It is better to burn out than to fade away they say. This industry, with its constant pressures of writing, recording, touring, selling and repeating it ad nauseam, has claimed its fair share of casualties. It is a brutal cycle that unfortunately has seen Neil Young’s words used by some of its highest profile cases. Yet, some artists simply need a break; a pause in the cycle to rejuvenate the creative sources that fuel their art.
New York’s Bad Luck are an example of the latter. After the release of their 2014 debut album Cold Bones, the band seemed to wane. Their next EP was titled, appropriately perhaps, Noise In Your Head, and soon the band all but stepped aside from the industry’s constant need for engagement. On this occasion however, it seems that the time off has done wonders for Bad Luck. Rejuvenation then, is the blood of their new 6-song EP Drug Phase. And a terrific EP it is.
Taking cues from Say Anything, Bad Luck take the frantic, wiry energy of Adam Lazzara and infuse it with the more melodic overtones of Hot Rod Circuit. Songs like “Impressive Depressive” take an angular approach to punk’s melancholier moments, while “Mean Dudes” is an airy, accessible number that takes a page out of the Piebald book. In “Sheep Song” (a song we have previously talked about) Bad Luck throw a wrench into proceedings by forgoing the EP’s composite with an infectious, pop-tinged number that sways between a little jingly, a little bubblegum, and a lot of vibrancy. It’s a memorable effort that shines amongst an already luminous offering. And yes, it’s still the best “Ba Ba Ba” in a song since the Mr. T Experience did it with… well, “Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba”.
As the acoustic flavors of “Ps. Whiffle Ball” ends, there’s a sense of accomplishment that Bad Luck are back and well and truly better than when they left. Cold Bones was certainly a debut that had plenty to like, but with Drug Phase, they’ve sharpened their craft with a more seasoned disposition. The jagged edges of their musical output only seem to have benefited from their time away. “Out of the blue, into the black … an’ once you’re gone you can never come back” Young sang, words so true. But for a select few like Bad Luck, they’ve proven him wrong.
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.