If artistic merit were judged on ambition alone, Tom Delonge would be untouchable. If you believe internet banter, you would know the catalyst for juvenile punkers blink-182’s demise was Tom’s apparent boredom and lack of global aspirations his other two band mates supposedly exhibited. The first signs he was done with the immature ranting of blink? That short lived but temporarily explosive side project he dubbed Box Car Racer. Yet for all the moving and pushing he tried to do with that band, he was quick to give it up and return to blink for one last hurrah with their “mature” 2003 self-titled effort. Not only did that prove to be the last for the trio, but showed that their desire for change just did not mesh well with the band’s historically infantile history- lauded by so many then-teenagers who applied blink’s music to so many aspects of their lives. So when that album positively stunk, Delonge did the only thing he could to fulfill his needs; do whatever it takes to sink the ship. And this included refusing to go on tour, recording music by himself, and changing his phone number. The writing was, without doubt, on the wall. Blink subsequently imploded, and it did not take long for Delonge to announce his new project, the grandly titled Angels & Airwaves; followed shortly by cryptic messages of industry changing, global dominance, and an occasionally sparkling debut, We Don’t Need to Whisper.
The problem with We Don’t Need to Whisper was that while some of the songs were absolutely terrific (like the single “The Adventure”), some waned on far too long and tended to be completely bored with itself after a few minutes- as if the idea far outweighed the results. So while Delonge didn’t exactly light up the airwaves with the band’s debut, it did show a lot of promise. Far from blink’s short paced punk leanings, toilet humor, and aggressive nature (at least on their earlier material), Angels & Airwaves adopted a more progressive approach to songwriting, tearing page after page out of U2’s songbook and employed long electronic-infused introductions and interludes, and more mid-tempo arrangements creating the aura that every song sounded like it wanted to fill a stadium.
A year removed and Angels & Airwaves return with an even grander idea, an even more lofty title, and Tom’s giant head affixed clearly on the album’s cover. I-Empire as it’s so ambitiously dubbed, is a step up from We Don’t Need to Whisper, inching closer to Delonge’s almost infallible desire to influence, change, and evolve everything their music touches. And from initial listens, it seems that he’s learned a little from their debut, picking the plucky, rather jovial sounding (and shorter) “Everything’s Magic” as the album’s lead-off single. Its tap-happy percussion intro, coupled with Delonge’s “Anthem Part II” guitar sheen make it unlike most of their other songs; forgoing the usual long introductions for more to-the-point songwriting. It is easily the band’s most accessible effort to date, decidedly less Joshua Tree Bono and more U2’s PopMart. The majority of the album however, does take a similar route to the material found on their debut. Songs tend to waver through lengthy instrumental intros (“Call to Arms”), electronic tinkering (“Lifeline”), and song textures that stretch to great run times (so long at times, they had to break a song down into two; “Star of Bethlehem” and “True Love”). Yet as you traverse through all the complicated layering of the songs, it becomes clearer and clearer that Delonge and the rest of the band are becoming more comfortable with their musical surroundings. Yes, songs can still be a little boring at times (“Secret Crowds”), but they can also be a little surreal, colossal-sounding, and really quite enjoyable (the aforementioned duo “Star of Bethlehem/True Love”). They’re beginning to get the hang of wanting to sound galactic while keeping the very end of their toes on the ground.
I’m all for ambition, and Delonge has bags and bags of it. I-Empire won’t change the musical universe by any stretch, but Delonge’s got the ship fueled, and pointing in the right direction. It won’t vanquish poverty in the deepest regions of the globe, and it won’t bring an end to the world’s wars just yet … but it’s getting there Tom, it’s getting there. In the end, I-Empire is 5-star aspiration met with 3-star success.
Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die
Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter
At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.
Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.
The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.
The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.
Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.
Fences – Failure Sculptures
Failure Sculptures is a steady outing
Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.
“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.
“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.
This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.