I keep a tin of mints in my car for my daily commute, a daily addiction of sorts. Better perhaps than cigarettes or something more toxic, but an addiction nonetheless. Usually, in between all the gear changes, I’m downing mints with the fervor reserved for a Friday drink after a long week. The other day I ran out of mints, then the traffic got bad, and this, and then that. It was one those days where the most infinitesimal of problems becomes an escapable avalanche of frustration. And as insignificant as they are compared actual problems, they become significant because we make them significant. Escape came from ten songs; songs of hope, despair, introspection, and life. They are the lifeblood that makes up Dave Hause’s new album, Kick, the next chapter in his glorious trek through America’s rock n’ roll heartland.
Hause, the lead singer of The Loved Ones (the American one), is no stranger to the genre either. The Loved Ones proved that heartland and punk rock could have a symbiotic relationship, one that would bring rock n’ roll’s blue-collar roots together with punk’s urgency and attitude. Through his solo work, he has pursued a genuine, down-to-earth Americana spread across now four full-length releases. Songs of loss, songs of aspiration and songs that have tried making sense of all the stops and starts of life. His music has always come with honesty and adept songwriting synonymous with the genre’s historic names. But speaking in more contemporary terms, Hause’s work has the kind of magnetic resonance that solidifies his name amongst the current crop of greats like Brian Fallon, Justin Townes Earle, and Jason Isbell. Kick is his best work yet, distilling the unending trials and tribulations of today- post-election divide, depression, global change, and the changing face of the American dream- in 10 bluesy, punk saturated, rock n’ roll songs.
As the opening chords of “Eye Aye I” chime in, there is an immediate uplift in mood. Perhaps it is the Mellencamp-
“The Ditch” is a windows-down, highway driving song, buoyed by the carefree spirit of rock n’ roll vagabonds, while “Saboteurs” takes its mid-tempo composition from more restrained confines. It’s got a very New Jersey sound but its glorious refrain takes cues from the big, almost orchestral tones that were made famous by The Who. As the song “Weathervane” kicked in, the traffic hadn’t gotten any better. And there’s something ironic about being stuck in traffic to a song whose up-tempo melodrama sings of “spinnin’ in a middle of a hurricane / spinnin’ like a weathervane now“. But it is Hause’s swaggering vocal delivery and confidence over stomping choruses and melodies that turns small ironies into glorious musical sketches. They soar over highways giving you that feeling even if you’re stationary.
If those songs weren’t enough to provoke a serious amount of reflection, then the beautifully serene “Fireflies” surely will. The song is stripped back, mostly just Hause, his guitar, and his harmonica- but it echoes with the heart and reverie of a thousand sunsets; a reminder that sometimes you don’t need anything else but a great voice and a guitar.
Missteps are a rarity, spare the occasional like “Civil Lies”, where heartland is replaced with more alternative soundscapes. And while Hause does his best Chris Cornell, it doesn’t quite vibrate with the same magnitude as the rest of the album. Those pickings are small and in the bigger picture, Kick is a wonderful album, a fine examination of soul-searching amongst political and personal discord. Hause has shown poise and grace in his introspection. Some of his musical contemporaries seem burdened by an immense pressure that weighs down their music- you can hear it when you listen to Brian Fallon’s Sleepwalkers. Hause on the other hand, still sings about life’s hardships and the success and failures of growing old but does it with this unmatched spirit. Three chords and a back beat is all you need they say, and with Kick Hause has found a way to embrace it and sing like it will all be OK in the end, even if it really won’t. I’m still stuck in traffic, still don’t have mints, but after these 10 songs, I’m OK with it.
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.