Thursday, July 25, 2013

"In the throws of a stare, I was open": The Dangerous Summer's "Golden Record"

The Dangerous Summer - Golden Record
Hopeless Records, 2013

The Dangerous Summer are one of my favorite bands. I’m not talking about “favorite bands in the pop punk” scene, or even “favorite bands of the past decade,” though both of those descriptions would be apt. No, I’m talking all time, “desert island” favorite bands. Reach for the Sun was my album of the year in 2009 and was the record I played through the last weeks of high school and the summer that followed. War Paint was my album of the year in 2011, and found me at a crossroads in my life and my college career. And now Golden Record is here to contend for a third title in 2013. This band, leaving aside all of the drama and gossip and bullshit they’ve been involved with in the recent past, has an innate ability both to write songs that hit hard and to release albums at times when those songs sound better than just about anything else on the planet. There’s a reason “summer” is in their band name. These guys live and die by the mantra of long hot days and endless nights of promise, and for so many of us, the songs on Reach for the Sun and War Paint rang like battle cries on late night drives and anthems to the power of youth on long days spent out in the sun. Many bands from this “scene” have built careers on writing emotional music, writing songs to soundtrack every romantic disaster any of us have ever been through. But with The Dangerous Summer, at least for me, it was never as simple as break-up albums or songs about love and death, or even as commonplace as lyrics that made me feel like someone was making sense of my world. No, for me, this band was the sound of growing up.

Something about The Dangerous Summer’s records, about the cascading wall of guitars that surrounds each of their songs or about AJ Perdomo’s strained, emotive vocals, it captures the feeling of fading youth more perfectly than just about any other music I can think of. It encapsulates those days in late August, when you’re cruising down a lakeside road, watching the waves crash into the shore as the sun begins its arc toward the earth, and you realize the season is running out. It’s for those evenings during your last week in town, those last nights clinging onto what’s left of the summer before you head back to college and leave your hometown and your family and your entire life behind you to start something new. It’s for those moments where the endless nights of promise I mentioned earlier suddenly don’t feel so endless anymore. And those nights fucking ache; they always will. But there’s something hopeful and invigorating there too, and this band knows how to bring that feeling to life. People can call them limited or mock them for the earnestness they inject into their songs, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt as alive as I have listening to this band on late summer nights, and it’s so, so nice to have them back for another season full of them.

All my essayistic bullshit aside, Golden Record is a great album. Maybe not as good as the two classics these guys have already released, but it still continues to capture all of the feelings laid out above, and it does it in a way that is often more musically compelling than ever before. The late-night drives are there in the propulsive opener and first single, “Catholic Girls,” where lost youth abounds in emotional nostalgia. The power of music is splayed wide open on “Honesty,” where the band can “wear those songs like a burning fire.” The chiming “We Will Wait in the Fog” is this album’s “Siren,” a burning love song of forgiveness and longing, of fights that ruin friendships and of words that should have been left unsaid but weren’t. The album’s core, the five-minute masterpiece that is “Miles Apart,” might just be the best thing the band has ever written, a dizzying anthem of a song that somehow makes breaking down in the backseat of a car sound majestic. And then there’s “Anchor,” the third in a series of flawless grand finales that have so far graced this band’s albums. Suffice to say that the song and its key line—“we should live in the summer for the rest of the burning days”—will be a defining component to many end-of-summer mixes later on this year. If you were wondering why the band decided to hold off on this album until August, rest assured that these songs were made for the season’s dwindling nights.

There are also things about Golden Record that I don’t love, and that’s something I’ve had a hard time reconciling in the wake of two separate album-of-the-year victors. The sequencing, for one, is off. Second single “Sins” is a rush of intensity and reckless abandon, and the bridge, where Perdomo delves into his own struggles with suicidal thoughts, is one of the most emotional parts of any song this band has ever committed to tape. But “Sins” comes too early in the tracklist, following the similarly passionate “Catholic Girls” in jarring fashion. The song could have been the opener, and it could have kicked things off in similar fashion to the title track from War Paint. “Catholic Girls” is the better and more atmospheric starting point, but “Sins” would benefit from a move to the album’s third act. Similarly, the dark and aggressive “Drowning” sounds completely out of place in the third slot. In the age of iTunes shuffle mode, I’m sure we have all stumbled upon pairs of songs that just don’t function well as a set: “Sins” and “Drowning” are those songs, and their tonally awkward clash hinders the flow and feel of the record’s first half.

But even despite its flaws, Golden Record is another solid entry in the Dangerous Summer’s terrific discography. When War Paint released in 2011, it didn’t leave rotation until I left my hometown behind at the end of the summer. It seemed like every night, when I climbed into my car and pulled out my iPod, that was the album my thumb found automatically. Golden Record doesn’t have the same alluring magnetism, but it’s still a record that I’ve had a tough time walking away from—even though I suppose I am, by definition, disappointed by it. Sure, the record may stumble a bit out of the gate, and I’m not particularly enamored by the darker sound the band employs on songs like "Knives" or "Drowning," but once Golden Record hits the halfway point, it never lets up. In other words, I believe I’ll end up ranking this record third among the band’s LPs, almost by default, but every time the chorus breaks through on “Miles Apart,” I stop caring, sit back, smile, and turn up the volume. At their best, The Dangerous Summer simply cannot be touched.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

My love/hate relationship with Glee: An ode to Cory Monteith and the fleetingly great series he helped build

I can't even count how many times I’ve written off Ryan Murphy and his consistently manipulative TV show, Glee. And that always made me sad, since the first 13 episodes of the first season were a masterful mix of parodic humor, genuine emotion, and the euphoria of a perfect pop song. That same season got derailed a bit by misguided “theme” episodes--hours of programming that gave credence to the critique that the show was all style and little substance--but a strong finale and a promising set-up for a second season had me hoping for the best.

Unfortunately, that second season was, on the whole, a disaster. Make no mistake, there were always a few showstoppers lurking at the fringes, moments of emotional bombast waiting to lure me back in when I least expected them, but there were also some of the worst episodes of television I have ever endured, writing so painful and misguided that the show probably managed to “jump the shark” six times in one particularly bad week. The third season was no more consistent, dropping at times to heinous lows of plot development and song choice that tarnished the entire soul and legacy of the program and its characters. Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennen, the creators and primary writers of the show, have a tendency for pretension when it comes to their program, believing they are obligated to make certain “grand” statements throughout the course of a season. They also consistently brings in idiot characters who serve no purpose, stick around for a few episodes, and then vanish without a trace. But dammit if the three of them don't have a knack for pathos. At its best, Glee has always been a show about dreams, about how they flourish or how they fall, how they can come true or how they can fade away, and Glee’s best moments have been tied to its characters’ big milestones: their victories, their failures, their trials of growing up, of love, of friendship. And Murphy and his fellow writers built season three up in such a way that, when everything finally exploded in the final two episodes, it was nothing short of glorious.

There’s a reason that The AV Club awarded Glee’s big Season 3 finish (a two-episode arc) with a pair of “A” grades. The same season had produced two “F” episodes, causing readers in the finale’s TV Club review to speculate as to whether or not there had ever been a more inconsistent show on television. I don’t have the answer to that question, but I do know that those final two episodes were among the best television I’ve ever witnessed. Sure, I enjoyed the big emotional pay-off of watching these kids win their big championship and achieve their dreams after three consecutive seasons of build-up, failure, and missed opportunity. But what was truly great was that the writers, instead of making the competition the season’s finale like they had two times before, pulled a head fake and left it for the penultimate episode. That gave the show the proper amount of time to close things off, wrap them up. It could have been a series finale, and on the night of the airing, I was actually planning on it serving as just that. I had seen these kids finally succeed in the thing they had been trying to do since I started watching this show, since some late weekend night during my freshman year of college when I was bored and alone in my dorm room and decided to stream the premiere off the internet. I was ready to finally say goodbye.

But then a funny thing happened. No, it wasn’t theSpringsteen song that the cast was singing along to as they graduated high school, or the double-take moments the writers generated by leaving Kurt and Finn, two of the show’s primary characters, rejected by their post-high school institutions. No, it was the last ten minutes. It was Rachel (Lea Michele) getting in the car with Finn (the late Cory Monteith), supposedly on their way to their wedding, and him pulling up to the train station instead. She wasn’t going to defer her acceptance to arts school to be with him; she was getting on that train and moving to New York, saying goodbye to him. Why? Because he loved her enough to let her go, set her free. It was the best scene I’ve watched on TV in ages, a tumultuous whirlwind of emotion, a master-class of writing, and a terrific showcase of two actors who never got enough credit. I’ll get to the latter bit in a moment, but first, I have to say that, for all of its excesses, errors, and pretensions, when Glee chooses to set off the emotional fireworks, it does so in a way that is impossible not to relate to. We’ve all had moments like this one, moments where we finally have to draw a line in the sand between the person we used to be and the person we are going to become. It’s how we felt when we drove away from our hometown for the first time on the way to college, or how much it hurt to say goodbye a few years later when that goodbye was for good. The final song choice, a sweeping ballad called “Roots Before Branches” and sung solely by Rachel as she embarked on her new and uncertain journey, was the greatest song choice in the show’s history. And they’ve had some good ones.

In the aforementioned AV Club review of this episode (which, for the record, was called “Goodbye”) Todd VanDerWerff offered a perfect summation of this perfect scene, and his words capture the essence of it better than I think mine ever could:

“Cory Monteith and Lea Michele kill this scene. They kill it. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen on TV this year, and it’s so good that even if everything else had sucked, this would have been at least a B. It’s the emotional equivalent of my much-beloved “Bohemian Rhapsody” sequence, especially for how it goes on and on and on, and never seems like it’s going to come to an end, because you can see one whole set of dreams dissolving in front of these kids’ eyes, replaced by another, much more uncertain one. That’s the way the dreams you have at 18 are, though. They gradually fall apart, and then you build new ones. Or maybe you get caught up in the old ones and wish for a way to go back, to punch in the code on the time machine you don’t have. To quote Springsteen again: Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”

Moments of television like this one only come along once in a great while, these all-encompassing moments of overwhelming emotion which seem to sum up perfectly the feel and the themes of the show they come from. And usually, these moments only come along in series finales. Most would cite the painful-but-beautiful fast-forward effect that the creators of Six Feet Under employed for its final minutes; I would go for the gang’s last lesson from Mr. Feeny in Boy Meets World or the grandiose triumph of the “I got off the plane” scene that came at the end of a long ten years for Friends. But with “Goodbye,” Glee came remarkably close to that hall of fame. It should have been the end, right?

I thought so, I really did. But then, when my girlfriend and I were house-sitting this past fall, we decided to work our way through the first four episodes of Glee’s fourth season, from the season we vowed never to watch. And if I’m being honest, it finally felt, consistently, like the same show I was watching back in the fall of 2009. The writers in particular felt creatively re-energized, like they finally had stories to tell and didn’t just have to fill up the months between the premiere and the inevitable Nationals-based finale with glee club nonsense. No, remarkably, the show moving beyond its high school conceit and expanding into the real world, into a layout where it would have to jump back and forth from one location to another, proved to be the best thing that could have happened to it. Season four eventually squandered that potential in a series of absurd plot twists and the aforementioned “grand statements,” but for a few episodes at least, Glee was at the creative peak it hadn’t seen since 2009.

The best episode of the season (and one of the best in the show’s history) was the fourth episode, an hour-long emotional tour-de-force called “The Break-Up.” As the title suggests, “The Break-Up” saw virtually every relationship the show had spent three seasons building fracturing and folding in the face of a post-high school bluff. When you graduate from high school, everything seems limitless. You look at your friends and you see people who are going to be successful and happy and good. You look at yourself and you see endless possibilities and dreams before you. And you look at your relationships or the relationships shared between your classmates, and you think of them as constants, pieces of love and friendship that will live and thrive eternally. “The Break-Up” took that misconception and shattered it. It showed how easily distance and miscommunication and stupid decisions could destroy the connections that, only months before, meant the world to you, how the places you go and the people you meet after high school change everything. Near the end of the episode, Monteith and Michele meet in the auditorium of their old high school, where their relationship had begun and grown, and there, it ends. Lea Michele has always been viewed as the secret weapon of Glee: the best actress, the best singer, the key to its success. But while she kills the scene, it’s Monteith, with subtlety and nuance, who so perfectly captures the devastation of a young man left behind by a changing world and the people moving forward with it.

Those scenes were the pieces of the Glee legacy that ran through my head this morning when I read about Monteith’s shocking and heartbreaking death. At only 31, the actor was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room, leaving behind his family, his real-life relationship with Michele, and the television program he helped build all in one fell swoop. Watching those scenes back, it’s clear that Monteith was the heart and soul of the show. He was never the best singer—that’s evident from the ending montage of “The Break-Up,” where all of the show’s broken characters appear on a dimly-lit stage and sing Coldplay’s “The Scientist” as catharsis—but that never mattered. His character was always the most believable to me: a decent singer made great by more talented co-stars and a mediocre student made outstanding by his participation in the inspirational extracurricular activities that define so many high school graduates. When all of those things fade away, he’s left behind, broken, alone, and unsure of which direction to take, like a character in a Springsteen song who realizes that the American dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

At the end of that episode, when everyone is singing “The Scientist” up on the auditorium stage that has served as the setting so many happier memories, it hits hard. The writers for Glee have always claimed that most of these musical numbers aren’t actually happening, but that they are playing out cinematically in the characters’ heads as concrete proof of the way that a perfect pop song at the right moment can feel like so much more than words and music. But that scene is one of the only times where the imagination bit feels like it’s serving a higher purpose. And it’s fucking devastating. Because Finn isn’t up on that stage with all his friends, singing in another show choir competition; he’s up there alone, in the dark, remembering the better times and the past glories and his own broken future, and he’s imagining that everyone is there beside him again because it hurts less than acknowledging that he’s been left behind. Glee may have fallen miles from what it once was, but moments like that one still rank among the most durable television of the past ten years, and Monteith was the emotional ballast that held it all together. He will be missed.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Jimmy Eat World - Damage

RCA/Dine Alone Records, 2013

It’s always been astounding to me the way that songs, albums, lyrics, melodies, instrumental lines—even album titles or cover art—can become more than the sum of their parts when they collide with the right listener at the right time. In a world full of critical acclaim, “best of the year” lists, and verbose Pitchfork reviews, it seems that we have stumbled into an age of relative consensus. How many publications ranked Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE or Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D.City at number one last December? Or went with Bon Iver the year before? Or Kanye West in 2010? Few collective outlets, at least within the inner circle of the big critical players, venture too far beyond the same five or six favorite records at the end of any given year. Sure, those same publications review hundreds and hundreds of albums and hand out great scores to a lot of up-and-coming obscurities, but from looking at the top ten lists scattered across the web each year, it seems like the idea of an objective “best album of the year” is becoming more and more corporeal.

But what is objectivity in art? What benchmarks decide which collections of songs deserve the title of “best” in any given year? And why have some genres become punching bags for critics while others have earned adjectives such as “credible,” “relevant,” “important,” or “great”? Perhaps all of this is strange to me because my own personal album of the year has never once matched up with the consensus choice, but I don’t actually believe that objectivity and art, music especially, can exist side-by-side. We all look for different things from music. We all have bands and songwriters who we gravitate toward more than others, and we all bring our own unique biases and experiences into every single record we hear. And finding the right album at the right time, whether it’s an undisputed 10.0 classic or a scene favorite that somehow gets handed a 3.0 from one of the biggest taste-making publications in the world, that trumps everything else. If you came to this website looking for someone to tell you what to feel, if you’re reading these words because you’re searching for the “best” album of the year, you’re looking in the wrong place. In this art, “best” doesn’t exist. What truly matters is the bond that forms between music and listener when they meet at the exact right moment. Those bonds are the vehicles that allow us really feel music and fall in love with it for the first time, the devices that let certain albums to stay with us forever, and that’s something that can’t be shared or given or bought. You absolutely have to find it yourself, on your own terms.

The first album that I ever formed that kind of bond with was Jimmy Eat World’s Futures, and every record Jimmy Eat World have released since has had some huge influence on my life. The best albums, they serve as time capsule snapshots of the times in our life when they mattered most, and this band has done that for me more than most. Suffice to say that, while I’ve loved a lot of albums since that fall of 2004, when songs like “Kill” or “23” broke through my facade and convinced me that Jim Adkins knew exactly what I was going through, Futures remains the most important milestone in my musical development. I love Born to Run more, and Butch Walker is my go-to favorite artist, but without Jimmy Eat World and the 11 tracks that make up their greatest album, I wouldn’t be writing these words. For some, music is trivial entertainment, but for me, it determined a larger part of my life path than I will probably ever be able to realize. And all of that took off when, on some chilly autumn afternoon in 2004, I got a chance to “believe in futures” in a whole new way.

Fast forward eight and a half years, and that band is still at it, but a lot of other things have changed. As listeners, we all grew up. We went from shutting our eyes and humming along to the crashing climax of “23” in our adolescent bedrooms, ruminating about our juvenile crushes, to shouting along with its lyrics in our post-college apartments as we actually turned 23. But for most of us, this band’s music has remained important, even after many of the records we were listening to back then have faded into the background. In that case, it’s somewhat comforting to know that, on Damage, their seventh full-length, Jimmy Eat World are still pretty much the same band we’ve always known and loved.

The first thing most fans are going to notice with this record is the production, and that’s a shame. Due to the towering pop-rock structures and palatable studio sheen of the band’s last few records, the rawer, more live sound of Damage will probably feel a bit jarring. To be fair, many of the more epic moments of the band’s catalog, songs like “Goodbye Sky Harbor,” “Dizzy,” or “23”—in essence, the closers—were as much studio audio art as they were straight emotional pop rock, and it’s hard not to imagine what the songs on Damage could be with the same meticulous attention to detail. In particular, lead single “I Will Steal You Back” sounds a bit muddy, like a leftover demo from Futures or Stay on My Side Tonight that probably would work better if Jim’s vocals were higher in the mix. Similarly, “Book of Love” is a jaunty mid-tempo rocker that would have fit perfectly alongside the shimmering hooks of Chase This Light...if only it weren’t missing that record’s muscular sonic punch.

But more often than not, the production (courtesy of Queens of the Stone Age veteran Alain Johannes) suits the tenor of these songs in a way that Mark Trombino, Butch Vig, or Gil Norton’s more bombastic styles probably wouldn’t have. Taking a cue from Foo Fighters’ back-to-basics analog record, Wasting Light, Jimmy Eat World go for a dirtier, more spontaneous sound here that, at its finest moments, is impossible to argue with. Case-in-point is “How’d You Have Me,” which explodes with defiance and ringing guitars reminiscent of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” before morphing into the kind of vitriolic, shout-along garage rock song we haven’t heard from this band since “Blister.” Similarly, “Byebyelove” calls back to the Clarity days, with scuzzy production, minimalist structure, and goosebump-inducing crescendos that serve as fitting homage to the band’s ‘90s emo roots. And closer “You Were Good,” though it lacks the floor-to-ceiling sprawl of the band’s previous finales, sends the album out with acoustic guitars and reverb-drenched resignation.

Where Invented was largely an opportunity for Adkins to experiment with his songwriting style (much of the record played around with character perspectives and female point-of-view), Damage is the most straightforward and cohesive set of songs the band has written to date. Dubbed by Adkins as an “adult break-up album,” Damage clings to a love story arc throughout, matching its jagged production with the ragged snapshots of a relationship about to burst apart. There are snatches of that in the first two singles: “I Will Steal You Back” is a yearning plea for better times lost in the fire, while the narrator of the gorgeous title track watches as his lover vanishes into a mess of broken promises and inflated expectations. “I hate the way I feel, but I don’t think I can change,” Adkins sings in the first verse of the latter. It’s a song about falling out of love with someone you still care deeply for, and just as Adkins conveyed the pulsing want of unrequited love on “Kill” (“I can’t help it baby, this is who I am/Sorry but I can’t just go turn off how I feel”), here, he relates the destructive agony of losing connection with the person who once meant the world to you.

Even more powerful is “Please Say No,” an achingly beautiful vignette that stands alongside the very best in the Jimmy Eat World catalog. Adkins has long been one of my favorite songwriters, but his lyricism has often lingered in abstraction. One of the reasons that so many kids have been able to connect to JEW’s songs is that they’ve rarely embraced absolute specificity. On Clarity, Adkins’ poetry was sparse and indefinite. Listeners took those songs, saw what they wanted in them, and filled in the fringes with their own experiences. On Damage though, because the band has really embraced the idea of a thematic arc for the first time, Adkins is finally allowed to write in a more direct storytelling style. These songs aren’t just lovelorn poetry or odes of heartbreak; they’re full stories, five-minute films, expansive novels written in staves, rests, and music notes for the rest of us to bleed to. And “Please Say No,” which burns like a lost Springsteen cut, is the finest example of that. It’s a song about an affair and the toll it takes, not just on the relationships it squanders or on the people it cheats, but also on the lovers locked inside its deadly embrace. “I’ve lately come to wonder what it might feel like/If one last time, we went and did this right/Somewhere no one possibly could know our names/Somewhere no one bothers to remember a face,” Adkins muses during the second verse. But moments later, he begs his lover to refuse him, knowing that a simple “No” is the only thing that can save him from blowing apart his life on this impossible romance. And the way Jim sings those lines, with lush harmonies swelling around him, his voice bursting with passion and pain, it cuts right to the bone.

Jimmy Eat World aren’t going to get a ton of critical accolades for this record, and for as long as they’ve been together, they never have. But Damage is unequivocally my favorite album of the year so far, and I have a feeling that a lot of people who hear these songs at the right moment in their lives are going to share that sentiment. Maybe the connection will come on some late and sweltering summer night, and a teenage kid will be climbing into his car with heartbreak on his mind and nothing left to say. And this record will be playing on the stereo. And he’ll turn up the volume and shout along, and the words and music will crash into him and change his life forever. Or maybe that connection will sneak up on someone the way it came to me, at the end of one major life chapter and on the cusp of something infinitely bigger and more frightening. When people look back at 2013 and think about the albums that proved to be the “best” or “most influential,” I don’t know what’s going to stand up tallest. But I do know that I’ll never forget driving away from college for good while the don’t-take-too-much-for-granted strains of “Appreciation” rang through my car. I won’t forget how terrified I felt in that moment, staring off into the great unknown, or how invigorating it was to be entirely free for perhaps the first time in my life. And this album, this beautifully melancholic disc about sprained hearts, strained voices, and broken mixtape songs, will forever stand immortal because it had the grace and timing to walk into my life when I needed it most. I only hope the rest of you should be so lucky.

Counting Crows - Echoes of the Outlaw Roadshow

Let me preface this review by saying that it’s incredibly hard for me to say anything negative about Counting Crows. Without the lyrical grace and emotional inflection of frontman Adam Duritz, I probably wouldn’t be writing these words. One of my earliest musical memories was hearing this band for the first time. My family and I were climbing into the car after some bike trip, and my brother decided it was an opportune moment to slip my step-dad's copy of August and Everything After into the CD player. He skipped forward a few numbers, “Mr. Jones” issued from the speakers, and I fell in love immediately. That memory was one I considered a lot a decade later when I picked up the band’s greatest hits collection (called Films About Ghosts) and began to discover Counting Crows beyond just the singles. At that point in time, I think I owned about six CDs, half of which were Creed (I am not proud of this), but that record, which contained 16 of the Crows' “best” songs, was a turning point. Throughout that winter, I played the album almost every afternoon, and those songs breathed vitality and life into the bleak winter landscape that had taken up residence in my hometown: the rip-roaring electricity of “Angels of the Silences,” the emotional swell of “Round Here,” the poetic perfection of “A Long December” and “Mrs. Potter Lullaby,” and the nostalgic beauty of “Recovering the Satellites,” they all became a part of me.

In the nine-plus years since, Counting Crows have only released a single album of original content. Needless to say, I became a die-hard fan of the band at precisely the wrong moment. Following four terrific albums, spaced out on an every-three-year timeframe from 1993 to 2002, Films About Ghosts was the band’s way of telling the world they were taking a breather. Half a decade would pass before their fifth full-length—2008’s lukewarm Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings—hit the streets, and then Duritz and company would take another four years to come up with last year’s Underwater Sunshine, a well-executed cover album, but a cover album nonetheless. In the meantime, the band has done their best to mollify their fans’ growing restlessness with a series of live albums—a document of the Hard Candy tour in 2006 and a special full-album performance of August & Everything After in 2011—and their latest release, called Echoes of the Outlaw Roadshow, is the next in that series.

To be fair, Counting Crows are a transcendent live act, and each of their live records bears its own significance and personality. Where their first concert album—1998’s Across a Wire—was a double-disc affair showcasing the band in both stripped-down acoustic and full-blown electric environments, Echoes of the Outlaw Roadshow finds them as a seasoned collective of professionals, comfortable with traversing their entire catalog, transfiguring old favorites, resurrecting deep cuts, and delivering covers like they’re originals. In fact, the finest moment of the disc is the Bob Dylan song that kicks it off. “Girl From North Country,” culled from Dylan’s 1963 breakthrough, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, is one of the legendary singer/songwriter’s most yearning compositions, and this cover is as good as they come. Performed at the start of the show, with just vocals and acoustic guitar, “Girl from North Country” is a stark and intimate reminder of Duritz’s ability to generate pin-drop intensity in a room. Where many bands from the 1990s radio-rock scene now rely heavily on old hits and crowd sing-alongs to carry their shows, the Crows’ greatest asset as a live band has always been their gift for maintaining rapt audience attention in less-familiar territory.

“Round Here” is a perfect example of the above phenomenon. Originally the song that broke the silence at the top of their debut, “Round Here” rarely maintains the same arrangement and format from tour to tour. (Legend has it that the song has also never been exactly recreated in the manner it appears on record.) While the general road-map of the song remains the same—the chiming guitar intro, the poetic verses, the dynamic emotional build-up—Duritz and company frequently pepper it with alterations, improvisations, and interpolations of other artists’ songs. The “Round Here” that appears with this collection is one of the best, bursting breathtakingly into loose improv sections and sly snippets of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing.” “Darling summer’s almost over, before the world gets too much colder/Come outside and run away with me,” Duritz wails spontaneously over the song’s elongated mid-section: for a moment, this feels like the Crows of old.

But beyond the first two tracks, the most notable thing about this particular live album is the setlist. For a band that has supported a bootleg-trading network within their fanbase for almost as long as they’ve had a fanbase, it doesn’t make much sense for Counting Crows to keep going back to the well for more “official” live releases, but if they’re going to do so, it’s at least nice that they try not to retread songs that have already appeared on previous concert discs (with a few exceptions). This particular release is loaded with deep cuts, from the harmonica-laced blues of “Mercury” (a forgotten gem from the experimental second side of 1996’s Recovering the Satellites) to a pair of songs from both This Desert Life (the road-trip folk of “Four Days” and the downright-bizarre “I Wish I Was a Girl) and Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings (the hazy emotional breakdown of “Sundays” and the haunting siren song that is “Le Ballet d’Or”). But it’s Hard Candy—which celebrated its tenth anniversary last year—that supplies the rest of the highlights.

Often dismissed as a misguided and overproduced expedition into the realms of mainstream pop music, Hard Candy is one of the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned albums in recent memory. On record, the studio gloss and soaring hooks masked a complex lyrical web, a collection of songs that revealed Adam Duritz’s increasingly serious battles with insomnia, depression, and mental instability. On the gorgeous “Carriage”—one of the forgotten late-album tracks which gets resurrected here in wonderful fashion—amidst a gentle acoustic lilt, the burn of a lone trumpet player, and lyrics about “chocolate bars and baseball cards,” a once-meaningful relationship all but vanishes into the tragedy of a losing an unborn child. “Up All Night,” meanwhile, is one of the five best songs Duritz has ever written, the kind of glorious, dusky anthem you play in the car at night when the weather is finally starting to warm up.“This is a summertime song,” Duritz announces at the song’s outset. “Hard Candy was a late night album.” If you need any extra encouragement to catch the Crows on their tour with the Wallflowers this summer, look no further than this penultimate scorcher.

Ultimately, Echoes of the Outlaw Roadshow is a solid document of a great live band. The covers are good, the setlist is unique, and there are a few transcendent moments. But Counting Crows—Duritz especially—are too talented to become one of those bands that only plays live shows and releases cover albums. Maybe I’m biased, since I’d call August & Everything After the single greatest album of the nineties and since I love Hard Candy more than anyone else I’ve ever encountered, but I truly believe that Duritz has the skill, both as a songwriter and a frontman, to land in the pantheon of greats. Even if he never writes another song or never releases another album, he’s got a pretty killer legacy to leave behind. But I’d like to think that this band still has at least one classic left in them, and while frequent concert tours and live albums are nice to have, but I’m infinitely more excited for that next step forward.

Iron & Wine - Ghost on Ghost

4AD, 2013

Right from the moment his lo-fi debut crackled through the speakers, it was clear that Sam Beam was an artist to watch. The mastermind behind modern folk outfit Iron & Wine, Beam had a gift for gorgeous melodies and evocative lyricism that was nearly unparalleled in the musical landscape of the early 2000s. And as his public profile began to gather more attention, his music only got better. A year after the debut (2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle), Beam blessed the world with the album that, I think, still remains his defining moment: Our Endless Numbered Days, a gorgeous, poetic, and blissfully nostalgic album of acoustic campfire tunes. Anyone listening to Beam at the time, to gentle, unforgettable tunes like “Naked as we Came” or “Passing Afternoon,” or especially to the nine-and-a-half minute b-side that was “The Trapeze Swinger,” could tell that he wasn’t just another pretender to the folkie throne. No, Beam had a way with sweet and wistful melodies that made his music sound timeless, and his use of astounding lyrical imagery showed that he not only had what it took to become one of the most skilled songwriters of all time, but that he was probably already among their ranks.

As such, Beam would have been betraying himself and his fans if he had chosen to stand still. Rather than stagnate in the acoustic singer/songwriter vein for too long, he became more ambitious on his third full-length—2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog—outfitting his beautiful songwriting with full-band arrangements, studio sheen, world music influences, and fuller sonic textures than ever before, and the results were surprisingly stellar. On that particular record, Beam was somehow able to maintain the intimacy of his songwriting style while simultaneously giving it new perspective and punch, and his reward was the most well-received album he had ever made. Encouraged by the strong critical reception, Beam used The Shepherd's Dog as a launching pad for a complete musical metamorphosis, but looking back, he seems to have lost his compass somewhere along the way.

To be fair, 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean did continue the evolution of its predecessor, but where the fuller sound of Shepherd’s Dog felt like a natural step forward, Kiss was overindulgent and inconsistent. Impossibly great stand-outs like “Walking Far From Home” and “Godless Brother in Love” still made the record a worthwhile journey, and hearing Beam adopt elements of jazz, funk, and ‘70s FM pop was hardly unwelcome, but the record’s mixed-up, directionless flow, as well as the presence of a few legitimately poor songs, had myself and many other fans questioning the songwriter’s creative direction. The Iron & Wine concert I went to at the time did nothing to assuage my doubts, either: Beam and his band transformed his songs, new and old, into extensive and meandering improv pieces, and while the musicianship on display was never less than terrific, the jam band I was watching onstage was neither the artist I had come to see, nor the one I had fallen in love with.

Ghost on Ghost, Beam’s fifth full-length outing under the Iron & Wine moniker, is at once both better and worse than its predecessor. On one hand, the album feels considerably more cohesive, both in sound and sequencing, than Kiss ever did. On the other, the number of immediate stand-out tracks—for me at least—has dropped to zero. And perhaps that’s by design, since the more beloved Iron & Wine songs have always seemed to be the acoustic ballads—stuff like “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” and “Resurrection Fern” from Shepherd’s Dog, or “Upward Over the Mountain from Creek—of which this album has none. Instead, Beam wanders further from his roots than ever before, building a dizzying array of ‘70s radio pop, Motown soul, ‘50s doo-wop, and throwback jazz club intensity, with fringes of Americana folk and western country music thrown into the mix as reference points.

Make no mistake, there’s a lot to take in here, and with so much to hear and admire, it’s not really fair to compare these songs to the guy Sam Beam used to be. As a standalone, I bet most of us would be praising Ghost on Ghost, both for how fresh it sounds in the modern musical context and for how reverent and referential it is to a wider historical tapestry. Lively opener “Caught in the Briars” melds a booming bass-line, bursts of brass, and twinkling glockenspiel with the kind of warm vocal harmonies and acoustic riffs that could have fit on any of the last three Iron & Wine albums, while the seductive “Desert Babbler” is a neo-soul slowdance with memory-laden pedal steel accents. The resplendent “Joy” is almost as impressive, a dreamy, reverb-laced latticework of vocal harmony, piano, and acoustic guitar that wouldn’t be out of place next to “Blue Moon” on a “Summer Nights” playlist. Later, the chaotic, jazzed-up first single—“Lovers’ Revolution”—shows off the same kind of furious crescendo that Beam used to close an album last time around. And the actual closer, the piano-led beauty that is “Baby Center Stage,” continues Beam’s tradition for terrific finales, leaving listeners awash in flowing falsetto and climactic keyboard chords as the final seconds of the record tick by.

But the problem with Ghost on Ghost is that many of those seconds seem to pass with little fanfare. Kiss, for all its disjointed flow, was hard to forget after even a few listens. It was equal parts adventurous and traditional, and the balance between different sounds—the electronic flourishes of “Walking Far From Home” and the radiant piano of “Godless Brother,” for example, or the big band feel “Big Burned Hand” and the disorienting structure of “Fake Name”—kept listeners on their toes. Ghost on Ghost is the smooth jazz, NPR-ready version of Iron & Wine, and while that kind of sound allows for a lot of really lovely moments, it also means that the album as a whole kind of drags and blends together. If you get lost somewhere in the mid-section, amongst the mid-tempo grooves, the two to three-and-a-half minute song lengths, and the cryptic titles (could songs with names like “Grace for Saints and Ramblers” or “Singers and the Endless Song” be written by anyone but Sam Beam?), you’re probably not alone. And even when the album delivers a great moment—like the Fleetwood Mac-esque “New Mexico’s New Breeze”—the magic from the old days is mostly gone.

Back when Sam Beam was first gaining popularity, listeners flocked to his music because his delicate vocal delivery and his transcendent way with words made him unique. Those early songs were raw, real, and exposed, and Beam had this wonderful ability to sound both wise beyond his years and unspeakably melancholy at the same time. When I hear bits and pieces of the earlier Iron & Wine material—“Some days, her shape in the doorway” from “Fever Dream,” “Autumn blew the quilt right off the perfect bed she made” from “Passing Afternoon,” “That season left the world and then returned, and now you're lit up by the city” from “The Trapeze Swinger”—they still have the power to stop me in my tracks. Maybe it’s simply the beauty of the words, the gentle caress of the acoustic guitar, or the intimate sadness in Beam’s voice as he delivers them, but something about those songs is inescapable. Now, he sings in a more full-bodied baritone, his voice surrounded by layers of harmony, studio sheen, and auxiliary instrumentation, and even though he might still deliver shards of his grand old poetry—couplets like “I only lie when they don’t want the truth/I’m only frightened ‘cause you finally gave me something to lose” caught my ear right away—it never feels as striking or vital as it used to be.

I like this record. I liked Kiss Each Other Clean, too. But for me at least, in drifting slowly away from his folk roots and in shifting his songwriting from sparse acoustic hymns to fully-orchestrated, production-heavy pieces, Beam has lost or obscured many of the qualities that made him special in the first place. In whisper mode, Beam’s voice was the most subtle and devastating instrument in folk music; now, it blooms with new confidence and range and remarkable falsetto coloring, but the subtlety and delicate beauty is lost. Furthermore, by bending his primary focus from the lyrical to the musical aspects of his craft, one of the greatest poets of our time has unwittingly handicapped his greatest gift. I respect the hell out of Beam and the vision he is following here, and I truly adore moments of the result, but for the most part, Ghost on Ghost is a good record that disappoints because we know its creator is capable of something more powerful.

Dawes - Stories Don't End

HUB Records, 2013

A few years ago, when the sounds of Dawes’ sophomore record Nothing is Wrong first reached my ears, it was like a blast from the past. Equal ingredients ’70s Laurel Canyon folk-rock (Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, etc.) and ‘90s roots/alt-country (Whiskeytown, Counting Crows, The Wallflowers), the music this L.A.-based quartet was cultivating hit almost every one of my sonic sweet spots. Somewhere between the soaring, sun-kissed guitar solos, the B3-organ swells, the rich vocal harmonies, and the thoughtful lyricism, there was a band that absolutely could have been a legendary, multi-platinum act three decades earlier, but one that was probably never going to take the radio waves by storm in the here and now. Apparently the band sensed that feeling too: no longer content with simply being really good folk-rock revivalists, Dawes have evolved on their new album—titled Stories Don’t End—to a point where it feels like anything is possible for their future endeavors.

From the moment Stories Don’t End bursts open, with a lush vocal crescendo at the top of “Just Beneath the Surface,” it’s clear that these guys are a different band than they were a few years ago. Once regarded as a terrific live outfit that could never quite capture the electric charge of their performances on record, Dawes have clearly learned to use the studio to their advantage this time around. Credit producer Jacquire King, who covers these 12 tunes in a warmer and more consistent layer of studio sheen than we’ve seen on past albums. With his strong and assured presence behind the boards, the band seems to open up a bit more here, lending album highlights like “Just Beneath the Surface” and “From the Right Angle” a grandiose, arena-ready sensibility, or turning the piano-led first single “From a Window Seat” into a disorienting pop-rock trip. When a frantic guitar solo kicks through the wall on the latter, we know we’re in good hands.

If the opening of the record is strong though, it’s the mid-section where these guys really hit their stride. The chiming guitar chords that open “Most People” herald one of the best and most majestic songs frontman Taylor Goldsmith has ever written. The song builds effortlessly, carried along by an infectious refrain and one of Goldsmith’s finest vocal performances to date. And when the band dials it back down for the outro—a call and response fugue between Taylor and his brother Griffin (the band’s drummer)—you’ll have trouble doing anything but hit “Replay.” The powerful, cathartic build of “Something Common” is even better, beginning on a subtle, restrained note (“All my mornings start with the alarm clock/Every dream gets stopped before the end,” Goldsmith sings at the outset), and building to a shout-it-to-the-rafters conclusion that ranks among the best musical moments I’ve heard all year. “‘Cause all the love and friends and happiness that ever came my way/Revealed themselves the moment I stopped watching,” rolls the final chorus, exploding from the speakers like a pure and fierce confession of the heart. “‘Cause it’s not faith that comes from miracles, but miracles that come from faith/And I’m sure that they’ve got something in common.” Perfect.

The above is just one lyrical gem in a song rife with them, from a band with a better way with words than most working today. Sure, that song is also graced by a gorgeous bed of instrumentation, from cinematic piano chords to emotive electric guitar lines, but it only reaches the next level when you sit back and let the poetic beauty of the words course through you. And that’s the case with the rest of this record as well, from the Springsteenian characters of “Bear Witness” (the granddaughter who's still working at the movies, letting all her boyfriends in for free), to the haunting cliffhanger of “Stories Don’t End” (“They go on and on, just someone stops listening...”), and certainly to the glorious, travel-worn troubadour tribute that is “From the Right Angle” (“I need a cold beer from a dressing room, I need a string of dates back out/I think there are a few of us that still belong out on the road”). If you’ve been looking for a collection of songs to soundtrack the upcoming summer months, songs that could ring from the stage of an evening music festival as fireworks explode in the sky, or songs that could ring through your car as you cruise down a sunburned highway, look no further.

Throughout its 12 tracks, Stories Don’t End strikes a perfect balance between lyrical ingenuity and musical accessibility, between classic rock throwback and modern musical relevance, between instrumental virtuosity and full-bodied, beating-heart passion. Goldsmith’s songs are catchy and comfortable, but they’re never easy. You can imagine something like “From a Window Seat” or “Just Beneath the Surface” making minor waves on college radio—probably more than anything off previous albums—but it’s only with time and intimate attention to the lyrical and musical details that the layers of these songs begin to peel away. I could easily (and happily) waste an evening digging through these songs, obsessing over cryptic lines from Goldsmith and trying to decipher precisely what they mean, or marveling at vintage-sounding musical passages and playing classic albums alongside them in a quest to figure out the band's every influence. Hell, even the numbers that feel more “minor,” like the raucous cover of Blake Mills’ “Hey Lover,” or the rollicking, bass-driven country of “Someone Will,” suggest that spending an afternoon with these guys and their record collections would be any music fan’s dream come true.

But ultimately what matters most is that there are no weak moments here: the songs are great, the album sequencing and pacing is faultless, and the band has never sounded better. And while elements of the ‘70s Laurel Canyon scene are still evident here, they’re surrounded by so many other nuances of folk and rock music’s back pages that they no longer feel like the obvious focus. Stories Don’t End, as a result,is neither a throwback album nor an entirely modern one. It is, quite simply, a Dawes album. It’s the sound of a young band coming into their own unique musical niche and making the record they’ve been reaching for since they first hit the scene in 2009. And if there’s any justice, the record it will be a sounding board for a long and storied career: from all indications, it seems like this band has what it takes to be one of the greats.

Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience (Part I)


There’s nothing in music criticism that bothers me more than writers lambasting an artist and tearing down their latest work for “overreaching.” No matter the cause, be it one particular critic’s self-important, pageview grabbing arrogance, or the word of a listener who is so emotionally tied to an artist’s initial sound that they refuse to accept any new directions, attacking a musician for trying to do too much with their sound, or for trying to adopt influences outside of their initial wheelhouse, has always struck me as a “beside the point” sort of criticism. Isn’t the job of a music critic to judge the art at hand as a standalone product, and not to examine it in light of previous triumphs? That may be easier said than done, but I at least always try to appreciate an album for what it is rather than brooding over what it’s not.

And that brings me to The 20/20 Experience, Justin Timberlake’s third full-length record and his first foray into new music in nearly six years. Since 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, Timberlake has filled his time acting (The Social Network, In Time, Friends with Benefits), hosting Saturday Night Live, and working on his comedy chops, but despite pleas from every direction, begging him to return to music, the pop star offered no indication until very recently that he would return at all. And you couldn’t have really blamed him if he didn’t. After all, Timberlake was basically a legend by the time he was 25: he’d conquered the world with ‘N Sync, transitioned into a successful solo career with 2002’s Justified—and its still-ubiquitous flagship single, “Cry Me a River”—ripped off Janet Jackson’s shirt on international television, and gained respectable critical approval with FutureSex/LoveSounds. Where could he go next? What did he still have to say or to prove? And would his long-awaited return to music even be able to meet the stratospheric expectations of fans and critics? Yes, it might have been safer for Timberlake just to call it a day. After all, 31 is a bit too young to enter the “past their prime” bracket.

But Timberlake, thankfully, has never been “safe,” and his latest album is the exact antithesis of the word. Those looking for another FutureSex will probably be disappointed. There’s no monster single here, no “SexyBack” or “Cry Me a River,” or even a “My Love” or “What Goes Around…” Where Timberlake’s sophomore album was largely grounded in up-to-the-minute pop sounds, dance-floor textures, and urban rhythmic drawl, The 20/20 Experience spends most of its runtime in classic, slow-burning soul and R&B mode. Timbaland is back in the producer’s chair, but the emphasis this time is more on atmosphere, flow, and mood than on catchy earworm hooks. And that’s not to say that these songs are forgettable, because the falsetto-driven hooks on songs like “Pusher Love Girl” and “Spaceship Coupe,” or the stadium-filling chorus of “Mirrors,” are as melodically resplendent as anything Timberlake has ever produced. Rather, these songs don’t quite have JT’s normal knack for latching themselves to the side of your brain after a single listen, and while that’s not really a shortcoming, it means that The 20/20 Experience probably won’t have the same pop-cultural ubiquity as his last two records did.

But if the album lacks something in the radio singles department, Timberlake more than makes up for it in terms of overall cohesion. The themes here are simple ones: love, lust, adoration, devotion, etc. etc., all likely inspired by Timberlake’s recent marriage to actress Jessica Biel. If the lyrics aren’t romantic gestures we’ve heard a million times before, they’re clumsy metaphors and analogies that would fall flat without the musical flourishes that prop them up. But Timberlake’s voice is, as always, a flawless instrument, lilting on gorgeous falsetto lines, delivering sultry, slinky melodies right and left, throwing in tasteful riffs, or moving into a full-on belt when the songs require it. Timbaland plays his part well too, somehow making the swirl of organic instrumentation, hypnotic samples, electronic loops, and other digital augmentations coalesce into sprawling sonic arrangements that feel both intimate and explosive, innately welcoming and dauntingly ambitious. Regardless of how listeners react to these songs on a personal level, there is no denying that The 20/20 Experience is an absolutely exquisite-sounding record from top to bottom, and with a pop music album, that’s sometimes half the battle.

Of course, all of the studio sheen in the world can’t save an artist if they don’t have the songs to back it up, and Timberlake certainly has a dense wall of material on hand this time around. The 20/20 Experience is only ten tracks long, but seven of them cross the seven-minute mark, and the two most-likely bids for mainstream radio airplay—the lounge-meets-club first single “Suit & Tie” and the brassy soul rave-up “That Girl”—still extend well past the accepted model of the three-and-a-half minute pop song. This album is long, full of shape-shifting tunes that drop from one style to another with almost no regard for genre boundaries. “Pusher Love Girl” swells at the top of the record with a string arrangement that feel ripped straight from a classic film score, morphs into a rousing piece of pop vocal bliss, and then settles into a magnetic neo-soul groove for its final minutes. The first half of “Strawberry Bubblegum” takes a cue from Frank Ocean’s tripped-out brand of R&B, while the outro accelerates into something that could almost have fit on an ‘N Sync album. And “Let the Groove Get In” begins as a hip-shaking nod to Latin music and ends as a pitch-perfect Michael Jackson impersonation.

And that’s where the accusations of overreaching will likely come in. It would be hyperbole to say that The 20/20 Experience has suffered a critical slapping, but compare its reception to the legacy of Timberlake’s last album—or perhaps even more notably, to the orgasmic praise that Frank Ocean’s similarly ambitious, similarly meandering Channel ORANGE earned from all corners last summer—and all the scores in the “8” or “B” ranges start to feel a bit more disappointing. Most writers, even the ones who like the album, accuse Timberlake of writing long songs for the sake of having epic track lengths, not because his musical creations actually justify those lengths. The review posted yesterday morning from The AV Club found the record so bloated that almost every song could stand to lose a minute in length—if not more—while Joe Caramanica of the New York Times essentially called the record a pretentious mess, a weak collection of songs disguising themselves in layers of false “artistry.”

But aside from a terribly-misguided rap verse on “Suit & Tie”—from Jay-Z, a once-great modern musical figure who now falls squarely into the “past their prime” bracket I referred to earlier—I can’t really find a minute here that I’d excise. Most of these songs save their finest moments for the back end, like the gloriously catchy “I’ll love you ‘til I make it pop” hook from “Strawberry Bubblegum,” or the dizzying conclusions to “Don’t Hold the Wall” and “Tunnel Vision,” where Timbaland meticulously builds layers of production elements into towers of sonic force. On “Spaceship Coupe,” Justin mixes the attitude and sound of Prince with a hook that could have been culled from a Beyonce record. The song  is hooky and fun throughout, but doesn’t reach its euphoric peak until nearly four minutes in, when an 80s-esque slow-jam guitar solo cuts across the center. It’s true that we could have reached these moments faster, but Timberlake gives the songs time to breathe, grow, and shift, and as a result, the peaks feel higher and more well-earned. Some listeners won’t have the patience to sit through one seven-minute song after another—especially on repeat plays—but for those who are, there’s a bounty of rewards to be found here.

By the time The 20/20 Experience takes its final left turn—with the gorgeous, somber ballad that is “Blue Ocean Floor”—Timberlake has truly run the gamut of pop music. A halting cassette-tape loop plays in the background, decaying with pulsing synths, distant piano lines, and a haunting tidal atmosphere as Timberlake delivers one of his most restrained vocal performances ever. “If my red eyes don’t see you anymore/And I can’t hear you through the white noise,” Timberlake warns on the cathartic chorus. “Just send your heartbeat I’ll go to the blue ocean floor/Where they find us no more, on that blue ocean floor.” It’s a strikingly intimate and serene ending to a record that often explodes in communal, lovelorn bombast, and for me, it’s the unquestionable highlight. But that’s the thing about The 20/20 Experience: this is the kind of record where everyone will have different favorite song, where what someone calls dull or overlong or indulgent will resonate perfectly with someone else, depending on that listener’s past musical tastes and experiences. And some critics may call that “overreaching,” may yearn for a more consistent style or wish that Timberlake didn’t try so many new things. But those kinds of people were also the ones who told the Beatles they were “just a pop band” when they started experimenting with studio art, or booed Dylan when he went electric. And we all know how those situations turned out.

Johnny Mainstream - Ghost Broadway

Self-Released, 2013

There’s a beautiful moment on “Stage,” the first (and arguably, best) track from Johnny Mainstream’s sophomore album—entitled Ghost Broadway—where the voices of band members Matthew Maynes and Laura Sabourin begin to trade off on the melodic line. Neither voice is perfect—Maynes sounds like Conor Oberst’s long-lost cousin, and Sabourin’s instrument radiates with quivers and shakes, occasionally even wandering off key—but when the two join together on this song, it just works. “Stage” burns with restrained longing, buoyed along by folky instrumentation, propped up by an atmospheric electric guitar line—one that feels culled directly from the Gaslight Anthem’s first record—and structured around its vocalists in a way that, for whatever reason, recalls that ‘90s radio hit you forgot existed.

And that’s pretty much the game Johnny Mainstream play throughout. Like so many bands we’ve seen lately, these guys work the throwback angle for all its worth. We get classic heartland rock--by way of Brian Fallon or Brandon Flowers, Americana flourishes--by way of I’m Wide Awake, it’s Morning, and enough booze-fueled confessionals to make The Hold Steady proud. First single, “Whiskey for Dinner,” is a propulsive, sing-along rocker, loaded with gang vocals and communal sensibility (again, Sink or Swim comes to mind), while the rollicking title track features a slinky bass-line, a classic piano reverie, a martial drum-beat build, and a charismatic, glam-rock-ready vocal from Maynes. These are songs that feel innately familiar from first listen, but not in a way that strikes as bland or derivative—even though derivative might be a perfectly justified descriptor for Johnny Mainstream’s music. No, at its best moments, Ghost Broadway strikes the balance between new and old, between nostalgic and refreshing, and those moments probably have the capability to land on more than a few playlists for people around this website.

The sound doesn’t always hit home though. Maynes’ voice is too limited to give the band a lot of sonic territory to work with, and the record’s 13-song, hour-long runtime means it probably overstays its welcome a bit. The middle section run of “No Noise,” “Cheap Guitars,” and “Pot of Gold,” in particular, never seems to go anywhere—a shame after the disc's strong opening. That trio also seems to represent a dividing line of sorts for the record, opening up a more subdued, acoustic-based second half. “dc” is a lovely, road-weary piece of balladry (and “You grabbed my arm and told me the stars were just headstones for the Gods” is probably the album’s best line), while “Whiteboard” apes the chord progression and feel of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” for another satisfying duet between Maynes and Sabourin. Meanwhile, should-be closer “Team Electric” is an ambitious, four-part suite that takes cues from both Green Day’s American Idiot and Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor, and "Scarecrow" is another slow-burning highlight, with a grungy electric guitar line the gives it welcome momentum through its six minute cycle.

Ghost Broadway isn’t quite a great album on its own, but there are so many indicators here that Johnny Mainstream is capable of greatness that I’m almost willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Sure, the album is too long. And it gets a bit repetitious in the middle. And the sequencing could probably have used a few change-ups. And the production, as great as it sounds throughout, loses a few points in te last minute for dropping the organ swells and harmonica lines in the actual closer (“Northern Terminus”) to a level in the mix that sort of truncates the song’s epic build. But there are moments throughout this record—a striking piece of imagery here, an electric guitar line there, a great chorus on one song, or a nostalgically resplendent atmosphere on the next—that really make it feel as if this band has something special to bring to the table. Give it a shot.

Foals - Holy Fire

Transgressive, 2013
You don't give an album a title like Holy Fire without having something epic and spacious waiting underneath the shrink wrap. They always tell us not to judge a record by its cover, or for that matter, by the words on that cover, but I’d wager that no one went into Born to Run expecting an acoustic singer/songwriter record, or cracked the seal on Achtung Baby without realizing that its technicolor sleeve was the introduction to a new decade, a new style, a new U2. Album covers and titles are the first ways for an artist to make an impression, the first chance they have to announce a shift in direction or sound, or to tell fans to check their expectations at the door. And with Holy Fire, everything—from the evocative words, to the horses-washed-by-the-waves cover art, to the thrilling build-up of the “Prelude” track—screams “big.” By the time proper opener “Inhaler” breaks into its booming, earth-shaking riff a couple minutes in, frontman Yannis Philippakis bellowing his soon-to-be-trademark battle cry of “I can’t get enough space” over a chaotic hurricane of noise, we know we’re in for a ride.

From the start, Holy Fire is a record that demands to be played at maximum volume. Those who have invested in pricey car stereos or high quality headphones will find a lot to love here, a sonic feast to sink into and get lost in with each listen. The high-rise atmosphere of “Everytime” blends U2-esque “helicopter” guitars with modern dance-floor textures, while the more balladic “Late Night” remains rich with deep bass tones as it crescendos to a near-orchestral peak, a dirty guitar solo flitting through the right speaker. “Out of the Woods” continues the U2 comparisons, its foregrounded musical flourishes landing somewhere between the iconic keyboard riff of “New Year’s Day” and the church-filling symphonies of The Unforgettable Fire. And the glorious “Bad Habit” rotates between moments of full-blown club-rock and pure, yelping desolation, Philippakis’ reverb-soaked vocals and drummer Jack Bevan’s rapidfire fills marking the changes.

Undoubtedly, a good deal of Holy Fire’s success is owed to the production team of Flood and Alan Moulder, longtime vets who have previously worked together on records from the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, The Killers, and U2. But where each of those acts have swung towards the big leagues with massive choruses, revealing earnestness, and near-mythical pop star swagger, Foals take a different route. And that’s not to say that Holy Fire is bereft of hooks, since plenty of its best songs have the potential to lodge themselves in your brain. “My Number” is particularly catchy, bouncing along with an earworm backing vocal hook destined to soundtrack the next wave of cellphone commercials. And the Mutemath-esque “Milk & Black Spiders” gets more exhilarating with each passing second, the band slowly cranking up the volume to swallow the song’s melodic refrain in their swell.

But more often, Foals forego traditional verse-chorus dynamics for the arty complexity of their math rock lineage or the sweaty spontaneity of their EDM influences. The meandering song structures do wonders for the band—see the icy, chaotic rush of “Providence,” or the jagged, thumping heartbeat-guitar bleeps that mark the sepulchral closer, “Moon”—to the point where Philippakis’ repetitious, often cliche-ridden lyrics are rendered almost inconsequential. There may come a day when Foals shoot for the emotional bombast of the stadium-baiting bands they are so clearly trying to emulate here. But for now, they’re merely peddlers of sonic splendor, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Still, Holy Fire is the kind of album that could easily run together if used for nothing more than background music. These songs demand attention like they demand volume; they require the space of repeat listens and the privilege of high fidelity audio presentation. But man, as soon as that riff kicks in on “Inhaler” and the song blows wide open, I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to give these guys the time they deserve.

Josh Ritter - The Beast in Its Tracks

Pytheas, 2013

After Josh Ritter’s last couple releases, I was beginning to wonder if his music would ever connect with me again like it had in the old days. His finest albums, 2006’s The Animal Years and 2007’s The Historical Conquests of... were both loaded with terrific melodies, astounding lyrical content, and emulations of musical influences that sit directly in my wheelhouse, from Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan to Leonard Cohen. 2010’s slow-burning return, titled So Runs the World Away, largely sought refuge in a sunnier folk-pop vein, a la Paul Simon, but despite a few stellar stand-outs, fell short. And last year’s EP, Bringing in the Darlings, failed to connect with me on any level.

But heartbreak has a way of bringing about creative rebirth. It did for Dylan in 1975, when his break-up album masterpiece Blood on the Tracks reignited a decade that otherwise failed to reach the heights of its creator’s heyday; it did it for Springsteen, who wrote what was arguably his most unique, introspective, and confessional set of songs with 1987’s Tunnel of Love, just before his marriage imploded; and it has done the same for countless artists across the landscape of music history, from Italian opera to classic rock ‘n’ roll to modern emo. In that case, the recently-divorced Josh Ritter is hardly unique, but the fact doesn’t make his latest album, The Beast in Its Tracks, any less striking. In fact, Beast is Ritter’s most engaging and consistent record since The Animal Years...and probably his best as well.

Ritter has never lacked for great lyrical content. His signature song, 2006’s “Thin Blue Flame,” thrived on nine-and-a-half minutes of illusion-heavy verses, while the finest songs on So Runs the World Away were sprawling narrative epics. The songwriter’s propensity for dense poetic imagery and well-fashioned turns of phrase are very much intact here, but they’re also accompanied by more welcoming musical textures and stronger melodies than we’ve heard from Ritter in quite awhile. Witness the tremulous explosion of strings and acoustic guitars that opens the rollicking and biting “New Lover” (“But if you’re sad and you’re lonesome, and you got nobody true/I’d be lyin’ if I said that didn’t make me happy too,” Ritter croons over the song’s final moments) or the classic folk harmonies that give “In Your Arms Awhile” its heaven-bound grace. Meanwhile, it’s the enveloping mix of organic instrumentation and ambient sonic textures that lend more innocuous album tracks, such as the intimate “Nightmares” or the country-whine of “Bonfires,” a sense of cohesion with the rest of the record.

But The Beast in Its Tracks wouldn’t be a Josh Ritter album without at least a few home-runs, and luckily, the hits here are plentiful. Early-album triumph “Hopeful” is Ritter’s “Tangled up in Blue,” a winding relationship narrative that relates the stab of watching the person you love pack up and walk out the door better than almost any I’ve ever heard. “The sunlight corroded and the days started to fail/The rocks in the road sharpened shadows to nails,” Ritter sings, his very world turning against him as life spirals out of control. The aforementioned “In Your Arms Awhile” takes heartbreak to near-anthemic heights, while the chiming first single, “Joy to You Baby,” is the record’s most immediate stand-out. The redemptive penultimate number, “Joy to You Baby” is a flawless freeway slow-burn, a thoughtful evening song with bittersweet flickers of forgiveness floating through its glorious strains. “There’s pain in whatever we stumble upon/If I never had met you, you couldn’t have gone,” Ritter notes. “But then I couldn’t have met you, we couldn’t have been/I guess it all adds up to joy in the end.” Simple. Universal. Beautiful.

So many of my favorite musical works are break-up albums: there’s something about an artist baring their soul on record, tearing down the walls and letting their fans see them bleed and break, that has always felt so noble and romantic to me. I suppose it’s the relatability factor, or maybe the fact that I’ve always been partial to emotionally charged songwriting, but there’s a reason that Blood on the Tracks or Tunnel of Love or Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or Butch Walker’s Letters land so high on my all-time favorite albums list. The Beast in Its Tracks offers the same kind of catharsis, and just like each of those albums, Ritter finds a silver lining in these songs. This is no pity party; in addition to his divorce, Ritter’s tumultuous past three years have seen his second marriage and the birth of his child. So when light breaks through the clouds—something that happens, appropriately, on the lush, acoustic number, “A Certain Light,” and the organ-drenched, slowdance closer, “Lights”—the results are both comforting and viscerally satisfying. And Ritter, one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation, guides the whole thing with a steady hand, giving us love, hate, loss, rebirth, resentment, redemption, forgiveness, and nostalgia, and encapsulating it all into 43 minutes and 28 seconds of smooth folk bliss. 2013’s bar has just been raised.

Sleeping At Last - Atlas: Darkness

Sleeping At Last - Atlas: Darkness
Self-Released, 2013


*The following review was one I wrote a few months back for Ryan O'Neal (the mastermind behind Sleeping At Last), has since released Light, the second part of the Atlas series. Check it out here.

As modern trends have begun to overwhelm the system of music distribution, washing away the old ways of doing things and moving further and further into the digital realm, artists have continually strived to do different things with their music. Radiohead famously offered their seventh LP, 2007’s In Rainbows, on a pay-what-you-want basis. Other artists have taken to kickstarter pages in order to launch recording projects, or offered free downloads in hopes of building a fanbase for their live shows. And keepsake physical formats like vinyl records—and, in some bizarre instances, cassette tapes—have been resurrected to suit the ever-shifting whims of listeners. But in many cases, the most important rules of the game have become accessibility, immediacy, and visibility. It’s increasingly rare for artists to take years off between releases and tours, and as a result, EPs, reissues, live albums, concert DVDs, and special fan-club collections have all become important tools for maintaining a foothold in the industry.

Within this swirl of modernization—even as the major record labels attempt to cling to the old rules—indie-folk rock outfit Sleeping At Last has proven to be one of the most interesting players. The brainchild of Chicago-based musician Ryan O’Neal, Sleeping At Last released four full-length records between 2000 and 2009, but never really caught my ear until 2011. And when they did, it wasn’t a full record that did the trick, but a series of short, conceptual EPs called the Yearbook Collection. Released between October 2010 and September 2011, Yearbook encompassed one EP for every month of the year, each with three tracks, and all covering a wide range of musical ground, thematic atmosphere, and varied musical landscape.

But Yearbook, offered on an innovative subscription basis through the band’s website, was more than just another musical project. It was an experiment in keeping listeners engaged for an entire year; it was a triple-album’s worth of material spread out over 12 months; and it was a reminder of why the actual sonic portion of a musical purchase is only a part of the experience. With beautiful artwork for each EP and constant blog updates providing insight into O’Neal’s artistic process, Yearbook was a perfect example of how an independent artist can thrive in the modern age. And as songs from the collection landed slots on various television programs, as O’Neal contributed a track to the oft-praised Twilight soundtracks, it was clear that his artistic experiment was working out fairly well

After taking a well-deserved break in 2012 (aside from a handful of singles, that is), O’Neal has returned to kick off another series of EPs, and this time, his vision has an even wider arc. Where Yearbook had an obvious end-date from the moment it was conceived, the new series, titled Atlas, will allow O’Neal the bountiful freedom of moving the goalposts whenever he sees fit. Atlas, as a larger series, will be an exploration of “the origins, emergence, and experiences of life,” and it’s easy to see how those concepts might be manipulated into a musical odyssey that lasts a decade. According to the songwriter, the first three years of the project have already been mapped out, with potential for more releases to follow.

Poetically, the first disc in the series is called Darkness. “Like all things, Atlas begins with Darkness,” O’Neal reasoned on his blog, following the announcement of the series. “The meanings behind the word “Darkness” are endless: beginnings, fear, blindness, the unknown, loss, even hope, and so much more.” Fittingly, “Overture” begins the set with the commencement of the universe, carrying us through the tides of human history as it goes. Over a bed of organic mandolin acoustics and an orchesis of musical flourishes, first swelling and then quickly receding again, “Overture” is a gorgeous introduction to the world that Atlas will undoubtedly continue to flesh out as it moves forward.

The pulsating intensity of “Woodwork” is even more interesting, with a flickering, Coldplay-esque intro and a soaring, guttural hook. In four minutes, O’Neal builds an almost apocalyptic atmosphere. He gives us a view of the world in chaos, of darkness falling across life, love, and civilization, but he also imbues that dire situation with an eerie calm. We feel like we’re watching the universe fall to its knees while remaining safe in the eye of the storm, while holding fast underwater because to break the surface would be to come apart. “It’s a cruel, cruel trick/How we lose ourselves when we find everything else,” O’Neal sings in the final verse. “Like a train wreck, the sound of your breathing hits my ears/Our world reappears and it breaks us new.” The imagery is rich and the message clear: we take the greatest things in life for granted until they are about to be taken away. We only cherish the light when the darkness has stolen it from us. And that’s a sentiment that appears time and time again throughout these five songs.

By the time the record reaches its final track, the heart-shattering climax that is “Uneven Odds,” it overpowers you. Of all the songs on Darkness, “Uneven Odds” may be the only one to address the concept of death directly. “I once knew your father well,” O’Neal sings at the outset, his mournful croon and a series of funereal piano chords distinguishing the mood. “He fought tears as he spoke of your mother’s health.” It’s a sobering beginning to song that rises from its tearful intro into a rousing, orchestral catharsis. The mother dies, the father leaves, and the child is left to battle a world of his own darkness. But the narrator is his guardian, a helping hand for the hard times whose parting words hint at where Atlas will give us next: “Darkness exists to make light truly count.”

One of my only issues with Yearbook was that each EP was only made up of three songs. No matter how good the highlights were, there was never an opportunity for O’Neal to really build any sense of thematic or musical tension, and as a result, each piece passed more as a snapshot of the month it was covering than as a meticulously composed portrait. Atlas: Darkness takes full advantage of its extra time though, constructing a radiant latticework of mournful energy and emotive force through its songs. The result is a weightier, more fully-realized work than anything O’Neal has tackled before, and with the Light EP on the way sometime this year and more pieces of Atlas to follow, I’m looking forward to watching this panoramic vision come into focus.