Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Bruce Springsteen Retrospective Part IV: Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

"Well some folks are born into a good life
Other folks get it anyway, anyhow
Well now I lost my money and I lost my wife
Those things don't seem to matter much to me now
Tonight I'll be on that hill, 'cause I can't stop
I'll be on that hill with everything I got
Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost
I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town..."

Born to Run is the kind of album that could have destroyed a million lesser artists. Springsteen had just released something insanely vast and career defining, an album that became the soundtrack for the lives of countless fans and made Bruce a star; an "instant classic," so to speak. Who, having released something like that, something that could legitimately be heralded, not just as the album of the year, not just as the album of the decade, but one of the definitive albums of rock and roll, would not shrink away from recording the follow-up? It couldn't have been easy for Springsteen, who, coming off the grueling, make-or-break sessions for Born to Run, was finally rewarded with the success he'd been seeking for years. His record contract was safe, but he was now tasked with writing a follow-up to an album that was, quite possibly, impossible to top. Perhaps, then, it was a blessing in disguise what happened next.

Soon after the release of Born to Run, Springsteen was embroiled in a lawsuit with his former manager, Mike Appel, and was barred from recording in the studio for 18 straight months. This resulted in two things: the first was that Springsteen wrote an awful lot in that period of time. Though the album that came out of these sessions is a rather brief at ten songs, the songs that didn't make it to the final album could make up two albums of their own. All of these b-sides were released last year on a collection called The Promise (named after the set's defining cut). A few of them were given to other artists, like "Because the Night," which went on to be a big hit for Patti Smith, or "Fire," which was recorded by several artists before Springsteen released it as a part of the Live 1975-85 collection. The second consequence of the 18 month exile from the studio was that the material Springsteen wrote was a lot darker than most of the cuts that made up Born to Run. That album flowed with themes of youth, escapism and the American dream. By the time Darkness finally took form, it was essentially Born to Run from the other side of the tracks, about what happens when those dreams don't quite work out.

It's not all doom and gloom however, as Springsteen utilizes the "four corners" technique, the same idea that framed Born to Run, where each side opens with a hopeful anthem, but ends amid failure, regret and broken dreams. The opener here, "Badlands," is one of Springsteen's biggest rock songs, and was often used as the opener at shows on the legendary tour that followed this album's release (where shows often stretched on towards the four hour mark). Steve van Zandt's backing vocals make the song soar even higher, and establish him as a welcome presence on the record. "Poor men wanna be rich, rich me wanna be king," Springsteen declares emphatically, and for a moment it feels like Born to Run all over again, with a Big Man solo and all. And then, the darkness begins to appear. 

That first trace of the shadows appear on "Adam Raised a Cain," a harsh, hard hitting rocker that was (and probably still is) the loudest thing Springsteen had ever committed to tape. Anger permeates the song, and Springsteen's vocals sound almost unhinged, building to a big guitar solo and a chorus of gang vocals. The song sits in sharp contrast to the one that follows it, the hopeless ballad, "Something in the Night." Springsteen sounds broken, singing once more about escape, but this time around, it feels so different than it did on "Thunder Road" or "Born to Run." On those two tracks he sang with a sort of unbridled joy, naive and young and full of life; he sang about getting out of a town that was holding him down, getting to some place where life would be glorious again. Here, there's no hope of glory, and there's no joy. He's running away because he can't take the monotony of what his life has become any longer, because he's just looking for something to give his life meaning again. The last verse might be the most definitive of the album, except perhaps the above quote from the title track:

"When we found the things we loves,
They were crushed and dying in the dirt
We tried to pick up the pieces
And get away without getting hurt
But they caught us at the state line
And burned our cars in one last fight
Left us running, burned and blind
Chasing something in the night"

When Bruce sings those words, the band drops out, and he's left with nothing but a single drum to accompany him. It's one of the most haunting moments of any Springsteen album, a moment of clarity where everything just seems to hit twice as hard. This song, I think, is quite underrated. It's rarely played live, and never mentioned as one of this album's strongest tracks, but it's a personal favorite of mine. There have been nights where I've listened to this song, with the highway rushing by me, where everything else seemed to fade away. The way you can hear the narrator's hope evaporate as the song goes on is one of the most breathtaking facets of any song I've ever heard.

"Candy's Room" opens with a rush of symbols, a flourish of piano keys and spoken word vocals from Springsteen. It builds into one of the album's biggest songs, a catchy straight-up rock and roll tune that is a bit of anomaly on this record. The guitar solo breakdown halfway through is truly exhilerating, an Bruce's commanding vocals take the song out, leading flawlessly into the lone piano that starts "Racing in the Streets," a gorgeous piece of piano balladry that functions as an ode for all the broken dreams and missed opportunities that it's characters are nursing. Springsteen sings it with a resigned, monotonous tone that is unbelievably effective, letting the song's gorgeous melody do much of the work. The song, which is near-perfect in this version, was released in an alternate full band arrangement on The Promise that, while not necessarily better, is just as great, and takes the song in an interesting new direction. It's hard to fault the original though, with it's haunting piano melody and the mournful B3 organ line that takes it out. And as a side 1 closer, while not quite as powerful as the kick in the chest that was "Backstreets," it ends the first half of the album on a  resoundingly beautiful and thematic note.

Side 2 rockets off with "The Promised Land," another anthemic, uptempo number, with rousing guitar, harmonica and saxophone solos (Clemons doesn't appear half as much on this record as he did on Born to Run, but when he does, he's as golden as ever). Bruce sounds like a different person here than he did on "Racing," singing with renewed hope and vigor, advising his listeners to "blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted," and singing, in a declarative voice, "I believe in a promised land." The renewal doesn't last for long however, as we soon are brought back to reality where, for every dream of escape to that "promised land," there's someone who never got out of their hometown, like the working class character on "Factory." Springsteen has gone on record to say that the song is about his father, with whom he always had a strained relationship. That relationship would prove to be a defining inspiration to Springsteen throughout this part of his career, and this gorgeous, mid-tempo piano centered number is the first example of that. Just like "Night" did on the last record, "Factory" brought Bruce one step closer to being "the Boss." 

"Streets of Fire" opens with a duet between organ and voice on it's first verse before the full band explodes into context on the refrain. Roy Bittan's piano continues to define the record, as do Bruce's rousing guitar solos (the one that plays halfway through this song is especially thrilling), and Bruce offers one of his best vocal performances on the album, with rich, passionate delivery in the higher sections. The song, while not one of my favorite Springsteen cuts, works remarkably well in context. The same can be said for "Prove it All Night," a rousing rocker where the narrator shoots off sparks of rebellion, trying to live his life to it's fullest, even if it's not quite what he wanted it to be. When Clemons chimes in with a commanding solo, it's not hard to see why this one became a live staple. It was one of the few Darkness cuts I got to hear when I saw him live (the other being "Badlands"), and while it would not have been one of my first choices, it's undeniable that the song reaches a higher place in it's live format.

Springsteen often saves the best for last, and this album is no exception. This time, it's in the form of the title track, a flawless piece of mid-tempo rock and roll, with an unforgettable piano intro and bass line, that takes the album out in splendor. This song, in four and a half minutes, encompasses every theme and nuance of this album, brings the characters out for one last encore, and then fades away. It may not be as epic or as career-defining as "Jungleland" was, but rest assured, it functions in many of the same ways, and ends up being one of my all time favorite album closers because of that. The narrator seems, at last, to have resigned himself to the life he is living, and in the last verse, instead of running from the darkness, he embraces it. He's seen all the heartbreak and bad luck a man can take and he's got nothing left to lose, but somehow, the title track feels oddly uplifting, like perhaps our characters have finally realized that, even though they didn't escape this town or find the American dream, life still goes on, and there are still moments of beauty, even if the beauty is hidden somewhere in that darkness on the edge of town. It's what makes the closer arguably my favorite non-Born to Run Springsteen song.

Overall, despite the fact that Springsteen could never top Born to Run, he delivered what is very nearly the best possible follow-up. The only flaw I've ever seen in this album is that Bruce decided to leave "The Promise" off of it. That song epitomizes everything this album is about in one perfect ballad (it even references "Thunder Road" by name, to symbolize the regret and broken dreams this album is so good at describing). Since it was first released, in it's piano acoustic arrangement on the Tracks collection back in 1998 (an even greater full band version appears on last year's collection), it's became the definitive Bruce B-side (which is saying something, since this man has more B-sides than he has album tracks), known for it's beautiful, flowing melody and it's heartbreaking lyrics, lamenting a life that could have been. It would have functioned perfectly as a penultimate lead-in to the title track, but it's ultimately hard to fault an album as good as this one. As it stands, it's probably the second or third greatest collection of songs Springsteen ever put together, and for me, it's second only to Born to Run in personal importance. That album was undoubtedly the one that made me fall in love with Springsteen, the one that finally caught my ear and made me listen, but Darkness was the album that made me a true fan. The day after my revelatory first listen to Born to Run, Darkness was the album I chose to listen to next, thanks in part to it's appearance on a "recommended if you like..." section for the most recent Butch Walker album. I had to run some errands that day, and I put Darkness on. Right from the very first seconds of "Badlands," I was sold, and as I drove through my snow covered town that morning, listening to this record, I realized that I'd probably just embarked on one of the greatest musical journeys of my life. The fact that this album now sits in my all-time top ten is pretty rock-solid proof that I was right.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Bruce Springsteen Retrospective Part III: Born to Run (1975)

"The screen door slams, Mary's dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison's singing for the lonely
Hey that's me, and I want you only
Don't turn me home again, I just can't face myself alone again
Don't run back inside darling, you know just what I'm here for
So you're scared and you're thinking
That maybe we ain't that young anymore
Show a little faith, there's magic in the night
You ain't a beauty, but hey, you're alright
And that's alright with me"


If there's a more perfect opening stanza to any song ever, I'm sure I haven't heard it. "Thunder Road", the opening track from Bruce's 1975 magnum opus Born to Run might just be the greatest song ever written. It certainly was a new beginning for Springsteen, and as fate would have it, it was pretty much the beginning for me too. I spent two posts talking about records that I love, but that I only began to fully appreciate months after I had become a Springsteen fan. This record, that song, is what set all of that in motion, and it would be impossible for me to describe my monumental love for this album without telling the whole story, so this might be a long one.

My love of Bruce Springsteen has an interesting story, to say the least. Three years ago, I couldn’t have sung you a verse of a single song off Born to Run other than the title track. Today, it’s my favorite album of all time. That’s a testament to how quickly music tastes can change, but it also shows how the right music, the right artist at the right time can change your life in the blink of an eye: Springsteen hit me like that. I can only say that about one or two other artists in my entire vast library, so its nothing to laugh about. That kind of musical connection only comes along a few times in a lifetime. My love of the music of Bruce Springsteen was like lightning striking, completely by chance and by accident.

The story started a bit before Christmas 2008, when my family and I were in Chicago for my Uncle’s 50th birthday party. Due to some stroke of luck, we managed to miss the worst of some horrible winter weather that was hitting that part of the country at the time, and as we sat down at our assigned tables at the restaurant we'd rented for the occasion, I knew it would be a great night. I was sitting near my brother and my sister, as well as next to Ryan, one of my favorite cousins. Halfway song through dinner, the conversation turned towards music. Andrew was curious which I was thinking of performing at Rendezvous, the annual end-of-the-year pop showcase concert at my high school. I hadn't selected a song yet, so Andrew began throwing out recommendations of songs from some of our favorite acts: Butch Walker, Jimmy Eat World, Jack's Mannequin, even Billy Joel. For whatever reason, the one song that really stuck out to me was the only one I hadn't really considered myself: "Thunder Road", by Mr. Bruce Springsteen. "One of the best songs EVER," Andrew said.

I must admit, I wasn’t too familiar with Born to Run's opening track at the time. Of course I knew that next to "Born to Run", it was argued to be Springsteen’s best song, but beyond that, I could hardly recall the melody or anything about it other than a noteworthy piano and harmonica intro. However, my cousin Ryan, a huge Springsteen fan himself, backed it right up. Later that night, at my uncle’s house, a few of us sat around a table and Ryan told us about his experiences going to Springsteen shows. Suddenly my “musically knowledgeable” self felt completely unaware. I made a note to self that I would check out a bunch of Springsteen's records as soon as possible, and since it was Christmas break, that left a lot of time open to do so. In many ways that I would never have predicted, that night really did change my life.

The next day, the weather caught up with us: the temperatures were the coldest I'd ever experienced, and it was pretty much a white-out outside. The drive home was hell: it took us several hours longer than it should have and consisted of road closings (due to car pile-ups, of all things) and practically blind driving. But I was just about as oblivious as I could be to all that, because I was busy educating myself about Springsteen for pretty much the entire journey home. A number of Springsteen's albums had made their way from my parent's CD collection onto my iPod, among them Born to Run, so I put my headphones on, and finally gave it the full and undistracted listen it deserved. And as I listened to "Thunder Road", really listened, something just clicked: the piano, the harmonica, the soaring vocals and the gorgeous lyrics all hit me at the same time, and when it ended, I had the distinct feeling that I'd just made my biggest musical discovery since 2005 had brought me Butch Walker. I'd found my Rendezvous song: I'd also found my favorite song of all time, though I didn't know it yet.

When it comes to Born to Run, the story is almost as well known as the songs. Springsteen was coming off two records that hadn't reached the level of mainstream success the record label had hoped for, and he was in danger of being dropped. Record #3 was his last chance, and the recording sessions were a classic all-in, make-or-break, nothing left to lose affair. The songs were ambitious, the recording ridiculously meticulous, and the studio bills quickly became astronomical. It could have been one of the biggest disasters in the history of recorded music. In actuality, it was the greatest record since the inception of rock and roll.

On Born to Run, Springsteen threw away everything that defined the first two records: gone was the muddy production, gone, for the most part, were the huge cinematic songs, and gone was the Dylan worship. Born to Run is big and anthemic, concise and flawlessly sequenced. The jazz and folk influences that filled the first two records are replaced here by classic rock and pop music references. Dylan is replaced by Roy Orbison, the jazz elements by classic pop production in the vein of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. And while these songs are still life changing when heard live (and I'm happy to say that I've heard them all live, in context, but that's another story entirely), there is no doubt that Born to Run is a massive studio triumph, full of moments that could never sound as good as they do right here, on this record.

In his book Runaway Dream, Louis P. Masur sets out to "tell the thematic story of Springsteen's American vision that begins on Born to Run with a piercing harmonica and a screen door slamming." That opening is "Thunder Road", which to date stands as Springsteen's greatest lyrical triumph. It's a tour-de-force of a song, and Springsteen sounds reborn, singing with such power and range that less experienced fans might not even recognize him as the guy who made those first two records. I won't waste space quoting more lines, but rest assured that almost every line in the song is quotable, filled with the kind of poetic beauty that only really Dylan was writing with at the time (and which virtually no one seems to be writing with today). And when the song finally crashes into its outro, a massive Sax solo by Clarence Clemons, it's hard not to just hit repeat. Anyone who'd ever written Bruce off before this record, anyone who'd ever doubted his potential, was silenced over the course of five flawless minutes of rock and roll. It was an instant classic back then; it's still one of the five greatest songs in history. That song alone would probably have saved Springsteen from all his record label woes, but it's only the beginning.

"Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," the next track, is the point of many Springsteen concerts where the band is introduced, and it's easy to see why: the song is a feature, a perfect opportunity to show off the massive talent in the E-Street band. The song essentially tells the story of how the band came to form, and suggests that "when a change was made up town and the Big Man joined the band," it was the dividing line, the moment where the band gained the secret weapon that would be able to rocket it into superstardom. Clemons, who dominates this record as much as Bruce does (as evidenced by his appearance on the cover, where the Boss leans on him with a brotherly affection and dependence) has another shining moment here, and it's unlikely, in light of his recent death, that the song will ever appear in another setlist, even if the E-Street band does tour again, and even if they bring on a new saxophonist to carry some of Clarence's weight; this song belongs to him, and always will. Steve Van Zandt, who'd become a full time member of the E-Street band after this record (on guitar), delivers his biggest contribution to the record with a celebratory horn arrangement. 

"Night" opens with an atomic surge (again, courtesy of Clemons) and builds into an anthemic song where Bruce essentially becomes "the Boss." "Night" is a song about escaping the oppressive monotony of the 9-5 workday, and making the most of the night that follows, going out and living life to its fullest before it all starts over again in the morning. The lyrical style, written from the point of view of a working everyman, would become a Springsteen cornerstone, and would earn him his famous nickname.

"Backstreets," which closes the first side, is the record's second masterpiece. Opening with a sweeping virtuoso piano solo from Roy Bittan, the song goes on for over two minutes before Springsteen delivers the first line: "one soft-infested summer, me and Terry became friends/Tryin' in vain to breathe the fire we was born in." The song tells the tale of their friendship, recalling the good times ("Remember all the movies, Terry, we'd go see?/Trying to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to"), before revealing that the whole thing came crashing down in one of Springsteen's most emotional vocal moments ever.

"Blame it on the lies that killed us
Blame it on the truth that ran us down
You can blame it all on me, Terry, It don't matter to me now 
When the breakdown hit at midnight, there was nothing left to say 
But I hated him and I hated you when you went away..."

The entire song builds to this massive, emotionally cathartic moment, and when it finally hits, it's one of the most breathtaking moments of a perfect album. "Backstreets" wasn't one of my favorites at first, but it grew on me every time I heard it, until it finally hit home. It's the album's most heartbreaking track, from the mournful piano opening, to Springsteen's yearning and nostalgic lyrics, and finally, to this climactic moment. "We swore forever friends," Springsteen sings at the end, sounding tired and regretful. "On the backstreets, until the end."

The legendary title track kicks off the second side, and what a triumphant opening it is. If there's a bigger anthem in anyone's discography, I surely haven't heard it. The iconic guitar riff heralds the arrival of the track, while Ernest "boom" Carter, on his last appearance with the E-Street band, delivers a massive flurry of drums that current E-Street drummer Max Weinberg has said he's never been quite able to duplicate. The guitar line was reportedly overdubbed dozens of times, and the oft told story of this song's recording sessions, of how many tracks they used to record the whole thing, and of the mammoth amount of studio time it ate up (recording engineer Jimmy Iovine apparently had to hide the studio bills from the record company), has become almost mythical since this album's release. 

Bruce and his band poured everything they had into this track, and the result, though not the best (or second best) track on this masterpiece of a record, is the grandest rock and roll anthem of all time. The themes, of love, escape and of the American dream, mirror those that already appeared on "Thunder Road," and the iconic lyrics here nearly match those on that poetic masterpiece. "I wanna die with you, Wendy, on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss," he sings halfway through, with such conviction that it's hard to think of a more romantic lyric in the history of rock and roll. Clarence's sax solo weaves and dodges through the song's melodic motif, establishing him again as a virtuoso player, and when the song finally explodes into it's bridge, it hits with such sublime, honest emotional force that any first time listener will be made a believer, instantly. Even before I was a big Springsteen fan, this song spoke to me, and it continues to do so, seven or eight years later. I'm not sure a frontman has ever sounded so immortal. And the song's definitive lyric, "I wanna know if love is real," is a question that has gone on to permeate through much of Springsteen's work.

"Shes the One" opens with an instantly memorable and somehow familiar piano line, before ushering in Bruce's mysterious vocal.  The song builds into a bombastic arrangement, with a thunderous rhythm section and Roy Bittan's piano line continuing to dominate the sound while Springsteen sings lyrics about an almost mythical woman who seems just out of his reach. The song feels almost like a surreal dream of sorts in it's crescendo, eventually building to another Clarence solo and a full band breakdown. 

"Meeting Across the River" follows seamlessly, opening with a distant trumpet line that eventually gives way to a gorgeous piano and Springsteen's subdued, yet forceful vocals. The song's lyrics represent one side of a conversation between Bruce's character and a guy named Eddie, who he's trying to convince to help him pull off a robbery. He's down on his luck, and he hangs all his hopes on this one chance: that the job will go off without a hitch, and that the cash he's going to steal will save his relationship and set his life on the right track. As the song fades into the album's closer, it's pretty clear that things aren't going to go as planned. "Meeting Across the River" is often dubbed the album's weakest track, and is most certainly the least discussed (and the least performed live), but as a piece of storyline, a subdued penultimate moment, and a lead-in to one of the most epic tracks in all of rock and roll, it functions wonderfully, and is merely one of eight perfect tracks on display here.

The aforementioned closing epic, "Jungleland," is so indescribably grand that the only way to truly understand it is so sit down, close your eyes, and listen to it at full volume. There's so much to experience here: the scenic violin opening; Roy Bittan's shimmering piano lead; Bruce's fantastically evocative lyrics; the organ that barges in after the first singing of the line "down in Jungleland"; the rousing guitar solo halfway through;  Clemons most iconic sax solo in the catalog--maybe the greatest and most moving two minutes in the history of recorded media; the comedown after the solo, and the way Bruce's vocal delivery shifts from the grand opening sections to fit the emotionally broken closing ones; and then the build-up over the final minutes, as Bruce wails wordlessly over Bittan's furious piano playing. "Jungleland" has so many defining and visceral moments that I could easily wax poetic about it for a dozen pages. 

In his sax solo, Clemons is able to communicate more than any words ever could, everything from love to triumph to overwhelming tragedy, and that's why it still gives me chills, even to this day. I've heard people say it saved their lives; it certainly changed mine. This song, and that moment in particular, has given me an anchor to cling to so many times, from the day I graduated from high school, to the day my first dog died, to inspiring me in moments where I felt like I'd lost sight of why music was so important to me. And on the night that Clarence Clemons passed away, I listened to the song on repeat for an hour and a half, and that sax solo, Clarence's most shining moment in a career full of shining moments, brought tears to my eyes. This year, we lost one of the greatest forces in the history of rock and roll. At the U2 concert I went to this past summer, Bono described Clarence's playing as a "force of nature," and never is that force more papable than it is on this indescribably flawless song; never have ten minutes felt shorter.

Over the course of my senior year, Born to Run came to define me more than any other album ever had, and probably more than any ever will. Its themes of growing up and escape, of the optimism and triumph of the American dream (with a bit of fear thrown in for good measure), fit so well with everything I was feeling as I approached my high school graduation. "Thunder Road" was my Rendezvous song and I wanted "Born to Run" as my class song. I wanted to share the way I felt about this record with everyone: it was in constant rotation in my car, where I belted the songs at the top of my lungs and played the crashing finale of "Jungleland" at full volume, for every other car on the road to hear and be jealous of. Throughout that spring, every song, every lyric, every guitar or piano line and every sax solo came to mean something huge to me. 

As the years have gone by, Born to Run has continued to grow and change with me, and every single time I put it on, I still feel the same way about it. It still feels like that first morning, on that snowblind car ride where I listened to "Thunder Road" on Andrew's recommendation and it finally clicked: like every single door in my mind is being blown off its hinges. This is an album I'll listen to forever, but I think it will always bring me back to my senior year, the time period that it came to define, and one I'm so glad it did. The fact that I was performing "Thunder Road" at my final concert of high school was only part of it. On my drive to graduation, it was this album that provided soundtrack, while moments of the past four years, good and bad, flashed before my eyes, brought on by a lyric or a melody. I was about to close the book on a huge chapter of my life, and Springsteen's vision of the American dream got the honor of being the coda. It's hard to explain, but listening to this record that morning made me feel more alive than I ever had before. It still does.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"It's days like these that keep me on my winning streak."

Butch Walker & The Black Widows
Live at the Magic Bag
Ferndale, MI, 10/14/11

 There was a moment sometime last fall when I began to wonder if Butch Walker, one of my two musical Gods and one of the guys who I've followed for ages, was past his prime. He'd released I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart (his weakest record, by miles) earlier that year, and I'd seen him live for two phenomenal nights that May, but since then, Butch's record had fallen out of my regular rotation, replaced by any number of last year's great albums, and the live shows, as unbelievably unforgettable as they were, were merely memories. For the first time since I'd become a fan, Butch did not claim my album of the year title (though he still clung to my number three spot, a position he might not still possess if I re-assessed the list now), and I was wondering if Butch would ever write a record as emotionally moving as Letters or Sycamore Meadows, or as much fun as The Rise & Fall or Left of Self-Centered.

Fast forward a year, and Butch is as safe and sound at the top of my favorite artists list as he's ever been. On the tails of a terrific rock and roll record (The Spade, which just gets better with every listen), he's on tour again with his band, the Black Widows, and last Friday night, he returned to the Magic Bag in Ferndale, Michigan for his third consecutive tour.  Ever since I first saw him (back in August of 2006, also my first live show ever), I've always thought of Butch as the benchmark against which live shows should be measured: the energy, emotion, and charisma he puts into every show make some of my very favorite bands (Jimmy Eat World, Third Eye Blind) look almost amateurish in comparison. If you go to a Butch Walker show, whether you're a die-hard fan or a newcomer, whether you get all of your setlist wishes or none of them (I was probably closer to the latter, on that one), you are guaranteed to have a great time. I've heard stories of people who'd never heard of him leaving his shows as converts, as fans that will come back to see him time and time again, and that's one of the coolest parts of a Butch Walker show: his fanbase is small, but extremely loyal, and my brother and I recognized more than a few faces in the audience on Friday night.

Butch has always done a pretty good job with the acts he chooses to bring on the road with him. At my first show, it was a dual opening of As Fast As (a terrific, glammed up rock group that has sadly disappeared) and Boys Like Girls (a pop-rock outfit that became pretty famous a year or two later). The second time, the openers were the Films, another glammy group, half of whose members make an appearance on this tour as well, one as a Black Widow (bassist Jake Sinclair, though he played every instrument at some point in the set), the other as part of an opening band. Last year, Locksley, a Beatles pop-esque group opened. This time around, Butch let his band members (all of whom have their own projects outside of the band) warm up the crowd. After three of these, Shovels and Rope, a country-rock project consisting of Films lead singer Michael Trent, who's helped Butch write songs on these past two albums, and Cary Ann Hearst, a wailing country singer. The two traded off on vocals, guitar and percussion, and played an entertaining (if a bit overlong) set, converting many in their hour of playtime, judging by how many albums it looked like they were selling at the merch table after the show. 

It was 10:30pm by the time Butch finally sauntered out and began to sing "Cigarette Lighter Love Song," the last song his previous band, the Marvelous 3, ever recorded or performed together, almost completely a cappella. I've heard this song live two or three times, once where the full band came in near the end, and once where Butch delivered the whole thing from the piano, but this performance might have been the most stunning of all, offering a perfect showcase for Walker's vocal talents and emotional performing spark. He sat down behind the piano to finish the song, and then bantered with the crowd for a few minutes before launching into a pair of Sycamore Meadows cuts, "Passed Your Place" and "Atlanta." While I preferred when Walker's piano set (a live show staple, usually consisting of two or three songs) was near the end of the show, these songs both sound terrific live, though my brother and I are in agreement that both of them should be retired for awhile, since he opened the show in a similar manner on the past two tours. Complaints were silenced immediately though, as Walker got up and grabbed his acoustic guitar. "Freebird!," someone shouted from the crowd (because it's not a live show without that request), and Butch actually began to play it, before cycling through a few well known songs from Detroit-hailing artists, a perfect example of Butch's ability to take control of a live venue quickly, and to never let it go. 

Butch strummed the first chords of another Marvelous 3 song, "Every Monday," which immediately earned a big roar of approval from the crowd. Not every person in the venue was familiar with the music of Walker's former band, but the die hards in the front (where my brother and I were positioned), were ecstatic, and sang every word of the song while Walker sat down on the stage, playing his guitar with a huge grin on his face as the audience sang a song he wrote over 12 years ago. It was the same routine with "Grant Park," a gem from Marvelous 3's 2000 record, Readysexgo!, which Butch led from the microphone, jumping in to sing the bridge and the last verse. "I might as well play some old stuff now, since they don't know it!" he said, referring to the band, who had yet to take the stage. "Race Cars and Goth Rock" and "Going Back/Going Home" followed in their acoustic arrangements. Both are songs I've seen him play several times before, but both are among his best, and are welcome additions to the live set. Walker's solo acoustic/piano sets are so good that I would have been fine if he'd played the entire show by himself, but soon, the Widows took the stage (accompanied by the music from their ridiculous Spade promo video) and launched into "Summer of '89," whose huge "woah-oh" hook and catchy, singalong chorus, immediately made it the highlight of the night.

"Pretty Melody" and "She Likes Hair Bands" offered tonight's only foray into the Black Widow's last record, as the set very clearly revolved around material from The Spade, from which the band played nine of the ten tracks (leaving out "Bullet Belt," which was the one I most wanted to hear and probably Walker's most obvious live showstopper ever, but alas...) The band played a snippet of "Come On, Eileen" in the middle of "Synthesizers" (I called the song a rewrite of that 80's hit in my original review of the record, so this made me chuckle), while rhythm guitarist Chris Unck joined Walker at center stage for "Every Single Body Else," a song he co-wrote. Lead guitarist Fran Capitanelli delivered scorching guitar lines all over "Bodegas & Blood" and "Sweethearts," the two songs on the record he earned songwriting credits for, before Walker played an acoustic guitar lead in for the gorgeous country-folk ballad that is "Closest Thing to You I'm Gonna Find," another highlight of the night. The band clustered around a single mic to delivered a gloriously harmonized version of "Dublin Crow," an Irish folk-esque tune, and the formation recalled an Irish street performance. These two tracks, which, along with "Summer of '89," are the only songs from The Spade which Walker earns sole writing credit for, but those three are easily among the best, both on the album and in the live show, and support my thought that, as cool as it is to make a true full band album again, he's still better when left to his own devices.

  Butch delivered one of his most emotional performances of the night on "Day Drunk," a deceptively upbeat track that he wrote for his ailing father, singing about how nothing in life lasts forever. It's a track I've liked since the first time I heard it, but one that only really hit me when I saw Walker sang it live. An extremely familiar guitar intro heralded the arrival of main set closer "Best Thing You Never Had," the one song Walker has played every single time I've seen him live, and always at this place in the set. As has become customary, the band members traded off the vocal line until the bridge, where Walker takes command. Throughout the song's tremendously emotional build, Walker delivered his trademark performance of the song, jumping all over the stage, wailing the song's cathartic climax at the top of his lung, climbing on top the drum set and abusing the hell out of his guitar, breaking all the strings and letting it fall to the floor for the song's closing bars. This song has always been absurdly over the top, to the point of being almost ridiculous, but after seeing it half a dozen times, I think I'm ready for Butch to retire it for awhile (preferably in favor of "Bullet Belt.") Still, for a first time concertgoer, I'm sure the performance is as exciting and as viscerally moving as it was for me the first time I heard it. Watching him wail the refrain of "you never had" towards the end of the song has always been a highlight of the Butch Walker live experience for me. Sometimes, the whole thing feels like a big show, like Walker is engaging in sheer theatricality for the hell of it, but during that segment of the song, I always have felt like it was purely emotional, like Walker could still get to the emotional core of this song, to the place he was when he wrote it, every single night like nothing else he's ever written, and if that's true for the whole song, then he has no reason to retire it. 
Walker returned to the stage moments later with a different acoustic guitar (since he completely decimated the other one during "Best Thing") and quickly strummed the opening chords to "Closer to the Truth and Further From the Sky." The song, which used to be the full band entrance in the first part of the show, works even better near the end, closer to its roots as a penultimate track (one of the best in that function I've ever heard). "3 Kids in Brooklyn," another track from Sycamore Meadows, has become a live staple, and I'm quite fine with that, as it's one of the most fun rock songs in Walker's entire catalog, while "Suckerpunch," the closing track from The Spade, became both the set closer and the trademark song for Butch's foray into the audience, a role previously filled by "Hot Girls in Good Moods" and "Lights Out. Butch leaped off the stage, grabbed my shoulder to steady himself, and then made his way further into the audience for a game of call and response, with a small snippet of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" thrown in for good measure ("Bigger than any song I did here tonight, for sure. God dammit! That bitch is good!" he exclaimed). He came back and sang a few lines right between my brother and I before returning to the stage for one last guitar duel with Fran to close out the song, and the show. "When the Canyons Ruled the City" was on the setlist, but was not played, leaving both The Rise and Fall and Left of Self-Centered entirely unrepresented in the set.

By the time my brother and I finally made it back to our car, it was 12:40 in the morning (we had a 2+ hour drive back to his place in front of us, but we're not going to talk about that). I was tired, physically, mentally, and vocally, from singing along with every single word, but I didn't regret a minute of it. "I don't know how the hell he does that every night..." my brother remarked, and he's right; this guy gives his heart, body and soul to every minute of every show he ever does, playing rock and roll, drinking onstage, and just partying with his audience into the early hours of the morning, and then gets up the next day and does it all over again. And yet, every time I see him, he sings better and sounds more completely involved in his songs than any other artist I've ever seen live, with the possible exception of Mr. Bruce Springsteen himself. If there's a better act still touring the club circuit, I don't know who they are. This guy is a God onstage, he treats his fans well, and his entire band plays like they've been together (and been best friends) for years. Everything about his show has been a thoroughly unforgettable experience each time I've seen him, and Friday night, whether I was hearing songs I've loved for years or soon-to-be fan favorites from The Spade, I was always having a ball. With probably the best show I've seen this year (even next to U2, which was an amazing experience as well) and the current number two slot on my album of the year list, I can rest easy knowing the Butch Walker still is (and probably always will be) my favorite artist of all time, and I'll keep going to see him live as long as he continues to tour. I just hope that's going to be for a long, long time.


1. Cigarette Lighter Love Song
2. Passed Your Place, Saw Your Car, Thought of You
3. Atlanta
4. Every Monday
5. Grant Park
6. Race Cars & Goth Rock
7. Going Back/Going Home
8. Summer of ‘89
9. Pretty Melody
10. She Likes Hair Bands
12. Synthesizers
13. Every Single Body Else
14. Bodegas & Blood
15. Sweethearts
16. Closest Thing to You I’m Gonna Find
17. Dublin Crow
18. Day Drunk
19. Best Thing You Never Had


20. Closer to the Truth and Further From the Sky
21. 3 Kids in Brooklyn
22. Suckerpunch

Friday, October 14, 2011

My Butch Walker live set wishlist

Tonight, my brother and I will be making our way towards the Magic Bag in Ferndale to see Butch Walker and his band the Black Widows on their latest tour, which is in support of his recently released record, The Spade. I believe this is show number 9 for my brother Andrew, who saw him when he did his "full album residency" in Chicago (alas, those dates for 21+, and I couldn't have gone), but for me, tonight is the sixth time I'll be seeing Butch rock the house (and the third time at this particular venue), and I'm counting the hours until he takes the stage this evening. In honor of my sixth live Butch experience, and, considering that he just dropped his sixth full length solo album, I'm going to offer my wishlist of sorts for the setlist this evening: the song(s) off each record that I most hope he plays tonight.

Note: I didn't include Marvelous 3 material, since I don't ever really expect him to pull any of that stuff out, and if he does, it's just a bonus. That said, "Cigarette Lighter Love Song" is always welcome to a setlist, and nearly anything off of Hey! Album or Readysexgo! would be awesome.

1. Left of Self-Centered (2002) - "My Way"

Self-Centered is the only record that has been left almost completely unrepresented in most of the shows I've seen. From it, I've only heard "Far Away From Close" and the acoustic version of "Diary," which I've never understood, because this record is full of the kind of big rock and power pop songs that could make up a killer live set, almost by themselves. It's hard for me to pick a single track from here, as the more subdued material ("If," "Take Tomorrow") is among my favorite stuff he's done, but I don't think anything would make me cheer louder than hearing the opening "woah-oh" chorus of this song in a live setting, preferably as a set opener (hell, he could even do an updated version of "Rock Vocal Power"). The huge sing along chorus would be a big crowd-pleaser as well, so I can't imagine why he never pulls this one out, but I'm certain most would welcome it.

Runner(s)-up: "Suburbia," who's ridiculous lyrics would be a blast to scream along to with a hundred other Butch fans, or "Sober," either in full band or in it's piano acoustic format, which I missed out on when he toured in 2007.

2. Letters (2004) - "Stateline"

I've been pretty lucky when it comes to Butch shows, considering that Letters is my favorite record of his, and it seems to be his favorite as well, since he routinely plays roughly half of the material on this album, and some of the songs ("Best Thing") are staples that make an appearance in every setlist. That said, the hidden track (and arguable highlight) "Stateline" never gets enough attention. I also missed out on this one during his 2007 tour, but that was a mostly full band arrangement, and if he's going to play it, then he has to play it acoustic, because there's no other format in which this song really soars like it does with just Butch and his acoustic guitar. The live videos I've seen of this from back around the Letters-era are some of the best Butch live videos out there, and I'd love to experience it. 

Runner(s)-up: Though technically a b-side, the full version of "Sunny Day" would be an unforgettable inclusion. And I'll never say no to "Don't Move" or "Joan," though I've seen them both a few times. Also, "Lights Out" needs to be brought back as the "journey into the audience" song during the encore.

3. The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let's-Go-Out-Tonites! (2006) - "Rich People Die Unhappy"

The first time I saw Butch play a live show, it was in support of this all out party of a record, and that live set almost literally set the place on fire (it was well over 100 degrees inside the club). "Rich People" was one of the only songs not to make an appearance on that setlist, but I think that the song, with it's clever lyrics and alt-country texture, could really provide a nice moment somewhere in the middle of a setlist. That song has some of my favorite Butch lyrics, but I feel like it's been somewhat forgotten (this album kind of has in general), and it would be great to see him bring it back.

Runner(s)-up: "This Is The Sweetest Little Song," which could function perfectly as the ballad before he launches into "Best Thing" to close the main set, "Paid to Get Excited," a scorching rocker that I'm pretty sure he'll never play again, or "Dominoes," which I've seen him play once, but was one of the most stunning moments of any live show I've ever seen.

4. Sycamore Meadows (2008) - "Summer Scarves"

Sycamore Meadows is the only Butch album that I've seen all of my favorite songs off of, so this is kind of a "what's left?" pick, even though I really do like this song. "Summer Scarves" has a kind of epic sweep to it that I think could sound really great in a live setting. When he premiered the song in Atlanta a few years ago, the song was in a higher key, so it sounded even more raw and emotional, and I wouldn't mind seeing him do it in that key, though I think the chances of that ever happening are quite slim.

Runner(s)-up: "A Song For the Metalheads," with it's sarcasm drenched lyrics about the music industry (which still ring very true), would a riotously fun number to see live, and could kind of function in the same "Races Cars" from Letters does when he plays that. And I'd love to see "Ships in a Bottle" in it's original acoustic arrangement, which I still think is superior to the album take. And "3 Kids" might be one of the best live songs in his collection, so it's always welcome.

5. I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart (2010) - "Days/Months/Years"

My only problem with the last set of Butch shows I saw was the Butch didn't play enough off of his latest album, and this ridiculously fun, bizarre Johnny Cash-referencing, blues number was the worst exclusion, as this is the kind of song made to be performed live. Since it sort of fits with the spirit of his latest album, I have my fingers crossed that he'll pull it out tonight, but I'm not really holding my breath: this is destined to become a deep cut.

Runner(s)-up: My favorite track from the record, "Don't You Think Someone Should Take You Home," sounded gorgeous on the live bootleg I heard from one of his full album residencies, and I think could be truly stunning, more subdued moment in a Butch set, especially with aid from Chris Unck's lap steel guitar. "Be Good Until Then" could function similarly.

6. The Spade (2011) - "Bullet Belt"

I said in my review of this record that this is the kind of song that's made to "set fire to a small club," and I sand by what I said, as this might be the most obvious live showstopper he's ever written. Somewhere near the end of the main set (or closing the encore) would be ideal, but as long as I get to see Butch and the Black Widows tear this song apart tonight, I'll be a happy man.

Runner(s)-up: I'd love to see just about anything from this record, but the one two punch of "Dublin Crow" and "Closest Thing To You I'm Gonna Find" would make for a dynamite little folk section, and I'm pretty sure "Suckerpunch" would be an absolute riot live.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"The restless dream we left behind."

 Jack's Mannequin - People And Things
Sire Records, 2011
Four stars

The last time Andrew McMahon released a record, it was the first new music he'd made since he'd been diagnosed with leukemia (and beaten it). That record, called The Glass Passenger and released in 2008, was his statement: an emotional, powerful set of songs from a guy who'd gotten a new lease on life, and I loved it from my first listen. As the years have gone on, I've recognized a few things I would change about that record: it's inconsistent, both in quality and mood, and the slew of b-sides from those sessions, released on a series of EPs (The Ghost Overground, In Valleys and Dear Jack) suggested that McMahon had a much better record on his hands than the one he released. McMahon took a lot of chances on that record though, writing songs that were completely different from everything he'd ever released, ranging from an ambitious symphony of a pop song ("Caves"), edgier rock than he'd written since the early Something Corporate days ("Bloodshot"), or a clever twist on his usual piano balladry ("Orphans"). Sometimes though, the risks didn't pay off, like on the big rock song "Suicide Blonde," which should have been left as a b-side, or the amalgamation of songs that was "American Love" (McMahon wrote that song by combining a bunch of different leftover lyrics that never fit into other songs), which remains my least favorite McMahon song released to date. Both of those tracks should have been left off in favor of some of that album's b-sides, like the infectious "Doris Day" (which would have been one of the three or four best tracks on that record), the acoustic "At Full Speed," or any of the tracks from the Dear Jack EP, all of which dealt with Andrew's cancer directly. With a few key track exchanges, The Glass Passenger could have been one of my favorite albums of all time. As is, it's still a very good album with a handful of the best tracks McMahon has ever written; a flawed near-masterpiece that was more than a worthy follow-up to Everything in Transit, which remains a top five all time album for me.

Jack's Mannequin's third record, entitled People And Things, dropped last week, and has been one of my most anticipated records for this entire year. Lead single "My Racing Thoughts," an extremely catchy pop song that finds a middle ground between the slick power pop of Transit and the more folk inspired sound of Passenger, only boosted my expectations. For the most part, People And Things is a contrast to The Glass Passenger in that it is a very safe album. It's sound generally plays things very close to where he was musically on the last record's more straightforward cuts, delivering quick, snappy pop songs (no track on the album cross the 4.5 minute mark) or folky, roots-rock tinged numbers (McMahon clearly spent a fair amount of time with his Tom Petty records while making this album). Gone is the adventurous spirit of The Glass Passenger, and while that arguably makes for a more cohesive and consistent record, it also makes for a decidedly less involving one. There are no climactic two-part songs on this record, no really striking or chilling moments, which McMahon seemed to deliver on half the tracks on Passenger (how could he not, given the circumstances?), but the hooks also lack the same infectious quality that the songs on Transit had. That album had at least half a dozen perfect pop choruses, hooks that latched themselves onto your brain after a single listen. While this record tries to find middle ground between Andrew's last two records, and does so admirably, it also ends up being undoubtedly the weakest of the three.

The weird thing is, that doesn't even disappoint me. Andrew has never released a record I didn't love, and this one is no exception to that rule. Straight out of the gate, it delivers four killer songs. The extremely catchy "Racing Thoughts" is the lead-off, and is right in line with the way McMahon has opened each of his albums: anthemic tracks that promise great things to come. "Release Me" is a glorious pop-rocker, while "Television" is a gorgeous, slightly more subdued moment, but has a kind of epic sweep to it that is nothing short of addicting. Pre-release track "Amy, I" sounded better in it's live setting than it does on record, and it's big hook might actually be it's weak point next to the verses, but it's still a solid pop song. "Hey, Hey, Hey (We're All Gonna Die)" and "Platform Fire" were both written around the time of The Glass Passenger's release, and live videos of both have been floating around the internet for several years now. The latter is a big Something Corporate-esque pop song (think North) that falls just short of great, while "Hey, Hey, Hey" sounds so much like a Passenger b-side (that album's title actually comes from the verses) that it's presence on this album ends up feeling a bit jarring. It's the weakest track here, in my opinion, but many will love it's big, shout along chorus, and the verses are gorgeous, both musically and lyrically.

With "People, Running," the album transitions to it's second, stronger half. The song is one of the album's finest, a mid-tempo rocker with a bright hook and fantastic lyrics that could have fit on Everything in Transit. Album highlight "Amelia Jean" is a gorgeous piano driven number that showcases Andrew's folk/Americana influence on this album, and sports one of the album's most instantly memorable and highest soaring choruses, drawing a great vocal from McMahon: this is the kind of song that made me fall in love with Andrew's music in the first place. "Hostage" is just as good, and is one of the biggest and purest pop songs Andrew has ever recorded. He gives one of his best vocal performances to date on this song, belting out the pitch perfect chorus with gorgeous tone. His voice on these past two records has changed notably from the higher, brighter tone he employed on Everything in Transit, and whether that has to do with production, the songwriters he's emulating or actual vocal changes is hard to gauge, but it draws a clear dividing line between these past two records and the first. While I miss the more power pop driven sound, it's hard to fault his vocals on this record, especially on songs as good as "Hostage" or "Restless Dream," an acoustic guitar driven song that qualifies as the album's only true ballad. Singer/songwriter Brandi Carlisle adds a nice dimension with her light, sensitive backing vocals, accenting the song's thoughtful lyrics (some of Andrew's best), while the cello accompaniment near the end is exquisite. 

The climactic "Casting Lines" ends the album on a hopeful note, but is over far too soon for my taste, as it's one of the album's three or four strongest compositions. That, however, is my main complaint with People And Things: it's just a hair safer and a hair shorter than it should be. The handful of b-sides that Andrew released on the iTunes deluxe edition reveal that this brevity was in no way due to a lack of solid material, as any of those four tracks could have easily found a place on this album. The Something Corporate-esque piano ballad, "No Man Is An Island," would have been especially welcome, as this album's lack of a signature Andrew McMahon piano ballad is one of it's biggest weaknesses. This is, after all, the guy who wrote such classics as "Konstantine," "Cavanaugh Park" and "Rescued," so the lack of another possible addition to that pantheon of greats is disappointing. Other than that though, it's hard to fault People And Things for much: it's a great pop album with a bit of a folk/rock flavor, and the fact that it falls a little bit short of McMahon's previous work is still no reason for me to not completely love it. I'm just hoping that next time out, McMahon takes a few more risks: I think he still has another classic in him, and I'm willing to wait around for awhile to hear it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"Life was just happening..."

Switchfoot - Vice Verses
lowercase people records, 2011
Four stars

It's a funny thing: I never think of Switchfoot as one of my favorite bands, and I never anticipate their new releases with the excitement that I await so many of my favorite albums every year, and yet, they're undeniably one of the four or five bands that really got me into music in the first place, and every single record they put out is still getting played by me years later. I bought The Beautiful Letdown at K-Mart on an impulse buy based on how much I liked "Meant to Live" and especially "Dare You To Move" (still one of my favorite radio singles of the 00s). It was probably the 6th or 7th album in my collection, and quickly became one of my favorites. It had the singles, some great mid-tempo rockers ("This Is Your Life," "Gone"), some chilled out jams, destined for my summer soundtrack ("The Beautiful Letdown") and a pair of ballads that I played over and over again ("On Fire" and "Twenty Four"). Throughout my musically formative months that made up the fall of 2004, I discovered a handful of new artists and albums that are still among my favorites today, but The Beautiful Letdown held over from that summer, continuing to make a strong impression on me every single time I listened.

When the band dropped the follow-up, Nothing is Sound, in the fall of 2006, it became for that season what The Beautiful Letdown was two years earlier. I still consider that record to be their best: a terrific collection of songs from start to finish, free of a single misstep, and full of the kind of catchy mid-tempo rock and heartfelt balladry that the band had carved out for themselves on it's predecessor. The next record, entitled Oh! Gravity, never hit me the way the previous two had, and caused the band to fall off my radar until lead singer Jon Foreman released a terrific set of acoustic EPs (one for each season) in 2007 and 2008. Looking back, Oh! Gravity is as classic a Switchfoot record as either of the others, albeit a little less accessible on initial listen. Their 2009 release, Hello Hurricane, dropped halfway through my first semester of college, and reminded me why I loved this band in the first place: their sound was comfortable, like an old friend, their songs were almost always something I could relate to, and the hooks were often irresistible.

The problem I had with Hello Hurricane, which kept it from being near the top of my end of the year list, was that it had flow and consistency issues. The band seemed to have developed a desire to write more aggressive rockers, and those parts of the album ("The Sound," "Mess of Me" and "Bullet Soul"), ended up boring me a bit, and felt a bit jarring next to the gentler material. It was a shame too, since that album had possibly the best track in the band's discography to that point: the anthemic, U2-esque opener, "Needle In Haystack Life," which was easily one of the five best songs of that year.

Two years later, Switchfoot is back with Vice Verses, which they've made pretty clear is supposed to be "the best thing they've ever done." While I'm not sure it takes that title, it's still their most consistent effort since Nothing is Sound, and, true to Switchfoot form, has some truly terrific standout tracks. The band's desire to rock a little harder hasn't waned since Hurricane, as it opens with three of the loudest songs here, with crunchy guitars and distortion galore. This time around though, they don't sound boring or out of place. The riffs are bigger, the hooks better, and Jon Foreman sounds as terrific as ever. Of this opening trio ("Afterlife," "The Original." and "The War Inside"), "The Original" hits the hardest. offering the biggest, most infectious riff on the entire record. "Restless" is the kind of mid-tempo ballad that made me fall in love with this band at the first place, and is a contender of the title of best track on the album. "Blinding Light" has an explosive chorus that is one of the album's biggest, while "Selling the News" is notable for it's politically charged lyrics and Jon Foreman's vocals, which are spoken word on the verses and sung on the chorus. 

Jon Foreman laments a life that has lost it's spark on "Thrive," a mid-tempo ballad that opens sounding like something from U2's most recent record, but builds to a chorus and an emotional bridge that would have been right at home on Hello Hurricane. "Dark Horses," the first single, is this album's "Meant to Live," a big rock song with a big riff, while album highlight "Souvenirs" is the "Dare You to Move," a big earnest piece of pop-rock with soaring vocals and guitar accents that recalls the best moments of each Switchfoot record: "Needle" off Hurricane, "Awakening" from Gravity, "Golden" off Nothing is Sound, and the aforementioned anthem from Letdown (which was also on that album's predecessor, Learning to Breathe). By the time the record reached that song on my first play through, I was in love. As with every Switchfoot album (with the exception of Sound) there are a few moments here that aren't as strong as others, but Jon Foreman's ability to churn out at least one or two legitimately perfect pop-rock songs every time out (along with a slew of consistently good material) has made them a band that I return to time and time again, and a band that I think probably does rank among my favorites. By the end of "Souvenirs," I was also thinking about how Switchfoot is a band I've followed longer than most, whose music has been a big part of my life from the summer before 8th grade all the way to my freshman year of college, and finally to now.

Vice Verses closes with a true one-two punch. First is the title track, a gorgeous song, featuring some of the best lyrics on the album, and a beautiful vocal from Foreman. The production is also notable, using an "echo" effect as the song goes on to give the feeling that it is getting further and further away. It almost feels like a closer, in the same vein of "Red Eyes," "Daisy" or "Twenty-Four" from past albums, but "Where I Belong" takes things out instead, and it does so in epic fashion. Marked by a choir of "woah-oh" backing vocals, the song has the same anthemic crescendo that marks a lot of the band's best material, and it builds into the finest album closer this band has put to record. It's the kind of closer that bands use to end live sets years after the fact, the kind of song that can fill clubs, auditoriums, or stadiums, and it hits just the way it's supposed to: it makes you want to turn up the volume."I still believe we can live forever," Jon Foreman sings, at the chilling peak of the song's swell; I'm not so sure he's right, but a song like this might just be able to.