With more than 15 plus years and a treasure trove of material under their belt, New Jersey’s finest punk rockers return with The Gold Record. And while the album bears a distinctly glossy sheen, the songs are still the very best in sing-a-longs, anthems, and the kind of awe-inspiring fun and energy that has made the Souls one of the premier acts born and bred from Jersey’s long heralded lineage. The Gold Record continues where Anchors Aweigh left off- straight from the cuff of blue-collar friendships, long road struggles and the kinds of friendships and camaraderie found in getting your boots dirty when it counts the most.
Over the last few albums, the Bouncing Souls’ songwriting has seen a tremendous improvement. Looking back at the material on Maniacal Laughter, their self-titled release, or back to The Good, The Bad…, it was clear that while they knew how to put a lot of energy into the music, the songs were limited to oi-influenced street punk (not that there should be any negative connotations with that). However, from How I Spent My Summer Vacationonwards, it was clear that the band made a conscious effort to expand into other more rock-oriented areas. The Gold Record is this growth finding complete resolution.
“The Gold Song” kicks proceedings off with the sort of energy one would expect from a Souls album; soaring guitars, great melodic vocals, and hard-hitting percussions, and it’s bound to jumpstart any pit in need of a boost. They throw in a splendid, stripped-down cover of Avoid One Thing’s “Lean on Sheena” (sans electronic touches found on AOT’s original), injecting it with just a bit of pace. Things get better with the romanticized ode “So Jersey” (an amorous toast to a fine city indeed), “Sounds of the City,” the politically charged, machine-gun like “Letters From Iraq,” and the group vocalizing on “The New Thing” (with hand claps!)— peaking in the album’s second cover with The Kinks’ “Better Things.” It is in this song that perhaps, the very things that are great about this band come through clear as day: energetic, fun, and filled with the kind of optimism described best as experiencing life’s cards one hand at a time. The album’s one rather lacking effort comes with the closer, the rather grand “For All the Unheard.” Clocking in close to a meaty 7-minutes, it drags out a fine sounding guitar-driven sing-a-long tune a little too long. A small blemish.
The songwriting has been refined, the songs are better, and the lyrics continue to be poignant while never being preachy or condescending. While the short, dirty punk numbers may be gone (except in a live setting of course), the Bouncing Souls continue to write music that is both heartfelt and relevant. Intention is never easily revealed from a listener’s standpoint, but one thing about the Bouncing Souls is that they’ve always sounded genuine. They’re like a great group of guys who write songs about things you want to sing about; and their latest slab of tunes is simply put, pure gold.
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.