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Down By Law – Redoubt EP

Redoubt is a worthy addition to the Down By Law catalog. Its only real negative is that it is only three songs long and once you’re done, you’re left wanting more.

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It is always good to hear Dave Smalley’s voice. His vocal work is as distinct as his penchant for consistently good punk rock songwriting. For many like myself, Punkrockacademyfightsong was and always will be a watershed moment of punk rock’s then-burgeoning expansion from underground medium to new found accessibility. And while it was certainly something that translated better for mass audiences, it did not lack the sense of urgency that was displayed in his earlier work in DYS or Dag Nasty. Songs like “Bright Green Globe” and “Hit or Miss” proved that you could still hit hard while sounding like you could sing, hold a note and write a good tune. And while their cover of “500 Miles” was undoubtedly the moment everyone remembers from the album, it was songs like “Goodnight Song” that stuck with me. Punk rockers could be in-your-face but have a softer side, and the music didn’t have to suffer for it.

Now more than 20 years later Smalley and Down By Law are still going strong. On the back of their 2018 full length All In, they’ve released a short EP on new label Pine Hill. This 3-song outing is a quick hit featuring the kind of tracks Smalley and DBL are renowned for; melodic punk rock with its roots still firmly in hardcore. The opening track “At the Redoubt” cuts its mold from Dag Nasty-era hardcore, and when Smalley sings “gotta get away, gotta get out”, you can’t help but think back to a time long ago. It’s punctuated with this soaring guitar solo that comes askew- but sounds absolute fantastic. It’s a great juxtaposition of no-frills hardcore punk and stadium-filling rock that surprisingly works as strange bedfellows.

“For Your Eyes Only” takes on a more rockabilly sheen as its rhythm section snakes around Smalley’s haunting vocal work. It’s a fine example of the many styles and genres Down By Law have infused into their music over their discography. Whether it was the reggae-themed “Radio Ragga” (from 1996’s All Scratched Up) or the rock n’ roll boogie of “Champions at Heart” (from the 2012 album of the same name), Down By Law have always managed to fine tune their brand of punk rock with an impressive array of outside sounds.

Yet Redoubt’s best track is probably the Sam Williams’ penned finale “Boring Things”. Down-tuned dissonance its being called, and its a fair assessment of its straight-to-the-point nature of the song; marked with Williams’ expressive guitar work and another pretty fantastic solo, the song is the band at its most frenetic.

Redoubt is a worthy addition to the Down By Law catalogue. Its only real negative is that it is only three songs long and once you’re done, you’re left wanting more. The band remain faithful to their sound and continue to fly the flag, one of the few remaining sharpshooters amongst the current crop of punk rock pseudo heroes.

(Pine Hill Records)

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Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die

Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter

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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.

(Wiretap Records)

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Fences – Failure Sculptures

Failure Sculptures is a steady outing

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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.

(GRNDVW)

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