We have for some time, suspected that My Chemical Romance’s musical influences were much more than guitar riffs ridden with teen angst and emotional instability. From moments hinted on Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge to the rather bombastic leadoff single from The Black Parade, it would seem that the members of the band spent as much time listening to Aerosmith, David Bowie and Queen as they did their punk rock. Any doubt can be put to rest on the band’s foray away from their past- their terrifically outlandish, operatic rock theatre Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys.
As the title would imply, the band have not let go of their conceptual theatrics. Their earliest incarnations (their overlooked debut I Bought You Bullets) had already envisioned Bonnie & Clyde narratives, and their latest is probably the most adept telling of the vast, graphic novel universe the members of the band spend much of their creative time in. Danger Days, about the lives of these so-called Killjoys, is glittering dance-infused rock that parlays its love of synthesizers and melody into the best Ziggy Stardust-penned-Steven Tyler-sung songs done with an added sprinkling of Freddie Mercury bravado.
The Killjoys are battling the Draculoids and Better Living Industries, and this galactic-themed conflict unfolds by way of anthemic, call-to-arms rock (“Na Na Na”), angular textures (“Party Poison”), dance-tinged (“Planetary GO!”) pieces that all build up to the stadium-sized side of the rock palette. Songs like “The Only Hope For Me Is You”, “S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W” and “Summertime” all sound like a Liv Tyler/Alicia Silverstone starring music video, cut from the same mold as the Three Cheers track “The Ghost of You”. Gerard Way’s croon is now far more refined, less angry, and these mid-paced songs benefit from the new vibrant tone. It makes the band come across as far less frenzied than they did on tracks like “Thank You For the Venom” and “Cemetery Drive”, and depending on who you ask, is the band cultivating a new sense of finesse.
The tracks are interlaced with the radio broadcast from the album’s “host”, a Dr. Death Defying, narrated very much like the 1979 film The Warriors. And like the film, Danger Days is a colorful climax of character and weirdly wonderful imagination. Most of it is seamless, but there are a few glaring missteps. “Na Na Na”, while musically sound, does come across as more of a throw away single and tracks like “DESTROYA” and “Vampire Money” do not fit the mold of a band forging new ground. The formatting of these song titles (“S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W”?) begs a lot questions too, less a mature simplicity and more of a bored high teenager scribbling in their notebook. Most notably, the inclusion of the “Star-Spangled Banner” done by marching band in “Goodnite, Dr. Death” is inexcusable.
Critics have taken much time to exercise their displeasure in My Chemical Romance’s musical identity in the past. It’s easy to hate something so “blatantly emo” and to cast a net over larger social issues by pointing the finger at tangible targets. But My Chemical Romance have never once wavered from being themselves. So what happens now when the band’s acclaim is more deserving than ever? When we all realize that Danger Days is the sound of a band finally shedding the burden of an entire genre, we will see that My Chemical Romance have been having the last laugh for a very long time.
And as Way closes the chapter of their past in the very apt “The Kids From Yesterday”, singing with great reflection;
“You only live forever in the lights you make / When we were young, we used to say / That you only hear the music when your heart begins to break / Now we are the kids from yesterday”
It is the final salute in what sounds like, and feels like, an honest turning of the page. And if you do in fact, “live forever in the lights you make”, then their lights, for now, shine the brightest.
(Reprise / Warner Bros.)
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.