It’s no surprise that I spend a lot of time listening to/preaching the gospel of Harvey Danger. When the vinyl reissue of Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? was announced, I was on the No Sleep website ordering a copy and a T-shirt as quickly as I could. There’s a tiny little part of me that feels like Harvey Danger is “my” band, that if I don’t act immediately, things will disappear. I don’t know how to explain that except to say that my interest and attitude reflects the urgency of the music, the tightrope walk of knowledge and hope. But then I began to realize that this record has been out for seventeen years– SEVENTEEN YEARS– and my relationship with this record is now old enough to drive a car. I’ve had this record since it came out, and now, getting to hear it on vinyl, it’s like I get to go back in time and hear it for the first time over again.
So why should you buy the reissue? I have six reasons. (I almost did “ten reasons” and just listed the songs.) You can skip down the list to whichever one applies to you (like a choose your own adventure review!) This should save you from some of my rambling awe. Or hell, if you like that kind of blind enthusiasm, read the whole article and then drop me an email and we can talk about how magical it is that we live in a world where things like Harvey Danger exist at all, much less re-exist.
(1) You should buy this record because you are already a Harvey Danger fan and you know how good this record is.
“But I have the CD,” I hear you complaining. NOT THE SAME. I’m the first to shrug off hipster accoutrements in favor of whatever is easiest or most enjoyable. It just so happens that this time, the best choice for everyone is vinyl. (I always think that, but I have specific reasons this time!) Merrymakers is not a record that exists in the background: it is passionate, almost aggressively so, and it is layered and beautiful. I had a writing professor tell me that the key to every good piece of art is that someone worried over every line and detail: this is a record that has been meticulously worried over.
I’ve known every word to this record since I was twelve. I don’t usually talk about how young I am on this blog because I know that makes me seem less “credible,” but I think it’s incredibly important to say: I have known this record since I was a child. And as a child, it meant something to me that has morphed and grown into something more important as I got older. All of the ghosts of my former selves live in this record. I cannot imagine a better way to honor that than to sit down and listen to it, very intentionally. To raise the needle and lower it, to hear the sacred hush before “Carlotta Valdes” and to take that final deep breath as “Radio Silence” winds down. And I swear, Nelson’s voice has never sounded better than it does on this record. Huff’s bass has never been so bombastic. The drums have never been so visceral.
You already like it on CD, though? And you don’t care about whatever near-religious ritual I’ve told you about?
Then you should buy it because Sean Nelson has written a beautiful retrospective essay in the front that actually helped add a new dimension to the record. I actually underlined things in the essay. I’m not kidding. Reading about how Aaron Huff’s bassline is what defines “Flagpole Sitta” made “Flagpole Sitta” shiny and new for me. And he’s right– it is damned impressive. It’s insanely good. All of the bass on the record is. And hearing how Nelson hears the record will add a new experience for any fan. No Sleep posted an excerpt, and because I think the essay is one of the best gifts the record has to offer, I’ll only reprint what they posted here, and not share each of my favorite parts:
That’s what this record is for me. I get to hear the person I was when I wasn’t yet me, and what an incredible gift. If you’re already a fan, I can’t tell you how powerful this experience is.
(2) You don’t know Harvey Danger at all.
This is a hell of a place to start. The writing is top-notch. I’ve already written about how brilliant Nelson’s lyrics are… here and here. (One of those places is a legitimate literary magazine that let me talk about HD, so… I guess you should know that my thoughts and feelings here are legitimate.) But I think Merrymakers does something very few records accomplish: though the writing is tight and specific, the songs grow and change as the listener grows and changes. There is room for life in these songs. They aren’t prescriptive: in fact, some of the songs were written specifically not to be prescriptive (Nelson talks about “Jack the Lion” in the liner notes). The weird tenderness of “Private Helicopter” seems to strike this truth the most bluntly for me. The set-up is interesting: “I’m in a private helicopter/ With my favorite ex-girlfriend.” When I was young, it always seemed like the love letter that could have been, the idea that isolation and being alone could make things work. Sort of the dream of the introvert. “If only it could be just us…”
Today when I listen to “Private Helicopter,” it strikes me that I don’t know many other tender break-up songs. This is a song about a relationship that didn’t work– but the people still miss each other, still respect each other. And that seems so true and real to me. (For full disclosure’s sake, just earlier today, I was singing Ben Folds’s “Song for the Dumped,” which seems in perfect contrast to what I’m talking about here…). I guess what I’m saying is that because of the depth of the lyrics (and music– the music is incredibly rich and layered, as well), these are songs that can be every bit as thoughtful and remarkable as you want them to be. And even if you don’t think that deeply about them, well, you’ve always got the fact that this record sounds so damned good. I was moved near tears today by a song I have known for seventeen years. (It was “Problems and Bigger Ones,” and the line, “The man was very helpful, but we knew he couldn’t stay/ There used to be a baby, but the baby went away,” destroys me.) I can’t think of many records that do that for me. One is August and Everything After, which, if you have read my thoughts on the Counting Crows, lets you know what I think of Merrymakers.
(3) You’re smarter now than you were in 1997.
Seriously. This is a chance to right that wrong. Go back in time. Buy the record. Jump on the bandwagon.
(4) The bridge on “Wooly Muffler.”
The sweetness in the delivery: “Belabored ex-pat fantasy/ Quit your job, and move away with me/ Oh, what bliss it would be/ To pretend we never–” and then the band breaks in in a cavalcade of organized noise and dischord. I’m not sure there’s a moment on the record I enjoy more than the transition between the previous lyrics and the fade-out, “I’m elated now, I’m elated now.”
I almost called this section several different things because there are so many magical moments on this record. The drums on the intro of “Carlotta Valdes.” The incredible smoldering close of “Radio Silence.” The anger and frustration in “Terminal Annex.” The thumping intensity of “Private Helicopter.” I could go on. What I’m saying here is if you are someone who ferrets out the moments in a record that matter, Merrymakers is a smorgasbord and you will not be disappointed.
(5) You’re someone who complains that songs aren’t original, or worse, that they’re all re-hashed versions of themselves.
I hear this complaint a lot: “All pop/country/rap/etc. sounds the same,” or “all those stories seem familiar.” Though I disagree and I think plenty of people are telling new and compelling stories with their music, I think this record is one of the best at disproving that disappointing thesis. “Jack the Lion” is about visiting a dying family member, and after seeing my grandfather in an assisted living home and then a nursing home, I can’t think of a song that so accurately captures that feeling. Worse, I’ve heard myself echoing the line about “strong hands” as a way of convincing myself that maybe things weren’t so dire before– this song is the living embodiment of the things we tell ourselves when we’re afraid and when we’re trying to say goodbye. It’s an upbeat. I’m not sure how to explain that except to say you should probably listen to “Jack the Lion.”
Every song on this record is unique in some way: the new, bumbling, excited love of “Old Hat” is invigorating to me, and by the time the female vocals come in at the soaring bridge, it seems like the most genuine love song I know. I am always lifted up by the lyrics, “I forget/ What my friends look like/ And they forget why they like me/ But that’s old hat, I’m so happy/ How do you write about that?”
(6) You have some kind of knee-jerk reaction to “Flagpole Sitta.”
If you loved “Flagpole Sitta,” you’ll find the same fun wordplay throughout this record. If you hate “Flagpole Sitta,” you’ll be shocked at how the rest of the record borrows the greatest things about the song (intense bassline, sense of humor, high octane rock) and manages to somehow escape the traits you’re too snobby to admit you like (I honestly don’t think anyone hates this song, I just think some people like to pretend they do.)
On a personal note: part of the reason I love writing about Harvey Danger is I am energized by this music. Believe it or not, I’m not trying to convince you. There are bands out there that I love– the Counting Crows, the Old 97′s– that I genuinely think are “everybody” bands. I am blinded by my love for Harvey Danger enough that when I listen to them, I don’t understand why they aren’t being talked about everywhere, by everyone. But I’m also protective of them in a way that I’m not of most bands I love. Often, I’ll have someone say, “I don’t get Harvey Danger,” and even though I’ll say, “I understand,” what I mean is, “I can’t talk about this with you.” Maybe I take it too personally: this was one of the first records that I ever listened to that made me think, “I am not alone in my enthusiasm. I am not alone in my passion.” Harvey Danger breaks my heart and rebuilds me. Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? was probably the first record to give me the vocabulary I would later come to rely on in my own writing and my own relationships.
Which goes back to what Nelson said in the essay: he says that this record is a picture of himself when he was not yet who he was. I get that. This record for me is a guide to how I became the person I am. It is a stunning piece of music and art, but on a personal level, it is much, much more than that. And seventeen years in, I am grateful this is one of the records that found its way into my hands and helped me learn how to become the person I wanted to be.
BUY WHERE HAVE ALL THE MERRYMAKERS ON VINYL:
The only other artist I feel this kind of protective about? Is Elliott Smith. If you’ve heard me talk about Elliott Smith before, that should be its own kind of recommendation for this record. (Also, know what a dream come true it was to hear The Long Winters perform “Pictures of Me” last October. It was one of the most fully realized moments I’ve ever had of listening to live music:Nelson taking the high harmony on “seen nothing wrong” was basically transcendent.) This is the only video I’ve found of the show, so here’s The Long Winters playing “Scared Straight”:
I talk pretty frequently about my dad’s influence on my love of music– and the way I talk about, think about, and listen to music. So it’s no surprise that, on this Father’s Day, I can’t stop singing Beatles songs. There was a time when I could name each Beatles track in the (American) track listing order, first record to last– including Hey Jude. (I’m old and can’t do it now.) Some of my greatest treasures from a young age were the tapes he recorded for me, especially this one– to this day, the best Beatles mix I’ve ever heard. (It’s got all the early treasures, which, if you’re any kind of a pop fan at all, are essential– “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” their version of “Til There Was You,” etc.)
When I think of my father’s voice, I often hear it singing “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” He sang it in the car, in the house, playing in the backyard, and tucking us in at night. It’s always been a song that was loaded with sweetness and home for me, because it was always around. The other song that is inextricably linked to my father in my memory is “I’ll Follow the Sun,” which, of course, sounds like a song about going away, but always resonated more as a song about coming home and the distance between the two acts. My dad had to travel a lot when I was a kid, but this was a song he sang all the time– and one that I still smile and think of him when I hear. Of course, now I’m the one far from home. That’s how things go. But, as the song goes, tomorrow may rain, so I’ll follow the sun.
I’m not sure that this is a digression, because my memories of my dad all bleed together with my memories of how music works, but this is a story I’ve always loved. It’s one of my few early-early memories that is still as visceral as it was the day it happened. I played softball for years (and still pride myself on how tough I was: I was a catcher, and could even switch-hit on occasion. Young me was formidable). When I started, my dad signed on to coach– and he was great at it. We were in a coach-pitch league, which means the coach stands out on the mound and lobs the ball to the kids– it must have been a 6U or 8U league. The way I remember it– which of course, is faulty, partially because it was so long ago, and partially because all memories of one’s parents are tinged either with the sepia-hue of admiration or the black-and-white disappointment of adulthood– but the way I remember it, it was hot and sticky, and Dad had been out there pitching for some time. We were losing– probably. My dad was ten feet tall. (This is how memory is tricky. I really remember thinking he was the tallest man on earth.) And somewhere in the bleachers, a mom was screaming at her six-year-old kid about what a crappy baseball player they were.
What I know happened: my dad walked off the mound. He said he wasn’t going to be a party to that kind of ridiculousness and that he wasn’t going to encourage meanness over something that was supposed to be fun, supposed to be a children’s game. This is a man who knows the incredible power of winning sports: I saw him with a tear in his eye when the Longhorns won the Rose Bowl. But the day he walked off the mound, he taught me something even more powerful than the uniting force of team– the importance of having principles and for standing up for them. The importance of standing up for people with no voice. And the importance of kindness. These are traits my dad exemplifies in everyday life, but I’ll always remember that small act– him walking away from something he enjoyed and loved– because he wanted to do the right thing.
I also think of my dad every time I hear Hard Candy, a record I listen to all the time– he flew me out to Sacramento to see the Counting Crows open up for the Who on July 4th when I was 16. It would have been memorable no matter what, but it was the second show the Who played after John Entwistle died, and I’ll never forget the incredible bittersweetness of that empty spotlight. It was the first time I’d ever heard “Richard Manuel is Dead” and I’ll never forget when, after announcing loudly that Adam had pointed at me (I was sure of it… haha), my dad buckled down and told people for weeks, “It was incredible. He pointed at her.” Haha. Thanks Dad for taking me to places I would have never gone, for playing along with me, for sharing your interests with me and for always listening to my music, too.
I could list a hundred songs that make me think of my dad, but I just couldn’t imagine letting today go without acknowledging how important he is to me. I rarely put on the turntable without smiling, remembering that he taught me how to do this, and thinking of him. (In fact– if I’m not mistaken– he taught me how to flip the records so I could hear all the songs I liked on the White Album.)
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.
I’ve been absent around here for a while: in January, I started teaching a 4/4 load at my dream school, the University of Evansville. (Fancy that– dream school as a student and a professor.) As I was learning the ropes, though, I was finishing my thesis and preparing for my final MFA residency at Spalding. Hopefully now that I’m an MFA graduate, I’ll be back to writing about music and listening to music. I’ve collected so many amazing records and songs I want to talk about– I have Most Messed Up by the Old 97′s to talk about, the Cake box set that I scored on Record Store Day from Joe’s Records in Corydon, IN– so, so much. Plus, new Counting Crows record at the end of the summer. I’ve got a lot to talk about.
That said. I’ve found that most of what I’m listening to right now are random songs that pop into my head while I’m writing or working that I pull up on YouTube, and a lot of it is what I consider “summer pop.” I’ve actually got a separate Chrome window for my “collection” of songs. So after looking through them tonight (and determining that they are worthy of discussion) I thought I’d share the songs that got me through finals week, both as a professor and a student in a terminal degree seeking program. I’d love to hear whatever random songs are in your mind, too– please leave comments or tweet @kwdarby. (If you tweet, though! Use the hashtags #tonymemmel #mabf– Tony’s in the running for a gig on VH1.)
All right. For starters–
The Clientele, “Since K Got Over Me”
I’ve loved this song since college. I remember sitting in the hard, wooden dorm chair, looking at my laptop, watching the song loop itself over and over. It’s the kind of song that somehow both extends and alleviates perpetual misery. It is soft and beautiful, it is mournful, it is stunning. I don’t know why this is a song that comes back to me in seasons, but it also seems perfect for the languid hot days of summer. No matter what’s going on in my life, this song grounds me, puts me in a pensive place, and stops me in my tracks on that last percussive intro to the chorus:
I don’t think I’ll be happy anymore
I think I closed that door
But every night, a strange geometry–
Since K got over me, since K got over me
Hanson, “Never Been to Spain”
Guys. I know we all got together at the meeting years ago and decided Hanson was cool again, but their covers blow my mind. There’s a great version of Zac singing “Oh! Darling” out there somewhere. And hell, I’ll throw my hat in the ring to say I love their last few records, especially the song, “This Time Around,” which is a stellar pop song. But this. THIS is the Hanson Grail. I absolutely adore the wild vocals, the complete devotion to even the nonsensical lyrics. What a fun cover. I can’t think of one I enjoy more. This song has been a blessing in terms of something to sing along with.
Liz Phair, “Divorce Song”
I love early Liz Phair (much like literally everyone else on earth). I’m not sure if this song is my favorite or not, but it’s definitely the one I listen to the most. It’s crushing. The lyrics to this song are so bitter and so dark that they can only be sung by a completely broken narrator. I love the way the song sounds, I love how raw it is, but I’d be lying if I said I was into Phair for anything but the incredible dead-pan writing–
It’s harder to be friends than lovers
And you shouldn’t try to mix the two
‘Cos if you do it and you’re still unhappy
Then you’ll know that the problem is you
Though her philosophical observations like that one are phenomenal, what’s really amazing is Phair’s ability to weave a dramatic narrative throughout. The song is compelling as a story, as well. Which is what makes the resolution so incredibly brutal–
And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead
But if you’re tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am.
Ouch. Hard not to want to listen to no-pulled-punches writing like that when you’re trying to generate your own fiction.
Guster, “Barrel of a Gun”
Does everyone know Guster? I feel like I’m talking to people who know Guster. This is the best Guster song. I say that because, though I like almost all of their music, nothing excites me quite like this one does. I know that it’s biological: the drums compel me to move and shout along. I dare you to listen to this song without singing along with the chorus. I dare you. That said, the lyrics are fun and playful, too. This is one of those songs that, if you haven’t heard it, you should give a shot. I feel like there are only a small group of people that wouldn’t dig this song, and they probably aren’t reading this blog.
The Polyphonic Spree, “You’re Golden”
I’m sort of surprised to see that this song has stuck around. I heard it, no joke, over the loudspeaker at a Starbucks, and immediately sought it out. It’s nothing groundbreaking, I guess– I feel like we’ve come to expect something like that from the Polyphonic Spree– but it’s such a lovely, peaceful song. I’m as shocked as you are that I like a song that talks about “Facebook likes”– but it’s got these bells and this great driving chorus… you’ll understand. Plus, the wonky musical bridge. Maybe there’s that famous experimental edge I was looking for.
Fountains of Wayne, “Hey Julie”
I have a love/hate relationship with Fountains of Wayne. I love the way everything they’ve ever written sounds and feels. (Want a good story, corner me sometime and ask me about the summer “Stacey’s Mom” came out. That’s where the “hate” comes in.) This song does what Fountains of Wayne does best: a catchy, light-hearted pop song. It decries all of the minutia of a life as it conflicts with the narrator’s love for Julie. I love that the song physically spends more space in the narrator’s workspace than it does with Julie: it echoes his complaints. It’s a fun little song and I find it in my head constantly.
Aimee Mann, “Real Bad News”
And now to bring the mood down! I’ve talked about this song before: it’s one that I initially skipped over when I was listening through the record. But it’s slowly become my favorite track. I love the spacey intro– the authority in the vocals and in the lyrics. “You don’t know, so don’t say you do/ You don’t,” may be the most intriguing first few lines of a song. I am blown away by it. Of course, that isn’t my favorite line– that goes to the much darker,
Baby, let me tell you, you can get some things confused
Like whose secrets are whose
And that’s real bad news.
Katie Herzig, “Hologram”
This is a song I first found on a Paste sampler many, many years ago. It’s a catchy upbeat, but what keeps me coming back to the song is Herzig’s vocal delivery. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to go from her slow, torchy verse to the bouncy, coy pre-chorus and found it nearly impossible to do. There’s such character in this song and I adore it.
Mother Love Bone, “Crown of Thorns”
I’m currently working on a novel set in the grunge era. I feel like I have to know this song so well that I’ve internalized it, that it’s become a part of me. I first fell in love and had my heart broken by Andrew Wood when I was watching Pearl Jam 20– I knew the story, but my God, seeing it told that way– it seriously changed my life. Not just as a music lover, but as a writer. Crowe was able to take a real story and make it more meaningful to me than fiction– without changing any details– just by humanizing every person in it. It was incredible. This song still gives me chills, and I actually have a hard time watching the Eddie Vedder tribute version– doesn’t matter how good it sounds, it always brings a tear to my eye. Man. “Crown of Thorns.” (And listen to “Chloe Dancer,” too. What are we, animals? Of course, listen to “Chloe Dancer,” too.)
Gram Parsons, “$1000 Wedding”
I always have something Gram on, and lately I’ve been obsessed with the turn in this one: it seems to go from one song to another so easily. I love that the lyrics could be melodramatic, but Gram’s vocals are so empathetic and mournful that it seems like the only way a story could be told. Plus, Gram’s songs always make me think of my dad, so it’s a bonus.
Josh Ritter, “Good Man” and “Lawrence, KS”
The thing about finishing my MFA– it required several 10-day stays in Louisville for coursework. I feel like that’s supposed to be a perk, but I’m a homebody, and someone who craves coming home and being with my husband at the end of the day. So when he’s not around, this song always makes me think of him. I’ve been listening to Josh since long before I met my husband, and it doesn’t seem surprising to me that when I seek comfort, I still find it in his lyrics. This song is off his brilliant The Animal Years, but everything he’s ever released is brilliant– you can pick up any record and find comfort and joy there. This song reminds me of Andy because he is, as cheesy as this is, the consummate good man. I love that you can hear the smile in Josh’s voice as he sings:
You’re not a good shot, but I’m worse
And there’s so much where we ain’t been, yet
So swing up on this little horse
The only thing we’ll hit is sunset
Babe, we’ve both had dry spells
Hard times in bad lands
But I’m a good man for you
I’m a good man
I’ve also been listening to some older Josh, which is a pretty normal phase for me to go through in the beginning of summer. This song has some of my favorite imagery and discusses what those “hard times” in “Good Man” may have looked like. The characters in Josh’s songs are strong, good people who are caught up in bad times or confusion, or sometimes just in love, and they are always looking for a chance to rise above circumstance. I feel like I love every person I’ve met in his music, and I wish I could write like that. This is one of the songs I listen to when I want to remember that you can write about trouble without writing about people who can’t find redemption. The last image–
Preacher says that when the Master calls us
He’ll give us wings so we can fly
But my wings are made of hay and cornhusks
So I can’t leave this world behind
Bruce Springsteen, “Atlantic City”
I don’t know if “Atlantic City” is the best song of all time. I don’t even know if it’s the best Bruce song. But it’s the one I can’t get out of my head, the one I can’t stop playing, the one I can’t quit accidentally writing in to other places, despite the fact that, usually by this time of year, I’m hooked on “Girls in their Summer Clothes.” I love this song. I don’t feel like this is one that I can make better by talking about it.
All right, guys. That’s what I’m listening to. I have a lot of new music to talk about soon (has anyone else heard the new Natalie Merchant? The Both record? The new Old 97′s? I am behind on all of these conversations!) Thanks for sticking with me through the craziest semester I’ve lived through in a long time.
I fell in love with The Luxury about a year ago when I first heard “The Malcontent.” Since that time, I’ ve realized that their music has done nothing but get better and better with time. They’re currently working on releasing their first full-length record since 2009, and if the teaser above is any indication, it should be a stellar pop record. Again– that would be par for the course. Dunn’s ear for melodies always makes their records tend towards catchy soundscapes– full, lush songs that are instantly stuck in your head. I’m really looking forward to Bones and Beaten Heart.
I’m looking forward to it so much that I myself have donated (and as always, wish I could give more) at the IndieGoGo campaign (which you can access here)– it’s open for another four or five days, and I think this is one of those records you want to get a jump on. For 15$, you can preorder the record and help them fund the promotion and recording. It’s a win-win situation. Still not sold? Check out the video and tell me that those songs don’t already sound like some of the better Oasis recordings… They’ve got the psychpop sound down.
I can’t wait to see what The Luxury has in store on this new record. Hopefully they’ll meet their goal and we’ll all be talking about how phenomenal the recording is come September.
FIND THE LUXURY ONLINE:
Southern Indiana based musician Nick Dittmeier had an EP, Light of Day, come out on April 22– and it certainly fulfills the promise of the last EP I heard. His band has hit a sweet spot between classic Americana throwback and jam music: each instrument shines in one part or another, and Dittmeier’s voice is consistently dynamic and interesting. I’ll have a full review up soon, but until then, enjoy his new video for the first single, “Light of Day.”
FIND NICK DITTMEIER ONLINE:
I feel like I should use this opportunity to make some kind of a pun about the record title and my belated review, but really, I’m only late to review this because I wanted to give it my full attention. Dave and the rest of Runaway Dorothy have been incredible to me– not just because they are, quite literally, the band that launched KDR, but because they have become friends. Runaway Dorothy has gone out of their way to come play a set in Evansville for me. They called out to me onstage at the Bowery Electric last October. Most of the really cool events I’ve been invited to, I can trace back to having met Dave on Twitter three or four years ago. So reviewing their sophomore release The Wait wasn’t something I wanted to treat with anything other than my whole mind (which, until recently, has been mostly occupied with grading and my own thesis). So while it’s unsurprising to find a positive review at KDR (…since that’s the whole purpose of the site), it gives me a unique pleasure to share with you just how beautiful and well-done this record is. I’m sure many of my readers already have a copy, but if you don’t, you’ll want one by the end of this review.
Here’s Runaway Dorothy outside my alma mater/place of work, the University of Evansville. “Hurry” is one of the tracks on The Wait.
Runaway Dorothy has gone from being the best solo-acoustic act in Brooklyn to the best alt-country band in Brooklyn to, with this release, my pick for best working country band. This is a huge step forward in terms of both sound and writing. The Wait has shades of Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, old gospel songs, and Heartbreaker and Cold Roses-era Ryan Adams (most especially in “Want it All,” which I’ll get to later). Basically, if I made a list of all of the music that makes me feel warm and protected and stable, this record is influenced by it. The musicality on this record is phenomenal. One of the most stunning parts of the record– just across the board– is Brett’s banjo. If you like banjo music, this record will be engaging, playful, and just impressive all around. I think many bands limit themselves by using banjo as a curiosity or almost as permission to let the audience know the song has a sense of humor: RD is smarter than that and for that reason, the banjo really shines here. I am also blown away at the background and group vocals. All four members of the band (there are five now, but four on the record) have stellar voices, and the warmth and power of them combined is incredibly powerful. Sonically, this whole record is a force to be reckoned with.
“Sing With Me”
The record opens with the plaintive “Sing With Me,” which is perfect in terms of setting tone for the rest of the record. (One of the things I’m most impressed with about The Wait, actually, is how much attention was paid to pacing and structure. I guess it’s my “day job” as a composition/creative writing professor, but I really pay attention to structure these days.) It is literally an invitation to the listener:
Lord I’m weary and broken
Sing with me, sing with me
With all these words left unspoken
Sing with me, sing with me
You are never alone, you are never alone
There’s an assumption here: things are hard, but the music is medicine. These are songs that are meant to be company when you’re lonely and to be mantras when you’re broken. I think that’s how Dave operates: his songs aren’t just beautiful and fun to listen to, but they are useful, as well– the highest praise I can give art.
My first “favorite” song was “Give Me a Reason,” which is an up-tempo song that comes together with the force and movement of a train. It’s steady, but it’s so instantly memorable and catchy. I can’t tell you how many times the week I got this record that I found myself humming this melody and wondering what it was before realizing that it was “Give Me a Reason.” The high harmony part on the chorus is stunning: the electric guitar part over the rest of the music is great: and it’s one of those classic “under three-minute” songs that gets in and out while the energy is still high and the lyrics are still fresh. (I have a theory about the reason songs just under three minutes are usually better than ones that drag out, but that’s for another time…)
“Give Me a Reason” is a perfect example about what’s great about The Wait: it sounds good the first time you hear it, but the magic is in the repeated listens. This is the kind of record that is permanently in the rotation now: the songs have jumped off the CD and into my brain, and it’s guitar parts and melodies like this that helped them make that transition so quickly. The lyrics are great, too: Dave has a way of writing heartbreak that is both blunt and accessible. Simply stated images and well-written choruses like this populate the record, making it feel both like a picture of middle America and like a confession:
Oh my love, like a little girl
Running tall, she never falls…
Give me a reason that I should stay
Hold my heart, don’t let it stray
Time has its reasons and wonders why
You would waste your life (by my side)
After a month or so of living with this record, though, I decided “Want It All” is my favorite song. It’s moving and heartbreaking and that’s just the introductory chords. The melody is one of longing and untapped potential: it reminds me of Ryan Adams’s “Blossom,” because though it’s not necessarily similar, it gives me the same feelings. It’s a beautiful song. I think my favorite part (outside of the lyrics) is the way it leaves off on a musical high note– it just fades out. I am never ready for this song to end, and I think that’s why it’s so effective and beautiful. The song is like breathing: while every other track on the record ends on an exhale, this one feels like an inhale. I love it. This isn’t just my favorite song on the record– it’s currently my favorite song. I haven’t hit “repeat” this much since Cameron McGill’s “Athena fate isn’t very fair” towards the end of the fall.
There’s a wolf at the door trying to come inside
But you still want it all, don’t you?
Giving my heart away like you do
Don’t want to hurt this time…
Down in the desert where the wells run dry
Storms are flooding for you tonight
Deep in the canyon where so many can hide
Where I’ve lost my will to fight
You still want it all, don’t you?
The dissatisfaction and the sadness in this song is palpable, probably in part due to Dave’s understated, deep, sad vocals. This is just amazing.
There isn’t a song on The Wait that I don’t like: “Ballad of a Dead Man” is a murder ballad (which is always welcome in my world); “Caroline” reminds me of early Ryan Adams and has one of the most fun banjo lines in the entire record; “Hurry” builds like a tornado, repeating and falling over itself as it picks up speed until it finally hits the vocals in the chorus, “I don’t understand anymore” before devolving into chaos again with “Hurry and tell me that you love me once more”; “Chases” has an almost jazzy introduction before becoming an Isbell-esque story of exhaustion and redemption and heartbreak. Runaway Dorothy has put together a phenomenal sophomore release, and one I’m really proud of not just because they’re a band that I support, but because I know that their hard work has paid off– they have made a record that they can be proud of, that I think belongs on top ten lists and in the hands of much more important blogs than this one. I’m proud to be associated with Runaway Dorothy, proud to call them friends, and incredibly proud to be able to share with you how successful this record is.
FIND RUNAWAY DOROTHY ONLINE:
I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking country music has adapted and grown so much that it’s all subgenres– it’s alt-country, or pop-country, or, perhaps most regrettably, country-rap. Maybe that’s one of the reasons The Far West stands out to me. This isn’t folk music with a country attitude, this isn’t rock music that incorporates a banjo: they have made a classic country record with the upcoming Any Day Now. From the first dark notes of “On the Road,” to the almost Flying Burrito Brothers-esque “Walk Light on this Poor Heart of Mine,” to the barroom catchiness and evocative keys of “Words from a Letter,” this may be the best country record I’ve heard in years.
Any Day Now was recorded in a vintage automobile restoration shop in southern California, and you can hear the influence in the music. There is certainly a classic, throw-back quality to the music itself, but there’s also a breeziness to it: usually, making a record this classic sounding feels a little more deliberate and calculated, which, of course, detracts from the overall feel. There is nothing calculated here: the band has written some great songs and come together to put them down in a very organic way. My favorite way it’s been described is that the garage provided “cavernous and ethereal qualities,” and I think that’s what is reflected in the music. It’s been given an appropriate amount of space.
Teaser for the album, telling the story of the recording and featuring some of the new tracks
The first song on the record, “On the Road,” starts with the intensity of traditional songs like “Shady Grove,” but sets a really strange setting immediately: “I can see the mountains out my window/ The Hollywood sign’s out there too.” That’s a perfect start to this record: the lyrics and songs speak to the eternal while living very much in the manufactured world the rest of us do. The songs are also very good at starting with vague images that allow the reader to assume the position of the narrator, and then getting very narrow and personal. My favorite lines in the song are:
From an airplane, from an airplane, everything looks small
When you’re down on the ground it don’t seem that way at all
Your life is fiction, baby, that’s a fact
Start down one road, then you double back
All my dreams ain’t mystery, each and every one is starring me
It’s a long, long, long dusty road
And we all, yeah, we all travel it alone
Tonally, the music is united: there’s a longing and a weariness that permeates the lyrics. But musically, the record branches out in some really interesting ways. “Walk Light on this Poor Heart” features some of the best mandolin I’ve heard in ages. I can’t even build up to that in a traditional writer way. I feel like I need to tell everyone I know that “Walk Light on this Poor Heart” has the best mandolin I’ve heard in ages. It actually makes me feel joyful, or more connected– I don’t know. It’s magical. This song seriously would have fit in on Gilded Palace of Sin– it’s well-written, it’s got the sobriety and gravity of a gospel song, but it’s got all of the pieces of a song that will stand the test of time.
The songs are memorable, too. “Words from a Letter” is the track that I can’t get out of my head. I love the way the story shifts a little from being what he has to apologize for to what she does– “All those nights you didn’t come home/ That’s all right, I was fine sleeping alone/ I guess I take the blame, driving you to him/ Must have been the result of something I did,” drips with righteous sarcasm and real regret, a dichotomy that is really moving in the context of such rambling music. Vocalist Lee Briante sings, “I don’t know why I even write these words from a letter I won’t send,” and I think acknowledging the sadness and disconnectedness makes it even more poignant. BUT– and this is what I like best about The Far West– if it wasn’t poignant, that would be fine. These songs sound so damn good. The guitar parts between lines feel almost like improvisation, but as if the guitar were another vocalist or an extension of the the vocals. It just feels alive and real, and the music would be enough on its own. (So would the lyrics.) The Far West is captivating both on a conscious and subconscious level: they sound good, they are thought-provoking, but most importantly, it feels good.
The Far West singing Guy Clark song, “That Old Time Feeling”: one of my favorite songwriters of all time, and a great cover
After a record with so many high points, the band winds down slowly with “Across the Bed,” which is one of the saddest songs I’ve known in a long time. I think it’s a perfect way to end the record: it’s a beautiful song about loneliness and longing, but it’s the pace that really makes this the perfect record ending song. Briante’s voice has a weird Josh Ritter-esque tone to it in this song (which, if you’ve read the blog before, you know is one of the highest compliments I could give a man). But it’s almost as if Any Day Now is a record about ghosts, and this song actually is one. The chorus is heartbreaking and speaks for itself:
We used to talk across the bed,
Now hardly anything’s said
Baby, you’re as good as dead
Baby, I’m as good as dead
But the real problem with reviewing a record like Any Day Now is that every song is deserving of a full write-up. Songs like “Hudson Valley” describe such a vivid setting that I feel nostalgic for the Hudson Valley– and I have never been there. Plus, the electric guitar gives the song a really interesting edge. “The Bright Side” has a momentum that reminds me of early Old 97′s. “Leonard” is a great story with an almost rockabilly flavor to it: a nuanced version of the classic gambler story. It’s also got some absolutely filthy brass that feels so good. The upbeat, “Oh, Love!” has some of the best backup vocals: they round out the song beautifully. One of my favorite moments on the disk is the sad, soft way Briante sings, “We were younger then, and we’re older now, but the wheel keeps moving with the plow/ Wheel keeps moving with the plow” on “Post and Beam.” There’s a light female vocal in the back of the track, and it gives it the feel of a ghost on the music. And the piano on “Wichita” is invigorating– not to mention the way the bridge makes my stomach sink and crave home. I just love this record, and I love every song. I’m a smart enough person to know you aren’t going to read 3000 words about why I love the Far West, though, so I’m doing my best to summarize my feelings, haha. Any Day Now is a perfect country-western record, and I have a hard time believing that any record collection wouldn’t be improved by having it in the rotation. This is sincere music.
FIND THE FAR WEST ONLINE:
Runaway Dorothy has been one of my favorite bands since I first stumbled on them on Twitter– which is a sentence my younger self would be completely baffled by, haha. Imagine my happy surprise yesterday morning when I opened my Noisetrade email (you should sign up for those, by the way) to find a Runaway Dorothy mixtape! Three new songs!
I’ll be reviewing the full record soon (and doing a giveaway, so stay posted…), but until then, get your RD fix at Noisetrade!
DOWNLOAD RUNAWAY DOROTHY’S MIX TAPE:
UPCOMING TOUR DATES:
I’ve asked my dad before if he’d write something for this website, because in all honesty, I get a lot of my taste– and suggestions for content– from him. I always look forward to emails with videos or song titles in them. He’ll email me if he hears a new Avett Brothers song, he’s stood up against the stage with me for an Old 97′s New Years Eve show at Sons of Hermann Hall… he took me to see Bob Dylan and Paul Simon at the Coca-Cola Starplex.
So tonight, when I opened my email to find “My Favorite Picture of You” by Guy Clark, it sent me into a Guy Clark spiral. I spent the rest of the evening remembering other songs I loved, trying to see if I could remember how to play “L.A. Freeway,” and generally telling my husband that in my head and in my heart, Guy Clark always makes me think of my father. What a gorgeous song, and glad to be able to share some of the joy my dad’s musical suggestions and thoughts brings me. Thanks, Dad, for thinking of me when you hear something so beautiful. I’m going to use this gorgeous song as my dad’s contribution to KDR.
For the record– there may be better Guy Clark songs, but as far as my favorite– it is, and will always be, “Dublin Blues.”
RECOMMENDATION: Ocean Carolina, “All the Way Home” (Re-release forthcoming from Old Hand Records on 1/14)
This review has been a long time coming. In 2011, Ocean Carolina released a five song EP called Leave On. Those five songs have been on my playlists consistently since then. It always came back to lead vocalist Michael Simone: his voice has a longing and a softness to me that feels like the way you miss home when you leave and you know it’s for good. Simone’s vocals are full and warm. And the songs are beautiful.
All the Way Home is the fulfillment of the promise of that EP: alt-country in the vein of Neil Young’s best work, reminiscent of my favorite Jayhawks records, but some more pure, Outlaw country that reminds me of Waylon Jennings. It’s a record that feels at home between last year’s best releases, including my favorite record of the year, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern. It’s got the same catchy playability as my new favorite record, Tallahassee’s Old Ways. Featuring a ludicrously talented group of musicians, including Jon Graboff on pedal steel and Caitlyn Cary on vocals and violin, Ocean Carolina weaves all of the elements of country music in through a more expansive sound palate. Basically, Ocean Carolina’s All the Way Home is a nearly perfect record, especially in terms of music and tone, but also because of Simone’s tasteful songwriting. He chooses evocative phrases and then repeats them in meaningful ways, which is done especially well in the title track, “Don’t Break Your Promise.”
“Don’t Break Your Promise” live at the Bowery Electric
The first song on the record, “Don’t Break Your Promise,” starts slowly and methodically before sliding into an almost trance-like, “Don’t break your promise/ Need what you offer to me.” What makes Ocean Carolina stand out is their distinct parts and how well they go together. The lead guitar part (played brilliantly by Chris Buckle) is frantic underneath smooth, calm harmonica. Caitlyn Cary’s vocals (absent in the video above) are deep and warm, grounding Simone’s lead vocals. The drums shuffle like you’d expect in a country song, setting something steady in the midst of a song that otherwise sounds like waves cresting and falling. (My favorite part of the song is actually the way Cary’s vocals come in and meet Simone’s at “You’re killing me inside” and then falls back into the chorus.) Even the bass (Alex Cox) is notable: it adds a trippy element to the song. But what seems undeniably true to me about Ocean Carolina is that it doesn’t matter how different various elements may seem: the way the band puts those elements together works and creates something special.
“Radio Song” always makes me think of Smile-era Jayhawks. The pedal steel grounds it firmly in Americana, but otherwise, it’s got the same appeal as an Oasis song: catchy, well-built, and interesting lyrics and harmonies. I love the lyrics to this song:
Apologies and shame
These are a few of the things I think about on a Tuesday night
But then it’s real, come Wednesday
And nothing seems to change
The same excuses I use at night when you are around
Well, I’m tired of all the people I tried saving
And I’ve tried to be the hero after dawn
But the song I want to play you
Ain’t on the radio
So I’ll grab this here guitar and sing my own
I think this song exemplifies one of the best things about this record: if you are listening to it right, it is gorgeous. But it’s a good record to have on, even if you aren’t listening all the way. It’s a lilting, beautiful record. By the last track, “This Time,” it’s easy to be relaxed and lulled into the beauty of the songs, but like most of the other songs on the record, there are moments that pull me away from whatever I’m doing and force me to pay attention each time I listen. For me, this song rotates on the axis of its electric guitar solo. Until that point, it’s built in intensity slowly and deliberately, and the solo seems to release all that tension. I’m absolutely floored by how beautiful the record is.
I’d worked with Ocean Carolina before and Michael was kind enough to keep in touch– even when I fell off the grid. He sent me a copy of All the Way Home about a year ago, and I fell in love instantly, though was noticeably not writing much at the time. But a few months ago, another friend of mine emailed me to let me know they were re-releasing the record (a second chance for me as a blogger!) on his label, Old Hand records. So if you fall in love with this record the way I did, you can get a copy on vinyl next week– which is my preferred way of listening to any record I value. I don’t know about the science behind the sound, but I can say, it makes me a more deliberate listener, and I think All the Way Home deserves that kind of rapt attention.