Bats and Mice, a band comprised of former Sleepytime Trio members released their album, Believe It Mammals, in 2002; but after a year they seemed to fall out of my memory. Believe It Mammals was a stunning album complete with lush guitars, deep bass lines, forceful drumming, and muted vocals that seemed to exude emotion effortlessly. The songs on that album became the soundtrack to my life for years after its release. So imagine my happiness and fear when I saw that Bats and Mice had released something new. Happiness because I’ve wanted to hear new music from them for quite some time and fear because I was afraid that I would taint the new release by thinking that nothing could be better than Believe It Mammals. They also had some line-up changes that made me think that their music would be switched from the muted melodies of their last release to the something less appealing … such as crunching guitars and less than perfect harmonies. While A Person Carrying A Handmade Paper Bag Is Considered As A Royal Person is a lot more polished than Believe It Mammals, it still has that not all familiar music that made Bats and Mice one of my favorite bands.
The first track, “The Royal Paper Bag,” is purely instrumental which makes for the perfect introduction to the new sound Bats and Mice are producing. It is automatically noticeable that there won’t be anything muted on this release and it isn’t a bad thing. The pounding drums of the newest member, Luke Herbst and the perfectly matched bass and guitar make for a wall of sound that just takes over everything that stands in its path. The second track, “Military Smile,” features the familiar vocals of former members David Nesmith and Ben Davis. This track begins with a light guitar riff but you slowly come to see that this track manages to give each instrument their time in the limelight. After the short guitar solo it seems as if this song belongs solely to the bass. The heavy bass line takes control of everything, weaving together the different instruments as if it were the thread in a handmade sweater. Yet as soon as I was getting acquainted with the bass, the drums kick in to take over – and what a glorious takeover it is. The percussions flourish as the bass and guitar takes the backseat to the overwhelming pounds Herbst produces. Towards the end of the track, all of these elements blend together with the vocals to finalize the first complete song by the band.
With this release, Bats and Mice tries to take what was perfect about their sound and incorporate into it something new. They fill this short four track EP with enough of the old stuff, so as not to alienate old fans, and a lot of the new sound to produce a release that once again leaves this listener craving more; unable to withstand the wait for the next full release.
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.