In times of sorrow it seems we craft our greatest work. As we find our emotions wrought with pain, loss and grief, the creative spark within is ignited as if our senses have been lit by a burning light; seeking understanding and comfort as the words, paintings and reels record the very bleeding of our hearts. For Miles Kurosky and his fellow band mates, their well documented personal heartaches of divorce, break-ups and all in between has led to perhaps their most solemn, yet devastatingly breathtaking work of musical art they have collectively lamented upon. It is as if the private endurances have pushed them into the very twilight they find themselves in; teetering on what had appeared to be their demise, Beulah have forged in Yoko what some scribes and poets crave to achieve. The album is artistically responsive, it is an understanding of the sorrow and the successful translation of it into a magnificent collection of multilayered instrumental textures that rage through the scope of cellos, violins, saxophones and pedal steels all while accompanied by sundry penned longing.
From the delicately handled “A Man Like Me”, with its sweeping vocal swoon and temperamental melancholic twists, to the mellow acoustic grace of “Don’t Forget to Breathe”, they impeccably weave the grains of lithe pop and suave rock before sprinkling doses of grand instrumental dynamics and bluesy sentiments. The songs are at opposites to the sparse nature of the disc’s visual features. While both revel in archetypical unhappiness, each plunges into different spectrums of the creative scale. One bides its time in simplicity and illustrative loneliness while the other is a practice in complex audio marksmanship in its interpretation of human despondence and the juggling of immersing oneself in it and graciously facing it with stilted confidence.
While the sullen frailty is a distinct feature that makes its way in the lurking shadows, the air of optimism sparkles so well throughout Yoko. In the seemingly serene “Landslide Baby”; the stillness of the slow onward echo is but shattered into clangy, bouncy and jovial when those celebratory sounding piano fills and jangly basslines swell across its atmosphere. And while the sounds are festive, the lyrical tones of the track would underline a more fleeting romanticism; a cause lost except for the post-relationship indictments and the picking up of the pieces. It is this sort of clever layering of sentimental undertones swept clean by that apparent, indulgent hopefulness that keeps Beulah from falling into weepy and depressing.
In the triumphant “Me and Jesus Don’t Talk Anymore”, Kurosky and gang appear bereft in their countryside narrative; but as the snazzy piano thimbles and the percussion springs, there is an overcoming feeling of amity and the sort of horn-bearing woe that is enveloped in joyous sing-a-longs and communal ambling. And there are few places one can hone their desolation and turn it into wonder and charm; and this here is the place where everyone knows your nom de plume.
Amongst these weary chums are those going by the names “My Side of the City” (a modish garage rock bedfellow), “Hovering” (downtrodden, drifting, but adeptly capable of regaling with the best of them) and a troupe favorite, “You’re Only King Once” (the wise sou’westered traveler with talents as high as the clouds). In this small gathering, these merry men have tested their waters, been through the ups and downs with their When Your Heartstrings Break and their The Coast is Never Clear; they have shared space with the Wilcos and the Spoons in endless comparisons, and once denizens of the streets of Elephant 6, they are now sequestered in these new uncertain domiciles. Unsure of their place in new town, they’ve thrown in their pennies and dusted their casings, canvassed a sparse looking canopy for their work and produced unmatched proclamations for those enduring and recovering. It is a togetherness forged by Beulah’s realization of mortality and their revelations that follow; a reassurance for the spirit. While we could merely ache along, the overriding inclination is for one to embrace this alluring sadness.
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.