Just imagine for a second, you’re a duck (the rubber kind you find at a carnival if you like) sitting in a giant wooden container filled with water. You’re there, beaming in all your rubbery yellowness, oblivious to the outside world, captivated in keen simplicity, when some cowpoke decides to empty his .44 into your squeaky inside. It is an unpleasant situation to say the least, but when you’re a sitting duck, there is little you can do to avoid such conditions.
Even before the release of You Gotta Go There to Come Back, Stereophonics have often been labeled as sitting ducks – easy targets for acerbic tongued critics who see their brazenly simple, utilitarian rock as egregiously dull and characterless. It isn’t without merit either; Just Enough Education to Perform was movement (in the same direction however) but it was devoid of any real outstanding quality – a seemingly lifeless “experiment” (using that term lightly) into a serene brand of pop rock. And with the release of this, their fourth album, one will wonder whether or not the Stereophonics have taken a step in any significant direction to ease preconceptions.
There is no telling whether or not the members of the band, most notably front man Kelly Jones take into consideration the voices of their detractors, but since we’ve already embarked down the “imagine if” route, we’ll pretend that Jones and company wrote this record to prove their critics wrong. We’ll then analyze its contents in conjunction with this make-belief idea that this is their “Screw you!” record.
It isn’t a pleasant opening however; “Help Me (She’s Out of her Mind)” is a plodding, grinding rock tune that meanders for 7 excruciating minutes (4 minutes too long). The grating, gravel like vocals of Jones does little to soothe the ache; burying the bluesy rock guitar work under a mountain of jarring strain.
The equanimity of the following track “Maybe Tomorrow” is reinforced by the seemingly carefree lyrics; “It wastes time / And I’d rather be high / Think I’ll walk me outside/ And buy a rainbow smile.” Coupled with the very lounge sounding, shaky musical setting, the track is neither drab nor exciting and is perhaps indicative of the persistent tone that overwhelms the album. Do they wish to tightrope this line between dreary and stimulating, endlessly apprehensive about being justifiably either? Apparently so.
Their first single “Madame Helga” is certainly a boisterous affair; but the raucous vocals atop its foot tapping structure are a little cagey. It is an unsuccessful attempt in perhaps, adding some spice and personality to the release; fruitlessly ending in a confused jargon of simple, loud and irritating.
The backwatered appellation of “You Stole My Money Honey” in track four is an appropriate testament to some bourbon-laced Mississippi ghost town; riddled with country/folk leanings and jazzy inclinations, it is an interestingly tolerable, yet lazy tune. Its words of desired hopelessness and frailty (“The girls you love all sleep around / You got a piece of something / But what it’s worth is nothing / Coz what you want you just can’t buy”) comes off as written about saloon escapades in the old south by someone who has never been to the old south.
Strangely enough, Jones displays inklings of vocal ability in the dusty, low end “Getaway”. Piano backed and softly dented by guitar melody, it is a welcome diversion from all the wailing and pounding we’ve heard. They continue on this path in the old west sounding “Climbing the Wall” – an acoustic flared number that one would equate riding a horse over the barren desert with (just listen to that flailing guitar solo).
It isn’t until “Nothing Precious At All” that they manage to fuse together fundamentals of heartland rock, country-pop-alternative flair in an ear friendly, soothingly unflappable combination that finally creates a sense of fulfillment. How odd that a few Welsh boys could somehow evoke images of such austerity and longing-ness akin to some small dusty American town.
It is clear to see that while You Gotta Go There to Come Back is no audio monstrosity, it is far from being a matter of deftness and imagination. Their over reliance on paradigmatic song craftsmanship and lack of finesse results in an album that exhibits moments of distinction, but is ultimately dragged down by its dreary, almost unending landscape.
Whether or not this album is meant to be perceived this way is not an entirely important matter. If this were just “the next Stereophonics album” (as it most likely is), it comes off in the same tedious way. It’s difficult to please everyone, just ask the lads in Stereophonics. It is exponentially more difficult when you’re a sitting duck. Quack.
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.