Solomon at Absolutepunk (who I now have the privilege of calling a colleague), and it hit me like a ton of bricks because it came along at the perfect time. To this day, Reach for the Sun is one of the most emotionally naked albums I have ever heard, an album so honest, cathartic, and unapologetically vulnerable that I probably would have fallen in love with it no matter when it first reached my ears. But the day I first heard that album just happened to be the day after my sister’s college graduation, and as a result, it sort of became my “end of youth” album.

Everything was changing at that time. My siblings were moving onto bigger and brighter things, and frankly, so was I. I had a month left in high school and I’d just gotten the college acceptance I had been waiting for all year. I was excited to see what the future would bring, but I was also scared: scared of leaving my friends and my home behind, scared of failing to achieve my dreams, wondering alway whether there was success and love and happiness waiting out there for me in the future. All of that was encompassed by Reach for the Sun, in AJ Perdomo’s caustically emotive vocals and the confessional words of his songs, but it was also staring back at me from weekly episodes of How I Met Your Mother and from Ted’s wearying journey to find his happily ever after. I guess it makes sense, then, that these two pieces of art, this album and this TV show, ended up sort of grounding me and inspiring me throughout those last few weeks of high school. There was sadness and fear in both, but there was also immense hope, and those messages gelled perfectly with what I was feeling at the time.

I suppose that’s why I stuck with How I Met Your Mother and The Dangerous Summer right until the end. Both projects followed a law of diminishing returns for most people. Each passing season of How I Met Your Mother caused many to throw up their hands, decry something about the show taking too long or losing its way, and give up. Similarly, each Dangerous Summer album had fewer fans than the one that had come before it, culminating in the largely lukewarm reception that greeted Golden Record, last summer. I held on though, because letting go or giving up felt like it would be a betrayal of what this show and this band had meant to me at a very key moment in my life. I couldn’t forsake Ted’s story because it felt tied to my own, and I couldn’t forsake The Dangerous Summer’s music because it had served as refuge for me in a tumultuous time.

And frankly, I still saw myself in these two disparate pieces of art. There was a time when I would have called the sixth season of How I Met Your Mother the best in the show’s history, largely because of how moved I was by the duel storylines featuring Marshall and Barney’s fathers. As someone who has never had much of a relationship with his real father, but who has truly found a paternal figure in his step dad, those plots struck an emotional chord with me, and I was proud of HIMYM for being willing to transcend its comedic roots and tackle such serious, poignant issues. As for The Dangerous Summer, I would have – until very recently – ranked 2011’s War Paint as their best. The album collided with me when I was at yet another crossroads in my life, and it became my soundtrack for another summer and another year. Lately, I’ve come back around to Reach For The Sun as the band’s definitive statement, whether because of nostalgia or simply due to a love for the album’s best songs, but War Paint held me together when I needed it to as well, and that’s something that you can’t buy or force because it just has to happen on its own.

Suffice to say that I have never been able to divorce my emotions or personal experiences from either How I Met Your Mother or the music of The Dangerous Summer, and that’s why I never lost faith (or perhaps couldn't lose faith) that both would find their way. I wasn’t the biggest fan of HIMYM’s seasons 7 and 8, but I firmly believed that the show’s creators would orchestrate a final season and a grand finale that would tie everything together and establish the show as one of the greats. And I also thought The Dangerous Summer would get past their endless band drama and line-up changes to create something transcendent again, even after Golden Record landed and was admittedly hit or miss.

I held onto my faith for so long, in fact, that it outlived the things in which I was supposed to be putting that faith in. Last Saturday, The Dangerous Summer broke up with little more than a letter to fans from frontman AJ Perdomo, the band ultimately torn apart by the very inner conflicts I had hoped they would move past. And How I Met Your Mother, this show I had been watching for five years all in the hopes of seeing Ted’s big, well-earned happy ending, betrayed me in its final episode by relegating the titular mother to supporting role status before killing her off and reversing years of character development for virtually every member of the cast. True to my investment in the show, I refused to believe that it was going in the direction it did until every shred of evidence was against me, until we learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that the mother wasn’t going to walk into the room and kiss Ted on the cheek as he finished his long and winding story. Then, I finally let the faith go and let the anger in instead.

Losing The Dangerous Summer wasn’t easy, but it was something I could deal with. Even if the band was breaking up, even if I wouldn’t have new albums from them in the future, I’d still have the memories I’d formed with Reach for the Sun and War Paint. Losing How I Met Your Mother was harder, not because the story was ending and I wouldn’t be spending Monday nights with these characters anymore (though I had a pang of sadness over that fact on the morning of the finale), but because the writers tore the rug out from under me with the ending in such a way that I’m not sure I will ever be able to look at the series in the same way again.

When I fell in love with this show, the connection came because I knew that Ted’s sadness had an end, that he was going to meet the perfect woman and she was going to take all of his failures and rejections and losses and make them okay, because they all led to her in the end. Thomas and Bays made good on one half of that promise, because they somehow managed to find the perfect person to play the girl of Ted’s dreams. Cristin Milioti, who came onboard with the show in the eighth season finale and appeared sporadically throughout this final season, never hit a false note in her performance. She was sweet, quirky, and thoughtful, but she also had the same deep sadness and sense of loss in her past that Ted did, and those qualities combined to make the two characters a perfect match. Unsurprisingly, fans fell in love with Milioti and the chemistry she had with every member of the cast (including, in their brief moments together, Radnor), and it seemed for a moment that Bays and Thomas had accomplished the most difficult challenge they had laid out for themselves in the premise of their show: writing a character and finding an actress who could bear the weight of all the stories and expectations the show had created over the years. The mother was, in a word, perfect, and with the right ending, that fact could have made up for every misstep this show ever made.

But then Bays and Thomas threw it all away. In one of the most shockingly inept moves in the history of television, the How I Met Your Mother finale somehow manages to ruin the episode, the season, and arguably the entire series in the space of five minutes. The fault is laid upon a scene that was filmed eight years ago: the scene where Ted’s kids finally get to react to the tale their father has spent so very long telling them (“I kept this story short and to the point!” Ted says once he’s finished, giving Radnor the chance to deliver one last goofily golden line). Rather than remark on the beautiful tale of their parents’ first encounter (a perfect scene, set on a rainy train platform and soundtracked by a downbeat cover of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train”), Ted’s kids roll their eyes and say the story wasn’t about the mother at all, but about Robin. It’s bad enough that the show doesn’t even confirm the mother’s death until after these statements are made – she passed away six years previous, of some undisclosed illness – but the decision to send Ted back to Robin rather than giving him the ending he deserves with his perfect wife feels like a betrayal of his story and his character. It breaks his happy ending, it recolors the entire narrative of the show, and in connection, it pick ups the memories I had of watching this show and rooting for Ted and shuffles them around until they are unrecognizable. It may seem silly, but I legitimately feel like I’ve lost part of my past because of this ending.

And that may actually be silly. Because all of this is trivial and inconsequential, right? The ending of a sitcom, the break-up of an emo/pop-punk band, does any of it really matter in the grand scheme of things? Others will shrug their shoulders and say that was just a TV show, or that The Dangerous Summer was just a band, and for some people, that’s true. For some people, pop culture and entertainment and art is never more than a minor diversion to fill up space in life when nothing more interesting is happening. But those people just don’t get it. And I say that in a way that is completely not meant to be disrespectful or elitist or bitter, but rather, in a way that is meant as a simple statement of fact. Because sure, there will be other TV shows and other bands, but not this TV show or this band. These pieces of pop culture that I saw myself in, that I cataloged pieces of my life around, that played a huge role in helping me grow up and become the person I am today and realize what I want out of life, they aren’t so easily replaced. Some people never form that kind of connection with a TV show or a band or an album or a song, and that’s fine. For them, it really is just a show, just a band, just entertainment.

But that’s not what art is for people who really love it, for people who invest themselves in these things to the point of insanity or stupidity or both. For me, for us, music and film and TV and stories and art are as vital as oxygen. They are the devices that we use to make sense of our lives and the things that happen to us, reminders of the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met along the way, signals that we can use to explain or express things when we can’t find the words to do it ourselves. And that’s why losing How I Met Your Mother and The Dangerous Summer in the same week has blindsided me like a bus, because now these two mile markers from a very important time of my life are gone, and it’s left me feeling like a fucking computer program that can’t find its files.

In the case of The Dangerous Summer, things will be fine. I’ll always wonder if the band could have accomplished even greater things than they had already, but if the magic was fading away anyway, at least I get to hold onto the albums that were so important to me. Time will tell whether I can watch the earlier seasons of How I Met Your Mother again without seeing the whole thing as a long con. But suffice to say that when Ted lost his happy ending on Monday night, only to have it supplanted with one that was infinitely less happy and less fitting and less well-earned, I lost a part of myself. I lost the part I had invested in Ted Mosby’s ongoing struggle to find “the one” all the way back during spring break of 2009. And maybe that’s what I get for being the idiot who pours so much of himself into art and pop culture, for being someone batshit crazy enough to write 3,000 words chronicling all of this. Right now though, it feels like the ultimate betrayal. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Gonna Walk Around and Drink Some More: The Legacy of The Hold Steady and the Stirring Rock and Roll Momentum of "Teeth Dreams"

“Before she figures out what’s wrong, they put another record on,” Craig Finn sings in “Spinners,” a poignant mid-tempo rocker from the latest Hold Steady LP, Teeth Dreams. It also more or less functions as a one-line approximation of exactly how Teeth Dreams is going to be perceived by the Hold Steady fanbase and by the critical music community as a whole, but in order to understand why that is, we have to venture back to 2010’s Heaven is Whenever, the most poorly received album in the band’s storied catalog, and the only one that most cred-obsessed hipsters wouldn’t want in their record collections. Prior to Heaven, this band was on the hottest of streaks. The middle two albums in the band’s initial four-disc run, 2005’s Separation Sunday and 2006’s Boys & Girls in America, arrived to rapturous reviews and Pitchfork “Best New Music” notices, their boozy swirls of anthemic E Street keys, blazing guitar riffs, and Finn’s barfly narratives simultaneously positing the Hold Steady as the drunkest and most literate rock band on the scene. Naturally, that fact made them a musical outfit rife for cult appreciation.

And cult appreciation is precisely what they’ve earned. I’ve never been to a Hold Steady show, but I can imagine the whole thing – from the sweaty hole-in-the-wall venues they play to the comfortable, intoxicated atmosphere of the enterprise – and it’s fucking majestic. These guys, the way they make music and the way they present it to their audience, it’s like they’re your brothers or the guys you went to college with. They make this loud, roof-raising rock ‘n’ roll, but when a show ends or an album stops spinning, you still feel like you could just sit down and have a beer with them (or better yet, help them pack up the gear and then head out to an all-night rager). And maybe that’s why the Hold Steady’s records have always appealed to me (though I was, admittedly, a little late to the party).

My first connection with this band came in late 2009, when I was a freshman in college and crashing my buddy’s radio show to raid the station’s extensive CD library. One of the spoils of that evening was Boys & Girls in America, partly because the colorful cover caught my eye and partly because another friend of mine had always recommended the Hold Steady based on my love for the Counting Crows. A cursory listen told me that the comparison to the Crows wasn’t on point enough to make me fall instantly in love, but not off-base enough to have me grimacing and shaking my head either. The same root elements were there: the Springsteenian songwriting styles, the classic rock arrangements, the emphasis on roaring guitar solos. But the moods were where things differed. Where August & Everything After – Counting Crows’ most seminal LP – opened in desolation on “Round Here,” Boys & Girls in America exploded out of the gate with “Stuck Between Stations,” this raucous, barnstorming rock song that was meant to be played in late-night bars. Yes, these two bands may have shared similar roots, but their ideologies could hardly have been more different. The Hold Steady wrote music for the party, while the Crows wrote music for the guy who didn’t get invited to the party. And as someone who has in turns been on both sides of that interchange, the dichotomy between those two ideas has never stopped fascinating me.

Of course, the Hold Steady had some catching up to do with the Crows if they were ever going to be one of my favorite bands. By the time I first pushed play on Boys & Girls in America, I’d been a fan of Counting Crows for as long as I could remember – so long, in fact, that “Mr. Jones” may be the first rock song I remember hearing. But as I went forward in college, I became more and more drawn to the music of Craig Finn and company. Though I discovered it in the fall, Boys & Girls didn’t get much play, predictably, until Michigan’s interminable winter broke. But man, do I remember when that happened, and I do I remember when the Hold Steady finally clicked. There’s something magical about spring on a college campus. Walking to class suddenly becomes a pleasure instead of a chore; students decide to let out all of the restlessness they’ve been building for months by staying out later, getting drunker, and making more noise and bad decisions than they have all year; and everyone throws their dorm/apartment/car windows open and blares the loudest music they can find to mark the occasion. For me, in my freshman year of college – and in every year after it – the loudest music I could find was always Boys & Girls in America.

That became the legacy of that record for me, and of the band as a whole. Even though the Hold Steady were never getting as much year-round play as a lot of my other favorite bands, when spring rolled around, there was nothing I wanted to hear more. The sound of this band became synonymous with the infectious feel of springtime on a college campus. Its absence was another negative factor surrounding my dreadful sophomore year, when it stayed snowy and fucking cold until the day I drove home at the end of April – obviously offering no space for a record like Boys & Girls to shine. It became the sound of my reward the next year, though, when temperatures soared into the 70s in March, convincing me to skip studying for a test one Thursday night to drink beer with my roommates on the porch. (Spoiler alert: this did not turn out well for me.) And the band also served as soundtrack for my surprisingly bittersweet senior year, when songs like “The Sweet Part of the City” and “Southtown Girls” rang through my car on warm, dusky drives home from campus during the last weeks of college, or when “Stuck Between Stations” became my “Let’s hit the Beer Exchange* and drink until 2 a.m.” anthem.

To put it simply, this band and their records – probably more than any other musical entity – encompassed the experience of my college years. That might explain why I have more attachment to Heaven is Whenever than just about anyone else, since that album pretty much became symbolic of the limitless possibilities I was feeling when I went home for the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. To me, that record and the way it shed the meticulous characterizations and lyrical depth of the Hold Steady’s earlier music, felt like the band’s take on Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Musically, it was more streamlined and conventional than anything the band had ever written, a fact helped along by the way Finn spoke in briefer and more generalized statements. The band’s decision to move away from detail was meant to facilitate greater relatability and to focus more on melody, and on pile-driving rockers like “The Weekenders” and “Hurricane J,” they certainly succeeded. To this day, Heaven is probably my second or third favorite Hold Steady record.

By the time Heaven is Whenever was out, though, it seemed like people were ready to stop showering the Hold Steady in critical accolades. The band had had a run of four great albums that just about everyone appreciated, and now, with album number five, it was time to start ascribing them the “past their prime” narrative. They were getting older; they were becoming fathers; they were toning down the partying and writing songs in a more conventional manner. For many people, those things meant that the Hold Steady were also done making transcendent music, which frankly, wasn’t the case at all. But once critics have locked into a narrative, it’s incredibly difficult to shake them from it. With Heaven, many wrote this band off, whether because Craig was losing touch with characters like Holly and Charlemagne or because keyboardist Franz Nicolay, a key player for most of the band's career, had decided to depart. And four years later, those same people are still writing the Hold Steady off, even though Teeth Dreams is every bit the stellar record that these guys have built a career out of making.

Part of the problem, of course, is the time gap, which brings me (at last) back to the line I used to start this essay. “Before she figures out what’s wrong, they put another record on.” That line from “Spinners” could have been the band’s mantra if it had truly wanted to reverse the less-than-flattering critical narrative given to Heaven is Whenever. The band could have immediately piled back into the studio, hired a keyboardist to replace Franz (which frankly, they should do anyway, preferably with Rami Jaffee of Wallflowers fame), and banged out a quick, rough, raw, and spontaneous record to restore the faith that the critical community once had in them. Instead, the band broke for four years, sending different members off on solo project exports, and giving fans and critics plenty of time to pick apart everything they thought was wrong with Heaven is Whenever.

The release gap between Heaven and Teeth Dreams, which stretched from May 3, 2010 to March 25, 2014, was by far the longest wait between Hold Steady records, and for a band that had started its career with three consecutive shots in 2004, 2005, or 2006, the extended delay made all the difference. Suddenly, Teeth Dreams was expected not only to shoulder the burden of following up the band’s least beloved album, but it also had to bear the weight of four years of expectations and doubts. I myself wondered if the album could possibly be able to handle the near-mythical legacy the band’s music now has in my life. But then I pressed play on Teeth Dreams for the first time, and instead of shaking my head and writing missives about how things just ain't like they used to be, my biggest complaint was that this record didn't drop a year ago to soundtrack one last college campus springtime for me.

Indeed, Teeth Dreams fits squarely in the band’s wheelhouse, generating the same sundrenched feel as their past records while simultaneously cultivating a sound and direction that is new for the band. The first half of the record is positively bulletproof, raging from the echoing, effect-laden first single (“I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”) to the cryptic teeth dream musings of album highlight “The Only Thing.” Finn’s lyrics, while they still haven’t returned to the specificity of the first four records, are as good as ever,  dreaming up philosophical poetry about “the American sadness” (the rousing “On with the Business”) or drawing up relatable characters whose stories are as worth hearing as ever (the divorcee in “Spinners,” who heads to the big city hoping to find a new life, the weatherworn road warriors of the dusky “Ambassador,” or the idiosyncratic love interest in “The Only Thing,” who lives in her storage space out by the airport and only talks about TV). Collectively, the first five tracks on Teeth Dreams might actually make up the strongest song-by-song run on any Hold Steady record, which is clearly no small feat.

The second half of the album isn’t nearly as strong. Of the three consecutive classic rock throwbacks that kick off side two (“Big Cig,” “Wait A While,” and “Runner’s High”), only the first makes something of its high-wattage Rolling Stones esque riffage. “Runner’s High” is innocuous, a decent enough album track that probably could have been a b-side, but works well enough here. “Wait A While,” on the other hand, is a jaunty but rather dull rocker that suffers from being a thematic retread of the far superior “You Can Make Him Like You” from Boys & Girls in America. Teeth Dreams still goes out on a high note, though, with the spooky acoustics of “Almost Everything” striking a different chord than the double-lead-guitar bombast of the rest of the record, and the canyon-sized “Oaks” stretching on for nine minutes of gorgeous, slow-burn majesty.

Is Teeth Dreams as good as Boys & Girls in America or Separation Sunday? No, not quite. The slick radio rock production (courtesy of Foo Fighters veteran Nick Raskulinecz) will turn a lot of people off, with ample vocal effects and excessive sonic compression that don’t do a lot to display the band’s live bar-band roots. The decision to add another lead guitarist will also earn mixed reception, not because Lucero veteran Steve Selvidge lacks chops (he's great), but because his presence turns Teeth Dreams into such a guitar rock record that it ends up being more repetitive than any of the Hold Steady’s previous work. It goes without saying at this point that Nicolay’s keyboard flourishes are missed. But the more adventurous elements the band explored on Heaven is Whenever to replace the keys, from the slide guitar of “The Sweet Part of the City” to the rollicking clarinet solo of “Barely Breathing,” are absent here as well, and as a result, Teeth Dreams feels considerably safer and more stagnant than its predecessor. The songs are still aces though, and with the weather finally heating up for the spring, I anticipate that this record will only continue to open up. After all, I haven’t even gotten to take it for a windows-down drive yet, and that's the essential rite of passage for any Hold Steady record.

*The Kalamazoo Beer Exchange is the best college bar in the country.