Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Tallest Man On Earth - There's No Leaving Now

Dead Oceans, 2012
Three and a half stars

There's always been a tendency in music criticism to compare new artists to classic ones, but in the past decade, that furor has increased with every new association. Nearly every review of The Gaslight Anthem's breakthrough album (2008's The '59 Sound) heralded Brian Fallon as the new Springsteen, and some people - a lot of people, actually - were seriously ready to crown Justin Timberlake the new "King of Pop" when he made FutureSex/LoveSounds in 2006. Amidst those and countless other examples, perhaps the most common parallel drawn was between the modern folkies, eager to prove themselves, and the granddaddy of their genre: Bob Dylan himself. Over the course of the last ten years, we've had a slew of "new Dylans," from Conor Oberst to Josh Ritter to Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, but never has the comparison been so spot on as it is when used in reference to Swedish-born troubadour Kristian Matsson and his moniker, The Tallest Man on Earth. With a pair of full-lengths and two EPs under his belt, Matsson's weather worn, nasal vocals, his ever-present acoustic guitar, and his lyrical songwriting have consistently evoked the sounds and aesthetics of Dylan's '60s folk. His terrific 2010 release, The Wild Hunt, could have easily fit alongside Dylan's early records, somewhere between The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin', and even though he added some flourishes of electric guitar on Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird, the EP he released that same year, the overall sound and feeling of his music still fit in that same niche.

But Dylan was a visionary: he got bored with the limitations of folk music and consciously tore them down a mere three years into his career. Figures like that only come along once or twice in any given musical generation, and Matsson clearly prescribes more to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach. There's No Leaving Now is a blend of the propulsive folk of The Wild Hunt and the more gentle atmospherics of Passing Bird, and while Matsson does move to multi-tracking here in order to add a bit more sonic variation into the palette (the title track is a piano ballad, reminiscent of "Kids on the Run" from the last record, while accents of pedal steel drift through many of the album's best moments), almost any of these songs could have fit on his past albums. That's not entirely a bad thing, since most of them are really quite good, but some fans may be disappointed that Matsson doesn't take a few more chances this time around. That said, opener "To Just Grow Away" is a tremendous reminder of Matsson's talent, both as a songwriter and as one of the most distinctive vocalists of his age, and it's the perfect reintroduction to his brand of predictable but pleasing folk music. The song bursts with lush orchestration and melodic splendor, and carries within it a welcoming familiarity, something that even this record's weakest songs manage to hold.

On initial listens, There's No Leaving Now comes across as an exceptionally gorgeous and charming record, just not a terribly memorable one. As often seems to happen with modern folk albums, there isn't enough variation in tempo or melodic structure here, and the songs end up blending together a bit as a result. "Revelation Blues," "Leading Me Now" and "1904," narrowly escape that fate, with good melodies and terrific vocals that save them from the fact that they share essential musical and structural qualities, but the elegiac "Bright Lanterns" elevates the proceedings noticeably. A pedal steel guitar formulates a stunning alt-country backdrop as Matsson's vocals rise and crack with emotional strain and nostalgic regret, and the result is a summer night song for the ages. The should-be-penultimate number, "Wind and Walls," is even better, offering up a slice of the more upbeat texture that made The Wild Hunt so indelible and giving Matsson one of his most affecting vocal moments on the bridge. The album loses its way a bit after that though, stumbling through the borderline-maudlin "Little Brother" and fumbling completely on the senselessly dull "Criminals," a pair of songs that derail the album's flow and render the sequencing questionable.

When The Wild Hunt closed with "Kids on the Run," it was a revelatory left turn for a guy who mostly just played in his comfort zone. Matsson traded his acoustic guitar for an out-of-tune piano, but the imperfection didn't matter: he banged on the keys and delivered a power ballad, and for a moment, it sounded like The Tallest Man on Earth could be more than a reliably solid (but not terribly interesting) folk act. A similar thing happens this time around with the haunting "On Every Page," which gives Matsson's top-notch guitar work one of its best displays on record. The song sounds completely raw and real, like he just sat down in his bedroom, pushed record, and it on the spot, and it's got the same kind of entrancing, wisdom-laced vocal delivery that Dylan had in spades. Again, it makes me wonder if there's more to Matsson as a songwriter and a musician than he puts on his records, but the difference this time around is that the set of songs that precedes it isn't that great. Matsson has always come across as a fairly limited songwriter, but the songs on The Wild Hunt were good enough, and more notably, had enough life in them to overcome that fact. There's No Leaving Now has a lot of great moments, but it also meanders and drags through a series of compositions that, while not necessarily bad, don't really stick out. Perhaps it's the kind of album that needs to be heard in a certain environment, or one that requires the listener to be in a specific mood (when I listened to it on a sweltering late night drive, I fell in love with every note I heard), but on the whole, I just think Matsson's formula is beginning to get old. There's No Leaving Now is still a good album, and may even make it onto my year-end list, but for next time around, I hope Matsson takes a leaf out of Dylan's book and slashes the boundaries that are holding him back.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Jason Mraz - Love is a Four Letter Word

Atlantic Records, 2012
Three and a half stars

Jason Mraz has been a presence in the pop music world since his debut, Waiting for My Rocket to Come, dropped back in 2003, but he became an industry behemoth in 2009 when the gratingly catchy "I'm Yours" took over the airwaves. To say that song overstayed its welcome would be a vast understatement, and it's one of those pop hits that I never, under any circumstances, want to hear again, but the rest of the album that spawned it (We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things) was a decent mix of Michael Jackson-esque pop and acoustic balladry, and I still give some of those songs spins every once in awhile. Listening through Mraz's catalog, it's clear that he has a diverse side to him that most pop singer/songwriters don't attempt (his eclectic sophomore album, 2005's Mr. A-Z, hit everything from hip-hop to opera), but his latest, Love is a Four Letter Word doesn't breach a lot of new territory. That's fine, since the 12 songs (13 if you count the hidden track) here are easy, breezy summer-pop gems and since Mraz doesn't try to blatantly rewrite any of his previous hits, but overall, this record is a fairly straightforward one, offering just what most would expect from Mraz, and not a whole lot more.

It doesn't help a lot that Love is a Four Letter Word kicks off with its weakest track, the hippy-folk, Bob Marley-aping "Freedom Song." It's pleasant enough, with horn sections added for extra effect, but the chorus of back-up vocalists comes across as over-the-top, and the song never rises above its cheesy, self-serious lyric. Things get better quickly though, with a trio of surefire radio singles filling slots 2-5. Best is "I Won't Give Up," which bears an ineffable hook and a splendid, earnest vocal from Mraz (who I've always believed to be one of the most technically gifted singers in the pop music world). The other two - "Living in the Moment" and "The Woman I Love" - will be too sugary for many, but those with a soft spot for well-crafted pop music will find themselves whistling the melodies after a single listen. The same goes for songs like "Frank D. Fixer" (despite clunky lyrics), or album-highlight "93 Million Miles," a glorious slice of summer pop that will probably make it onto countless mixtapes and playlists during the upcoming season. The latter epitomizes the laid back, breezy nature of this record, and while that's not necessarily a quality that's going to lend Love is a Four Letter Word much lasting value in the long run, it's hard not to enjoy it for its immediacy.

Then, three-quarters of the way through the record, Mraz makes a sudden and jarring turn from summer-pop record into break-up album territory. The transition doesn't quite work, mostly because the intimate songs that close out the record, stuff like "Who's Thinking About You Now" and "In Your Hands," sound like they would have felt infinitely more at home on this record's predecessor than they do here. Luckily the songs, especially the latter, are good enough to not completely derail the album's flow (which up to this point is seamless), and the closer, called "The World as I See It," is a sonic feast, bursting with strings, vocal harmonies, bells, and electric guitar accents that carry the album out in grand fashion. Mraz's voice, which rises slowly out of the texture to nail a glory note at the song's climax, before melting back into a final chorus, sounds immaculate. "Coming Over," the hidden track, is nearly as good, with a falsetto-laden vocal line and a driving drum rhythm combining to form an irresistible nighttime atmosphere.

There are a lot of good songs on Love is a Four Letter Word, and they make for an enjoyable and relaxing listen, but the album as a whole never becomes more than the sum of its parts and that keeps it from standing alongside the year's best pop releases. Mraz has never sounded better, and he clearly knows how to write a memorable hook, but his lyrics too often drift into trite territory, and the album never quite decides what it wants to be. It's a solid collection, one that I can see myself playing, in bits and pieces, a lot throughout this summer, and one that will probably land somewhere with my slew of honorable mentions at the end of the year, but probably not one I will ever love. Mraz is a talented melodist, and an even better singer, and his pop songs are fun, I just wish that he would shed his formulaic format more often than he does. When he plays things a little bit looser, like with the deep rhythmic groove of "5-6," or with a lot of the stuff from Mr. A-Z, he comes off as a lot more interesting than he does on his radio hits. As is, Mraz sits in the middle of the mainstream road, better than contemporaries like Jack Johnson and Gavin DeGraw, but not ready to play in the ranks of John Mayer, Matt Nathanson, or Mat Kearney. He certainly has the talent to get there, but I think he's going to need to take a few more risks - or at very least, write some better lyrics - before he can make the jump.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Keep on dreamin', even if it breaks your heart...

Next to Butch Walker scoring songwriting credit on major hits and earning the distinction of Producer of the Year from Rolling Stone magazine back in 2005, hearing Will Hoge's "Even if it Breaks Your Heart" on the radio waves is one of the most satisfying occurrences to take place within the mainstream in years - even if it's not Hoge singing on the record. I've gotta say, there have been a few moments this year that have almost given me hope for mainstream popular music. First, Adele's continued domination of the charts showed that the album format still had some gas left in it; next, fun. hit number one on the charts and even now continue to display a surprising amount of longevity with Some Nights; and now, Will Hoge's song, one of my favorite songs from 2009, is making waves on the radio waves, three years down the road from the first time it graced my ears. Of course, it's not his version: the "hit song" status that now lies on "Even if it Breaks Your Heart" is thanks to the Eli Young Band and their version of the tune. It's been bizarre hearing the song issuing from speakers that don't belong to either myself or my older brother, whether I was hearing it on the radio waves or in the midst of a slew country standards playing on my co-worker's iTunes, but I'd call it a good kind of bizarre. Even in decidedly less talented hands than Hoge's, "Even if it Breaks Your Heart" remains as great a song today as it has always been.

I always thought that "Even if it Breaks Your Heart" had crossover potential, from the first time I listened to The Wreckage and fell in love with Will's music, and I suppose I have been proven right there. Still, it makes me wonder: why isn't this guy a huge country music star? Eli Young is clearly a more talented individual than the majority of the stars in pop music today, and I think that, in general, country music, even in its most mainstream forms, is a much less egregious and offensive genre than the majority of what crops up on top-40 radio. For the most part, the singers can still sing, the players can still play, and the records still have a measure of emotional force and artistic integrity to them. That said, Young's take on "Even if it Breaks Your Heart" doesn't add anything new to it: he plays the song straight, which is fine, but the only notable difference is that it sounds more generic, more stereotypically "country," but only in a modern sense. Hoge is very much in the vein of classic country and rock music stars: he's Tom Petty, Hank Williams, and Springsteen rolled into one, with a twinge of Johnny Cash thrown in for good measure. His voice is distinctive and unique, his vocal performances sparked with an emotional honesty that is impossible to doubt, no matter what he's singing about. His songs are, across the board, stellar, flitting between rock, pop, country, folk, and even gospel, and breaking down the barriers between all of them. And more than anything else, he's a force of nature onstage, ranking amongst the greatest performers I've ever seen. If there were any justice, this man would be a living legend.

A cover song is a weird route into fame for any artist. Even if your performance of another artist's song takes it to a new level (basically, if you're Jeff Buckley), it still has an asterisk next to it. That's a bit odd to me because, inevitably, we all start out as little more than a collection of our influences. We take our first steps into music by learning how to sing and play other people's songs, and we channel that experience into our own music, if and when we begin to write it. The Eli Young Band doesn't exactly fit into any of this, since they had one big hit prior to "Even if it Breaks Your Heart," but the idea still remains: cover songs as hits are a tricky beast - especially if much of your audience will probably never even know there's another version of the song in question. And I guess, ultimately, it doesn't really matter, because Will's song is speaking for itself: a lot of people obviously love it, and it could mean big things for him. Maybe he'll take a leaf out of Butch Walker's book and start doing some songwriting for other artists; maybe it will filter out into bigger tour opportunities, more fans, bigger album sales, and a better life for Hoge; maybe he won't always have to drive his band from town to town in a beat up old van, foregoing sleep in order to get to the next venue and play a kick ass rock 'n' roll show. I don't begrudge Eli Young his success with the song, I just wish that the success were Will's to call his own, and I just hope that he's getting the recognition and compensation he deserves for it.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Train - California 37

Columbia Records, 2012
Three stars

I can't say I've ever been a fan of Train, nor have I, until now, ever listened to a full-length album by them, but that hasn't stopped their long line of pop singles from managing to constantly pervade my everyday existence. From their breakout hits ("Meet Virginia" and "Drops of Jupiter," which were all over the place in my radio-listening days), to the singles from their third record, My Private Nation, which actually managed to make it onto a few mixes I burned for myself back in my pre-album listening phase ("Calling All Angels," "When I Look to the Sky"), all the way to the incredibly annoying cultural ubiquity of "Hey Soul Sister" back in 2010, which gave the band a renaissance of sorts, Train has managed to stick around, even as many of their early contemporaries have diminished in presence and disappeared. At very least, the San Francisco natives deserve a commendation for not only surviving, but thriving in a decade that largely rejected their brand of pop-rock. And despite the fact that I've never really liked this band, or that lead singer Pat Monahan's voice has always had a strong knack for getting on my nerves, the band's tendency to tour with some of my favorite guys making music today (Butch Walker, Matt Nathanson, Mat Kearney), has recently made me wonder if there's more to them than I thought; more than just the singles, at least.

Producer extraordinaire Butch Walker.
California 37, the band's sixth (!?) full length LP, finds them in the wake of their most successful hit ever, basking in the same brand of sunny hooks and shiny pop-production that made "Hey Soul Sister" such a success. And really, it's not so bad. Make no mistake, Train's music is just about as disposable as ever, but songs like opener "This'll Be My Year," which plays like a modern-day update on Billy Joel's  "We Didn't Start the Fire" (complete with a massive refrain-chorus), or the sweeping mid-tempo balladry of "We Were Made For This," which features one of Monahan's best vocal performances to date (at least that I've heard), as well as an explosive guitar solo mid-way through and a bizarre but atmospheric bagpipe outro, are pleasing and well-executed. If those two songs are among the best on the album, then it's hard to not see Butch Walker, who lends his writing talents to both, as one of the prime reasons. Walker, who has made a name for himself writing and producing for the likes of Avril Lavigne, Pink, and Weezer, knows his way around a hook better than just about anyone in the business today, and his fingerprints are all over this album, whether he's receiving writing credits or production kudos. Walker produced half the record himself, and shared duties with Espionage (the production duo who manned the boards for "Hey Soul Sister") for the rest, and throughout, he brings something to Train's music that has been lacking in the past. His presence is palpable on album closer "When the Fog Roles In," which recalls the band's '90s alt-rock roots, thanks to its piano-led orchestration and atmospheric flourishes of organ, brass, and guitar, or on the second single "Feels Good At First," whose pleasant acoustic-guitar loop and folk-pop aesthetic make for a song that wouldn't be so unwelcome as a dominating radio force.

 These songs were written and recorded while the band (and Walker) toured in support of their last album (2009's Save Me San Francisco), and as a result, they have a looser, more spontaneous feel to them than is usually present in modern pop music (Train's included). The cover depicts a classic car roaring down a sunlit highway, and that's fitting for a record that would be perfectly well suited for a spur-of-the-moment summertime road-trip: these songs are drenched in the kind of sunsoaked melodies that have formed the backbone for many a brilliant summer record, with hooks the size of houses and dynamic instrumentation. Songs like the pop-countrified "Bruises," complete with a guest vocal from country singer Ashley Monroe, or "Sing Together," which is essentially a rewrite of "Hey Soul Sister," right down to the chord progression and ukulele accompaniment, are poised to take over your local radio station this summer, while even the less commercially viable options are loaded with pop-sheen, from the Mariachi-influenced verses of "50 Ways to Say Goodbye" (and the skyscraping chorus they explode into), or the whistle-led "You Can Finally Meet My Mom," which is a lot of fun despite dumb lyrics.

But even despite Walker's welcome presence and a lot of enjoyable songs, Train are still the same band they've always been, and California 37 does end up falling into a lot of the same traps that have plagued most of their singles for the past fifteen years. Monahan stumbles upon a sincere line here and there, but for the most part, his lyrics are gimmicky and dumb, and in the worst cases, completely nonsensical. His songwriting partners (Walker and the guys from Espionage, among others) help to temper that habit on the album's best songs, but it's allowed to run wild on many of the album's more "commercial" tracks, and as a result, those end up bringing down a record that I actually could have seen myself listening to a lot this summer. First single "Drive By" is a particularly egregious offender ("When you move me, everything is groovy/They don't like it, sue me, mmm way you do me"), but drivel like "Mermaid" and the title track don't really help the band's case either. Monahan's pop music clichés and unfunny pop culture references extend beyond those three tracks, but in most cases, the melodies are strong enough to render them harmless. When Train is trying to play towards today's pop-music trends, they sound awkward and strained, and the results are as grating as the worst singles the genre has to offer; when they play it straight, they land somewhere between Counting Crows-lite and sugary pop singer/songwriters like Jason Mraz and Gavin DeGraw. Neither version is transcendent by any means, but overall, California 37 is a pleasant surprise from a band I've written off more times than I can count: it's disposable and largely forgettable, and it's not going to get anywhere near my end-of-the-year list, but it's fun, and every once in awhile, that's enough.

Neon Trees - Picture Show

Mercury Records, 2012
Two and a half stars

I must confess: I never got around to checking out Habits, the debut album from Utah-based new wave rockers Neon Trees, and after spending a fair amount of time with the follow-up, I'm not entirely sure I ever will. That's not to say that Picture Show is a complete waste of time, or even that it falls into sub-par territory, but it quite simply displays a band with a gift for writing hooks and no idea of what to do with them. Things get fumbled early on, despite a tremendously well-executed opening with the dance-rock of "Moving in the Dark," and a stylish Michael Jackson tribute on the equally catchy "Weekend." But those are tracks one and five, and constitute the only redeeming factors in what proves to be an exceptionally grating first half. The cacophonous rocker "Teenage Sounds" gives way to the hollow hooks and tired lyrical clichés of first-single "Everybody Talks." Neither song is bad as a standalone, and both bear a certain sleek production value that is nothing short of infectious, but both are also disposable and forgettable, and represent a lot of what I see wrong with pop music today. That said, "Teenage Sounds" and "Everybody Talks" each sound like the Beatles next to "Mad Love," which apes Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" for its synth-intro before diving into one of the single worst choruses I've ever heard. "We got a mad, mad love/We got a mad, mad love," frontman Tyler Glenn sings over what sounds like a computer generated backing track. "We got a really, really, really, really, really, really, really mad love." It's arguably the worst song of the year so far, but it will likely still be released as a single, and still be successful. Why? Because even when Neon Trees indulge in the worst lyrics imaginable, their hooks are still memorable.

A song like "Mad Love," as insultingly bad as it is, could be forgiven if the rest of the album went in the opposite direction, but unfortunately, for the majority of Picture Show, it seems like Neon Trees are content to travel down the middle of the pop music road. The disco slow-burn of "Close to You" or the thumping dance-floor beat of "Lessons in Love" are ideas with serious potential, but the songs that are built around them just never go anywhere. Elsewhere, lukewarm throwaways like "Hooray for Hollywood" make the album's 46 minute runtime feel much longer than it is. Numerous distracting interludes extend some of the album's better moments for no apparent reason, like the minute-long loop that plays at the end of the darkly atmospheric "Trust," or the similar augmentation on the closer "I am the D.J.," which leaves the record feeling much more anti-climactic than it needed to be. And always, there's the gimmicky '80s production, layered over nearly every corner of every arrangement, seeking to make the songs and ideas here sound more nostalgic and more meaningful than they actually are. Throughout Picture Show, it feels like Neon Trees are trying to fill the musical void that was left when The Killers ditched the new-wave synths and club-ready beats of "Hot Fuss" in favor of classic rock influences and Springsteen's everyman mentality, but Glenn doesn't have the voice than Brandon Flowers does, nor do his songs reach the stratospheric levels of radio pop-rock that his band's forerunners tapped into so easily. The result is a record of mostly-disposable pop music that will sound great on the radio or in the club, but won't have much lasting value past this summer season.

Luckily, even despite so many missteps and botched opportunities, Picture Show does at least have a handful of triumphs, and they are just enough to salvage the record. The aforementioned "Weekend" should be a single, with its lively themes of escapism, young love, and nighttime immortality making the song as sweeping and satisfying as any well-executed pop tune should be. Meanwhile, the closing one-two punch of "Still Young" and "I am the D.J." find the band as close to no-frills as they get, with simple pop-rock hooks and far less distracting production; the ringing guitar intro in the former sounds nearly anthemic, while the latter demands a sing along and closes the album perfectly, even despite the exitlude blunder. Songs like these are absolute gems, with addictive melodic motives and lyrics that, while not particularly striking or memorable, at least reach for something beyond dance-floor tropes. Overall though, Picture Show is a frustrating album, and that's because it strikes a bizarre balance between the very good and the remarkably bad. When the band drops the gimmicks and works a little harder to fit some decent lyrics into their strong hooks, the results are terrific, but more often, they fall short of that. More than half of this record displays a band that is content to write lazy songs that fit into a caricature of '80s nostalgia, rather than to reach for something real or artistically credible, and the resulting music, while catchy, is dumb, hollow, and forgettable. While that may fit into today's radio format, we should have the sense to demand more from our pop music...especially from the artists that so obviously have the talent to deliver it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Motion City Soundtrack - Go

Epitaph/Boombox Generation, 2012
Four stars

Next to a lot of the artists who "broke through to the mainstream" during the popularity explosion of the pop-punk/emo/pop-rock scenes early in the last decade, Motion City Soundtrack have certainly proven to be one of the best, surpassing contemporaries like Fall Out Boy, Panic at the Disco, and New Found Glory either in longevity, prolificism, or overall quality and consistency of work. Out of that same scene, only fans of Jimmy Eat World have experienced a similar flourishing of returns, and no one has covered as much musical and thematic ground over the course of five albums. Much of this success must be credited to frontman Justin Pierre, whose soaring tenor voice and confessional lyrics have kept fans connected to the band, even as they have matured and gone through major shifts in sound. The biggest of those was made on 2007's Even if it Kills Me, where the band shed much of their rock sound in favor of pop sensibilities, delivering sky-high hooks, sugary production, and even a centerpiece piano ballad. While the response to that album was, overall, quite mixed, I've always thought it was their best work, both as a set of songs (the writing is incredibly strong throughout) and as a cohesive album (Pierre's battle with his own demons has never been more resonant). Adversely, I thought 2010's My Dinosaur Life, was a strikingly inconsistent record, featuring some of the band's best songs to date ("Skin and Bones," "The Weakends," "Her Words Destroyed My Planet") alongside some of their very worst (the grating "@!#?@!" and the faux-O.A.R. frat-boy rock of "History Lesson").

Enter Go, the excellent fifth full-length album from the Minneapolis-based band, and arguably their finest work to date. That's not going to be evident to a lot of people on first listen though. Indeed, throughout the first day that I spent with Motion City Soundtrack's latest, I thought it was little more than a very good summer album: the titanic hooks and pop-ready production from Even if it Kills Me are back, and right from the propulsive opener ("Circuits and Wires"), Go feels like the kind of record you throw on for driving around town throughout the summer. When I first started thinking of angles from which to approach this review, the "fun summer pop album" seemed like the stereotype I was destined to go with, but then I sat down and really listened to what Pierre is saying here, and everything changed. At its heart, Go is a record about the duality life and death, and with that theme in mind, it's their most cohesive work to date. Pierre has gone on record about the title, saying that "Go can mean to leave, to give up, to give in, die, basically, or Go can mean to choose life, to live, to experience, to exist, and those emotions and ideas color every song on this album, giving it a heroic and emotional arc, and making it one of the most fully-realized records of the year.

If you're paying attention, the theme is set early on. "I am all motors and gadgets/Organically designed to last a finite length of time," Pierre sings on "Circuits and Wires," and the shadow of death is never far from the proceedings here. He cycles through a pair of dysfunctional love songs (first single "True Romance," whose bridge is an album highpoint, both musically and lyrically, and the already-divisive "Son of a Gun") before launching into the album's centerpiece section. "Timelines," especially, is vintage Motion City Soundtrack, hitting upon the pop-heavy sound of Commit This to Memory and Even if it Kills Me at the beginning, and building into the same kind of feverish bridge that marked many of the songs on Dinosaur Life. Watching the progression play out over the course of the song's four minutes is fitting, as the lyrics chart a similar progression offering both an immersion in nostalgia and a question of fate ("Do you ever wonder how you got to here?" Pierre asks repeatedly). It's the perfect lead in to the album's best and most sobering moment. "Everyone Will Die" is a tremendous symphony of a pop song, a gorgeously moving and innately heartbreaking slam-dunk that is both the album's most affecting number and its most immediate. "It doesn't mean goodbye, it's just a simple truth/The shedding of a lifetime of layers that once embodied you" Pierre croons over a bed of acoustic guitars and synthy ambiance: it's the perfect conclusion to the record's first side, but it's only the middle of the story.

Go is nearly as stellar throughout its second half as it is for its first, but even the songs that aren't 100% successful have their place here, like the insanely catchy "Coma Kid" or the darkly atmospheric "Boxelder." But the final two songs bring us fully back into the album's plot, and it is in these songs that the duality of death and life, between giving up and fighting on, is most palpably felt. The harrowing "Happy Anniversary" epitomizes the former, and it's arguably the darkest song the band has ever penned. The lyrics may play out like a suicide note, but Pierre has said he wrote the song about his grandmother, who died of cancer several years ago, and the words envision her final days of life. "Settle our accounts," "send the kids my love," "time has run its course" the choruses begin, building to the album's most crushingly emotional climax as the white flag is finally waved and life fades. Album closer "Floating Down the River" is the opposite: where "Happy Anniversary" is a surrender, the album's grand finale is an affirmation and a vow to try harder, to live life to the fullest. Just as "Everyone Will Die" ended side one encouraging us to cherish the people and things we love in this life, "Floating Down the River" ends the album on a high note of uplift, and even though it may lack some of the visceral climactic power of past closers (stuff like "Hold Me Down" or "Even if it Kills Me" - still the band's best song), I can hardly imagine a better send-off.

Go is not, song-for-song, a perfect record, nor does it always make good on its ambitious thematic material, but at its finest moments, it is everything the band envisioned and more: it's the finest front-to-back collection of songs they've penned to date, elevated even further by numerous outstanding highlights; it's the perfect balance between their pop sound and their darker, edgier rock side; and lastly, it's the most cohesive and magnetic lyrical journey Pierre has taken us on yet. When he bared his soul and discussed his battle with addiction on Even if it Kills Me, the results were devastating, cathartic, and unforgettable, but here, he offers us with something that is even easier to relate to. Because, just as he sings, "everyone will die," but what matters is the question at hand: what are we going to do with the time that's been given to each of us? It may not resonate with everyone right away, and it most certainly won't hit each listener in exactly the same way it has hit me, but "Go" is the kind of record that could prove to be a "scene classic" and an all-time favorite for a lot of people ten years down the road. It's the kind of record people return to for answers and for comfort years after the release date, and while I can't see yet how it will compare to my other favorite albums of 2012, every time I turn up the volume and sink into these songs, I don't feel so inclined to care.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Matthew Mayfield - A Banquet for Ghosts

Self-Released, 2012
Five stars

I once read that "only a song can bring back somebody’s pulse once it’s gone," and that’s true. One of the most remarkable things about music is its singular ability to transport you back in time, back to a different mindset, a past situation; it can recall to your mind people who have long since been written out of your life story. It also grows with you though, collecting memories as the years pass by and you spend more time with it, so that favorite albums become collages of thousands of different life moments, and eventually, begin to shed the older ones. Every once in awhile, though, you stumble back over an artist or an album that you forgot about from years gone by, and every single memory attached to them comes rushing back, as fresh as if they happened yesterday.

Alternative-rock band Moses Mayfield only ever made one full-length - 2007's The Inside, which, over a two-year period, became a personal classic for me. The lovelorn balladry and intensity-driven rock 'n' roll fit right alongside the music I was really into at the time, and several of those songs latched themselves onto memories from that era: from a sweltering summer season in 2007, or my tumultuous junior year of high school. And then the band called it quits, and the album, for whatever reason, fell out of rotation for me. The lead singer and creative force behind the band's music - Matthew Mayfield - went solo, delivering an EP before 2008 was out. It was a collection that I liked a lot, actually, complete with an acoustic guitar and cello re-imagining of "Element," one of my favorite songs off of The Inside, but after that, Mayfield fell off my radar. He was busy though, releasing a full-length and five other EPs between 2009 and 2011, and a few days ago, when I was doing my weekly perusing of new releases on iTunes, I stumbled upon A Banquet for Ghosts, and it all came flooding back.

I've always said that the ultimate test for a favorite artist is that, when you play a new album from them, it feels like you're re-convening with an old friend, whether they're offering up more of a familiar sound or embarking upon a sea of experimentation. Mayfield fits firmly in the former category, but he still unequivocally fits, and hearing the songs on A Banquet for Ghosts simultaneously took me back to the days when The Inside dominated my playlist and made me want to go back and pick up each individual EP I've missed. These songs tell a story, a story that can be reflected inside each and every one of us. It's the same story that began on "The Inside" and, assumedly, has continued throughout the rest of his work: of love and heartbreak, of the things we lose and the things we carry with us forever. Some may call that redundancy, but the greatest songwriters of all time, from Dylan to Springsteen, have embraced recurring themes, characters, and questions throughout their careers, and Mayfield does the same, offering us a window into his own life as it passes. That's why A Banquet for Ghosts is such a remarkable album: it's not because Mayfield is doing something we've never heard before; it's because he's doing precisely what we've heard before, but making it resonate again.

A Banquet for Ghosts is heavy on atmospheric ballads and fairly light on modern-rock aesthetics (those looking for a heavier sound should definitely dig up his work with Moses Mayfield). That said, Mayfield penned one of the most intense and involving rock songs of the last decade ("Control," from The Inside), and that side of his songwriting does occasionally manifest itself here, like on the eerie country-rock of "Track You Down," or the driving "Heart in Wire," where bitterness and heartbreak drip from every pore. The rest of the record drops the tempo and leaves the arrangements in acoustic form, but occasionally inventive production, Mayfield's raspy, weather-worn vocals, and the vast emotional palette he is able to express with them, result in a record that never grows stagnant or decreases in quality. Take the echoing, expansive soundscape that plays out in "Carry Me," or the fragile, piano intro that opens "Beautiful," a flawlessly-climactic penultimate number. Elsewhere, the slide guitars and gang vocals that assemble the backdrop to album opener "Ain't Much More to Say" drew me in immediately and wouldn't let me go, and the moment where Mayfield lets loose at the end of the haunting "I Don't Know You At All" is nothing short of staggering.

A Banquet for Ghosts will likely come across as a run-of-the-mill singer/songwriter record for those not already fond of the genre, but for me, Mayfield is among the very best in the game, willing to bare his soul and his scars for all to see. Perhaps it's my own personal connection to his music, or because of how hearing Mayfield's voice, in turns fragile and low, or strong and ringing with emotional force, takes me back in time, but these songs cut to a place that hasn't been reached by many songwriters this year, in any genre. Mayfield's lyrics rarely go beyond the well-trodden topics of love and loss, but that focus is pivotal to the record's singular visceral power and the unified story that it tells. Whether he's singing about the ghost of a former flame that he can't quite shake (the stunning "I'll Take What I Can Get"), or of the cautious, wide-eyed reunion of lovers that takes place in "Always Be You," we connect and we react. Mayfield's broken voice evokes memories of our own experiences, of the people we've left behind or never quite been able to, and it honestly doesn't matter if he's singing about the same girl in each of these songs or not: we hear his words, and we fill in the rest of these songs with pieces of our own lives. The result is a hard-hitting, unspeakably emotional record from an extremely talented independent artist who deserves a thousand times the attention he's gotten up to now. This is the type of album that made me fall in love with music in the first place, and while I can't (yet) say if it's his best work, I am confident, at least, that another slot of my end-of-the-year top five has been filled.