There are few modern bands that fully embrace how powerful of a medium music is. The Decemberists are of this scarce group who use music to tell stories—stories of life and living against the backdrop of unseen spectacles. They appreciate the mystery and secrets that layer life’s lush meaning, value and its simple wonders. Their latest album, Picaresque, embraces these mysteries, skinning the hides of normalcy to reveal the most realistic fantasies that child monarchs, runaway prostitutes, ghosts, spiteful mariners, drowning angels, cannibals and suicidal couples walk among us everyday. With the whimsical album cover and their lovely detailed stories within each song, clearly The Decemberists prove that all the world’s a stage.
Even in its creation, Picaresque inspires the unconventional during its recording in a Baptist church. The sound has much of a vaudeville and cabaret feel, with rich violins and accordions supporting lead vocalist Colin Meloy’s boldly caustic voice. The harmonies are nothing less than sea-shanty worthy. The mesmerizing quality of highs and lows that crescendo throughout each song illustrate each narrative with the power to lift moods and lead minds to the darkest of places. They create characters with as much affection and specificity as a best-selling novelist. While there may be no concise beginning or end, there is nonetheless a scene portrayed as skillfully and detailed as a snapshot from an elephant’s memory. In “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” they recorded live around one microphone, very much paralleling the theater quality of spontaneity as well as having everyone know their parts—a true stage performance.
It is apparent that an ongoing theme within the entire album is of love and loss and the tragedies surrounding both. Whether it is forbidden love, unrequited love, the loss of childhood or the loss of lovers, each character has some form of tragedy driving its psyche. The instruments play accordingly—intense and deep with rolling drums, wailing violins, and heavy guitars when these characters undergo their major strife; and they are dreamy and light mostly when the chorus repeats to tell of the story’s echoing core with whichever fitting emotion that the song invokes.
Rarely in the pop-folk-rock category is there ever a band so dedicated and involved with every aspect of their duties as musicians. The Decemberists truly illustrate how rich and lush modern songwriting and storytelling can be. With their elements of theater, vaudeville quality and quirky scruples, Picaresque reveals a dreamy landscape of the lovely secrets and overlooked surprises of notions that everyday life is anything but—that there is a mysterious force whispering in our ears as we dream: we are greater than we will ever know. Shakespeare appreciated the all-encompassing scale of the world being but one grand stage; The Decemberists bring the stage to your ears.
(Kill Rock Stars)
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Every last time: Revisiting Gameface’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”
A glorious sound of a time gone by
Southern California’s Gameface were always a band that seemed perfect just below the cusp. Their brand of pop-tinged punk was somewhere in between the melancholy driven emo of the early 1990s to what would become of radio-friendly punk bands evolving from the Jimmy Eat Worlds of the… world.
I loved this band. It was songs like “My Star” and “When You’ve Had Enough” that captured my attention. They didn’t fit in with the punk explosion of the mid-90s and had more melodic chops than those that remained in the underground with bands like Quicksand and Texas is the Reason (the latter being the most musically similar).
To this day, I count their track “How Far Is Goodbye?” as one I can listen to on any given day and still feel the same way about it as I did years ago. It’s a glorious sound of a time gone by, and Jeff Caudill, who has been the backbone of their songwriting since the beginning, has still got the chops his ilk can only dream of. There’s a tinge of melancholy that conjures up a certain sadness, a scene in a movie where the protagonist is making their exit into the distance as the scene closes. Something about the song, the sentiment, and the lyrics that always reminds of driving away while looking at the rear view mirror.
Five years ago Gameface released a new album, Now Is What Matters, an album that perfectly encapsulated their ability to write with emotion, melody, and magnetism that only a select few seem to possess. I interviewed frontman Jeff Caudill before the album came out to chat about the band, an interview I think still holds up. Caudill has been busy since then with a lot of solo material, while the band themselves have been releasing music sporadically (mostly singles) since 2014.
While their catalog is deep, there’s one song I keep coming back to, and that’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”. Originally released on the split 10″ vinyl with Errortype: 11 in 2000, the song received an update in 2018, which you can hear below.
Gameface photo from Gameface facebook page.