Author Archives: matt

My Favorite Thanksgiving Album: Left and Leaving, by The Weakerthans

Among the biggest complaints I hear about the early November onset of the Christmas season (the music, the decorations, the commercials, the candy, the seasonal aisle in every drug store) is that it causes people to forget about Thanksgiving.

I don’t think I totally buy that complaint, though. Sure, there are certainly bad things about the early rollout of Christmas, but few of them actually, truly encroach on the celebration of Thanksgiving. One of the exceptions to that rule, of course, is the extension of the Black Friday craze into Thanksgiving night. I think there’s a discussion to be had about this craze in particular that hasn’t quite been addressed: many people recommend protesting the early sales on Thanksgiving night, but that seems to me to be ever so slightly classist in its assumptions.

Sure, nobody needs to buy those sale items, but what about those individuals or families who are barely scraping by, and who might participate in Black Friday in order to buy certain near-necessities without obliterating their checking accounts, like microwaves, or coffeemakers, or printers, or GPS devices? What about those parents who want to buy a few nice Christmas gifts for their kids but need to save all the money that they can in order to put food on the table on Christmas day? Can these people really afford to just roll their eyes and scoff at the 8 pm (or even at Walmart, 6 pm) Black Friday deals on Thanksgiving night?

Sure, some people might stand up and leave their family gatherings tonight just because they enjoy shopping in the Black Friday rush, but others might face a truly difficult decision about whether or not to stay with their families, who they might not see very often throughout the year – and if they make the decision to stay and to pass up on these sales, they might have to do so knowing that such a choice may, in an indirect way, impact their bank accounts. So are the ideological protests of these sales inherently classist? I’m not sure. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about. I’m not trying to say that protesting these sales is a worthless act, or anything like that. I just think there might be another angle to this conversation that most people are overlooking.

But forgive my tangent – that debate is not what I sat down to write about this morning. Is Thanksgiving overshadowed by Christmas simply because Christmas has more accoutrement than Thanksgiving? It’s difficult to decorate the outside of your house or your yard for Thanksgiving; there aren’t very many limited edition foods or kinds of candy for Thanksgiving, or specialty aisles in drug stores; and as for music, does Thanksgiving music even exist? Most people probably say no. But I disagree.

This year, my favorite Thanksgiving album is Left and Leaving by The Weakerthans.

Image

No – there aren’t any songs on this album about turkeys or pilgrims or football. But it struck me recently when I listened to this album that many of its lyrical themes and subjects are absolutely relevant to Thanksgiving. Let me explain.

The first song on Left and Leaving (the second album by The Weakerthans, released in 2000) is “Everything Must Go.” John K. Samson sings about a garage sale; “I need to pay my heart’s outstanding bills,” he says. Among the items listed for sale is “a wage-slave forty-hour work week (weighs a thousand kilograms, so bend your knees) — comes with a free fake smile for all your dumb demands.” Throughout the album, the struggles of the working class are laid bare. In “Aside,” the narrator remarks that you can see his ribs through his t-shirts, and that the shoes that he’s wearing were given to him for free. The subject of “Exiles Among You” is “barely coasting into a paycheck, stuck on empty, her blue eyes frozen green in the low-lit ATM.” Later in the song, “she shoplifts some Christmas gifts, and a bracelet for herself, and considers phoning home.” The people Samson sings about are tired, and beaten down – and in “My Favorite Chords,” the protagonists have to deal with the fact that “the mayor’s out killing kids to keep taxes down” – but they’re portrayed as everyday warriors, holding out for better days. All of the items listed for sale in “Everything Must Go” can be obtained for merely “a sign that recovery comes to the broken ones.” And in “Aside,” even though the narrator is rail thin, wearing free shoes, and “unconsoled and lonely,” he nevertheless proclaims, “I’m so much better than I used to be.”

Another relevant theme that bubbles up repeatedly in these songs is that of returning home, apparently only for a short time (aka, nearly every college student in the country, and even a large number of post-grads and adults who return to their hometown for the holidays). “I’m leaning on this broken fence between past and present tense,” Samson sings in “Aside,” also mentioning a fear of telephones (calls from relatives!), shopping malls (Black Friday!), and a tendency to “rely a bit too heavily on alcohol and irony” (family gatherings!). The narrator of these songs describes his hometown as “still breathing (but barely)… buildings gone missing like teeth” (“Left and Leaving”) and notes that “they’re tearing up streets again, they’re building a new hotel” (“My Favorite Chords”). In what has always been my favorite track from the album, “This Is A Fire Door Never Leave Open,” a cathartic five-minute reflection on “forty years of failing to describe a feeling” winds to an end as Samson pleads: “And I love this place; the enormous sky, and the faces, hands that I’m haunted by, so why can’t I forgive these buildings, these frameworks labeled home?” For myself and for a lot of my friends, returning to our hometowns for Thanksgiving and for winter break is a strange and unsettling experience, for reasons not entirely evident; this album captures every bit of that odd discomfort.

“Elegy for Elsabet” paints the picture of a girl who has fallen deaf for reasons unknown to us, and who has grown tired of reading her father’s lips, and can no longer hear the sounds of horses braying, crickets ringing, the swishing of grass, or the creaking of doors. When Samson played “History to the Defeated” at a 2009 solo show in Germany, he gave the following explanation to the audience: “I was in a border town in Texas. I was walking around and I saw a man weeping in a phone booth and I thought that was strange. And then I noticed almost everywhere all the storefronts around the center of this town were Bail Bonds. And you don’t have those here, and we don’t have them in Canada. But it’s where people go when their loved ones are in prison and they give over anything they own in collateral to get their loved one out of jail. This song is about that man who was weeping the phone booth.”

We hear these songs, we meet these characters, and we simultaneously feel pain and sorrow for them while also recognizing that we are very fortunate to live the lives that we do – even if we think we have very little, we are able to recognize that our own “very little” may be desperately lacked and desired by others. We might be temped to wish these faceless people well, or to pray for them and their lives, as does the narrator in “Exiles Among You.” However, immediately after he prays that his old friend remains “proud and strange and so hopelessly hopeful,” a set of background vocals kick in, as if to provide an aside to the listener: “Wishes and prayers are the way that we leave the lonely alone and push the wounded away.” Wishes and prayers don’t suffice. Wishes and prayers come from the privileged or the more fortunate, and they do absolutely nothing for anybody else. In order to truly communicate your thankfulness, you need to spread it to others in real, tangible, personal ways.

Even inside the bleakness, there is recognition of privilege, optimism, and hope. Even in “Watermark,” a song that appears to be about a couple experiencing a miscarriage or an abortion, the narrator finds a feeling worth keeping: “Hold on to the corners of today, and we’ll fold it up to save until it’s needed.” The characters in “My Favorite Chords” create their own kind of Thanksgiving: “When you get off work tonight, meet me at the construction site, and we’ll write some notes to tape to the heavy machines, like, ‘We hope they treat you well. Hope you don’t work too hard. We hope you get to be happy sometimes.’ Bring your swiss-army knife, and a bottle of something, and I’ll bring some spray paint and a new deck of cards. Hey, I found the safest place to keep all our tenderness, keep all our bad ideas, keep all our hope. It’s here in the smallest bones, the feet and the inner ear. It’s such an enormous thing to walk and to listen.”

Left and Leaving by The Weakerthans might not have been written with Thanksgiving in mind, but it’s the best Thanksgiving album that I’ve managed to find so far. Do yourself a favor: stop complaining about the early onset of the Christmas season, give this album a listen, and then go out and do something good for somebody else, and be thankful that you’re capable of doing so.

-Matt Metzler

Album Review: Late in the Playoffs, “Alive and On Your Own”

Late in the Playoffs, Alive and On Your Own
Released independently on July 2, 2013
Produced by Gary Cioffi Jr.

Rating: 7.5/10

“Waiting in line, I chew my nails and think how the golden years will make or break the bank.” This line from the opening track of the debut full-length by Chicago’s Late in the Playoffs says more than it might seem upon first listen. Being a relatively new and independent band in 2013 is not exactly a stable career choice – particularly when that band is playing a breed of music influenced by late 90s and early 2000s emo and pop-punk, which aren’t topping any charts today. Having formed in 2009, Late in the Playoffs have already faced this reality when original guitarist Conor Page had to leave the band (and the city of Chicago) for a year and a half, until he saved up enough money to rejoin in time for the writing and recording of Alive and On Your Own. Now that the band has survived their initial lineup trials and the task of financing, writing, and recording their first album – not to mention the undertaking of actually releasing it, and doing so independently – Late in the Playoffs are poised to break out of the Windy City.

The first two tracks of Alive and On Your Own provide a good introduction to Late in the Playoff’s two vocalists, with Aaron Goldschmidt taking the lead on “Golden Years” and Conor Page helming the dark and brooding “Never Wrong.” For much of the album, though, Goldschmidt and Page team up and trade lines back and forth, creating a great dynamic between Goldschmidt’s smooth vocals (which sound coincidentally enough like a halfway point between The Wonder Years’ Dan Campbell and Matt Brasch) and Page’s grittier style. “The Wayside” represents the pinnacle of their dual vocal duties and boasts some of their best hooks.

While this album’s faster tracks shine with rapid riffs, propelling drums, and lyrics with wit that call to mind scene heavyweights like Motion City Soundtrack (“Force of Nature,” “You Won’t,” and the already-mentioned “The Wayside”), Late in the Playoffs are still a young band, and they tend to stumble when they slow the pace. Stripped down cuts like “Hope” and “My Sober Self” amplify the nasal quality of Goldschmidt’s voice, and while the former is saved when the rest of the band steps up to join him, the latter goes nowhere. Goldschmidt’s vocals grate, and at only a minute long, it sounds like an early sketch for a song, and I’m puzzled by its inclusion.

Fortunately, this disappointment is overshadowed by the excellent “You and the Cold.” This penultimate track is by far the highlight of Alive and On Your Own; the guitar tones are sublime, demonstrating a masterful balance of heavy and clean; the riffs are stratospheric; Dan Schein’s bass forms a strong and lively backbone, and Christian Ray’s drums measure out the tension between the verses and the chorus. The song drops off earlier than expected, but that only boosts its replayability factor.

“Chemicals” carries the album home, featuring prime vocal work from both singers, as well as melodies and chiming guitar lines à la The Graduate. Alive and On Your Own should be taken seriously, despite being an independent, digital-only release. In some ways, Late in the Playoffs remind me of another Chicago band that spent their entire career being underrated and overlooked – Spitalfield. The emotional sensitivity (and intensity) is here, the melodies are here, the musical proficiency is here (and, like Spitalfield, Late in the Playoffs boast particularly strong bass work, provided here by Dan Schein). In today’s music landscape more than ever, the trajectory of a band’s career is in the hands (and wallets) of its fans. Alive and On Your Own establishes the foundation for a promising future; now, it’s our job to make sure that Late in the Playoffs see the success they deserve.

For fans of: The Dangerous Summer, The Wonder Years, Transit, Mayday Parade, Spitalfield, Motion City Soundtrack

-Matt R. Metzler

Album Review: Lydia, “Devil”

Lydia, “Devil”
Released independently on March 19, 2013
Produced by Colby Wedgeworth and Lydia

Rating: 6.5/10

Leighton Antelman, the frontman of Lydia, has a penchant for drama. This is evident by listening to virtually any song that Lydia has ever released, or by knowing anything about the turbulent history of the Arizona band. After releasing the much-adored Illuminate in 2008, an album that saw the band perfecting the balance between angst and prettiness, their dramatic tendencies overtook them. Mindy White left; Antelman announced that he and Steve McGraw, fellow founding members of Lydia, were no longer interested in playing music together, and so the band was breaking up, and Assailants would be “the last recordings ever put out” by Lydia; there would be a farewell tour, which McGraw backed out of, and the DVD footage recorded for the tour would eventually be lost in a hard drive crash.

The band returned, of course – although without McGraw – and the drama that used to define Lydia’s music seemed to subside. Antelman’s vocals and lyrics began to sound… sunny. I doubt that any fan of Illuminate, upon its release five years ago, could’ve foreseen Antelman singing anything along the lines of, “I like your style, I like your style. Let’s just have some fun.” But that’s exactly what happens on the opening track of Devil, “The Exit,” which will go down as one of the poppiest tracks the band has ever recorded. This sugary-sweetness surfaces again on “Runaway” and “Hurry Back Tonight,” and while these soaring choruses find Antelman sounding more secure than ever, they will certainly take some getting used to for the band’s longtime followers.

None of this is to say that Antelman has lost his flair for the dramatic – “Knee Deep” and “Take Your Time” are proof that Lydia’s former moodiness can still be conjured up when the time is right. These two tracks are the highlight of Devil, the former serving as the album’s shortest proper song but wielding more power and intrigue than any of the cheery cuts that surround it. “Take Your Time” is almost theatrical – the verses are tense and Antelman sounds like he’s about to crack, but when the chorus hits, the music loosens up, and he sounds like he’s made peace with his demons (“Now I’m never sure if I’m coming or going, but I don’t look for her, I can’t look for her; I guess I love not knowing”). In an album full of breezy songs, “Take Your Time” is a punch to the throat, and it represents everything that Lydia does best: the effortless glide from tension to tranquility, the angelic harmonies, and the feeling that every word Antelman sings is of dire importance to his sanity and well-being.

Part of the reason that “Take Your Time” and “Knee Deep” leave such an impact on the listener is because they sound so urgent – a trait that is missing from the rest of the album. “Back to Bed” is the antithesis of urgency, and its lyrics verge on painful: “Then she looked right at me, and said, ‘God, I love how you say that. It sounds so epic.’ She goes, ‘All your friends will be waiting, so just come back to bed.’” It’s too empty and trivial a song for its position at the dead center of the album, and its only saving grace is the delightful whistling that wraps it up – I’ve always found the successful use of whistling in place of lead vocals to be a difficult feat. “Now I Know” is a brooding interlude that revives several refrains from previous songs, and while it leads nicely into “Take Your Time,” I find myself frowning whenever it begins to play; it’s unnecessary filler, especially for an album this short.

I don’t mean to sound as if I only appreciate Lydia’s music when it’s fast and urgent, though. “Holidays” is a lovely mid-tempo number that brings to mind the dog days of summer; it features delightfully personal lyrics, a swirling guitar solo, and a sing-along climax during the bridge. When viewed along with the album’s title track, as well as closing song “From A Tire Swing,” it’s evident that Lydia have become quite proficient at crafting light, low-stress, mid-tempo songs with the just the tiniest dash of drama to create some mystery.

Leighton Antelman is no longer the haunted, tightly strung troubadour that he was during Illuminate, and aside from himself and drummer Craig Taylor, Lydia is an entirely different band than they were in 2008. Thematically, too, Lydia’s music seems to have different priorities than it did back then – an element of celebration and acceptance is threaded throughout Devil, replacing the mourning and loss that their music is commonly associated with. So maybe Antelman writes the occasional bad lyric and relies a bit too heavily on bells and whistles (or, more specifically, tambourines and shakers), and maybe a couple of these songs fall short of their intentions; but Devil is not a bad album by any means. Can we really blame the band for settling down? Surely it’s exhausting to remain tortured souls forever.

-Matt R. Metzler

Album Review: Jimmy Eat World, “Damage”

Jimmy Eat World, “Damage”
Released by RCA Records on June 11, 2013
Produced by Alain Johannes and Jimmy Eat World

Rating: 9/10

The members of Jimmy Eat World must be really great at maintaining friendships – unnaturally great, even. The band has consisted of the same four members since their first major label release, 1996’s Static Prevails, and as far as the public knows, there hasn’t been a fraction of strain or ill will amongst the band in the past seventeen years (except that little disagreement with longtime producer Mark Trombino, but seeing as he produced their previous album, Invented, it looks like even that wound has healed). Jimmy Eat World have never taken a hiatus or suffered line-up changes, and they’ve been kicking out albums at steady three-year intervals for the past decade. With their latest offering, Damage, we might as well give them the title of the most stable and consistent band that alternative rock has seen in an entire generation.

“Appreciation” reintroduces us to each part of the band steadily, and with confidence: Jim Adkins’ guitar makes the first strike, followed by Zach Lind’s drums as the opening track blooms into a full-band affair. The first words we hear are a good indicator of Damage’s themes: “Thank you, honey, for reminding me how long you can stare at someone and never see, really see.” Jimmy Eat World have described their seventh proper album as an adult break-up record, and this is an apt classification; lyrically, Damage is the band’s bleakest album since Futures. While I wouldn’t call it a concept album, Adkins does weave a thematic arc through the album, detailing the disintegration of a relationship (the final two tracks are titled “Byebyelove” and “You Were Good”). While 2010’s Invented was a mixed bag lyrically (Adkins claimed to have written each song loosely based on a photograph), this set of songs seems more intimate. Whether or not Adkins used inspiration from his personal life to write Damage, he achieved a level of authenticity here that Invented did not possess.

“Book of Love,” while not an immediate highlight, comes alive during repeated listens. It jangles and bounces, and shows that the band is on top of their craft during even the most straightforward pop songs. The entire track showcases the great bass work of Rick Burch, which is particularly pleasant during the second verse when Adkins’ layered vocals entreat, “Can you tell me what just happened? Where’s my girlfriend with her engine pinned redline? I pick you up on a Wednesday night and we go off on a secret ride like we were kids.” Lead single “I Will Steal You Back” captures a moodiness that has been rare in the band’s music since Futures, and its explosive chorus is one of Damage’s finest.

It’s difficult not to discuss every track on Damage; at ten songs and a total runtime of 38 minutes, it is the band’s shortest full-length release, and it is more dense and concise than any of their previous albums. “Please Say No” will rank among the saddest ballads of their catalogue, and Adkins hasn’t sounded as fired up as he does in “How’d You Have Me” in a very long time; the latter is a major highlight in this set of despairing songs, and its lyrics smirk: “There’s only one thing left I wish I knew: How did you have me when I only had you?” Adkins reflects on his own mistakes while still sounding confident and assured in “No, Never” (which boasts another of the album’s strongest choruses) and “Byebyelove” takes a slow-burning, minimalist approach that calls back to 1999’s Clarity.

The most startling song on Damage for many longtime fans will be the finale, “You Were Good.” Jimmy Eat World have become known for their sprawling, larger-than-life closing tracks, but Damage comes to an end with the most distant and straight-laced song on the album. A filter coats Adkins’ vocals and guitar, which are couched by a warm drone that quivers throughout the duration of the song. It is appropriate, however, that this set of songs comes to an abrupt and decidedly restrained conclusion; if Damage aims to realistically chart a gradual break-up, then there is no sweeping ending, no proper finale. “So I’m not who you wanted but you’re still the one who sets a fire in me. I guess I’ll drink what I’ll drink until the loving touch I need is not a need,” sings Adkins toward the back half of the song. “It was sad, but, baby, here we are. It was good, it was good, and it was gone.”

There are no duds or missteps on Damage, but at the same time, there are no utter surprises. Jimmy Eat World may have reached more impressive heights on their previous releases, but those albums all had one song or another that could be considered a low point (on their three previous records, for example, the sheer oddities of placement that were “Nothing Wrong,” “Gotta Be Somebody’s Blues,” and “Action Needs an Audience”). I’m too attached to Futures, Clarity, and Chase This Light to feel comfortable calling Damage the band’s best release, but it is, without a doubt, a masterpiece of sequencing, consistency, and musicianship. Jimmy Eat World are the kings of alternative rock, whether or not the radio recognizes that title; I doubt they’re any more concerned with the radio today than they were when they penned “Your New Aesthetic” over a decade ago, and their confidence has never faltered since.

-Matt R. Metzler

Album Review: Misser, “Distancing”

Misser, “Distancing”
Released by Rise Records on May 28, 2013
Produced by Sam Pura; engineered by John Dello Iacono

Rating: 8/10

Twelve minutes is not a lot of time. It’s barely longer than the extra sleep you get by pressing the snooze button on your alarm clock in the morning. But for Misser, the brainchild band of Tim Landers (Transit) and Brad Wiseman (formerly of This Time Next Year), twelve minutes is enough time to burn through five loud, punk-tinged rock songs that demonstrate the band’s ability to keep their craft concise, tight, and angry.

“Goddamn, Salad Days” (boasting a nod in its title to Brian McTernan’s Salad Days Studio in Baltimore, MD, where the band wrote the track) opens up the EP by dropping the listener straight into chaos. Landers and Wiseman have perfected the art of back-and-forth vocals, and “Salad Days” calls to mind the best work of Taking Back Sunday. While the idiom “salad days” may refer to youthful idealism and enthusiasm, the song is far from sentimental. “It feels safe to be alone,” Landers howls, barreling into the chorus of, “Look to the sky, ‘cause I’m sick of the floorboards / preoccupied with opinions and chokeholds / out of my goddamn mind, all of the goddamn time.” The song’s bridge was surely written to cater to a live sing-a-long, and the band’s decision to debut it live during their Spring tour with The Wonder Years amped up their setlist and gave fans an early taste of the EP.

Upon first listen, “Burn Out” may strike the listener as oddly mixed; Landers and Wiseman’s vocals are tucked slightly below the instruments during the verses, but this allows the chorus to erupt with even more intensity. This track showcases the band’s ability to start simple and build on a song’s bare bones without ever sounding too repetitive. Landers’ hushed delivery of the lyrics of the chorus at the end of the second verse serve as one of the highlights of the entire release; the members of Misser are confident enough in their songwriting abilities to take a risk and drop a quiet pause in the middle of a three-minute build-up, making the catharsis of the loud section immediately afterwards even more rewarding.

“Alone, Die” is perhaps the most infectious and upbeat song the band has written, despite its mean-spirited lyrics. After writing a debut album full of bitter songs about strained relationships (2012’s Every Day I Tell Myself I’m Going to Be a Better Person), they have fully perfected the skill of capturing small details from these relationships that tell a much larger story: “I left my hat by the window of your apartment / The one I’d wear whenever it was cold or it was raining / It seems unfair that a piece of me gets to enjoy your company / While you just overlook the fact that it’s there.” Clocking in at just below the two-minute mark, “Alone, Die” is the epitome of this band honing in on their knack to convey strong emotion and executing it without any time to spare.

Closing track “Slow It Down // Write It Out” does, indeed, slow things down – but these are musicians who know how to make the most of slow cuts as well as fast ones. The guitar lines bounce and the drums leave just the right amount of empty space to create an introspective atmosphere for the song’s tired yet patient lyrics (“I’ll always be two steps behind the mean, trying to make sense of what’s not what it seems / I could say what I wanted to say, but I could never do what I wanted to do”). It rounds out the EP with a sort of confession; it’s the band saying they can’t afford to stay angry and loud forever, and celebrating the healing power of songwriting.

Distancing was recorded with Sam Pura at Panda Studios, and Landers and Wiseman are joined on this release by two members of their touring band – Torre Cioffi (also of Transit) on guitar and Mike Ambrose (Set Your Goals) on drums. While Distancing may not reach the emotional heights that their debut full-length achieved, it proves that Landers and Wiseman are growing more comfortable writing together, and the additional musicians add a tightness to Misser’s sound that their debut sometimes lacked.

While it has unfortunately become impossible to read about Misser’s trajectory as a band without encountering comparisons to Transit, I would be remiss not to comment on the promise that this EP shows in light of Transit’s stagnant, disappointing release of Young New England. The two were released within a month and a half of each other, and since Landers serves as a key songwriter in both bands, it begs the question: as Misser’s fanbase continues to grow, and as Transit’s latest album is panned by critics and fans alike, where will Landers place his priority? His gruff vocals – one of his strongest assets as a musician – are often buried in Transit’s work but are allowed to shine with Misser. I, for one, hope that Landers realizes that Misser serves as a much brighter showcase of his talent than does Transit. Whatever the outcome, I’m keenly anticipating more music from Misser in the near future.

-Matt R. Metzler

A Tour Guide to Anberlin’s “Cities”

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Foreword

I completed this project in early 2010, while I was a senior at Kettering Fairmont High School. It was published on March 30, 2010. Before long, the blog post had upwards of 40 comments, thanking me for sharing what I’d found, complimenting both the way that I presented Stephen Christian’s words and the way that I supplemented his interviews with my own insight, telling me that my work had helped them gain a new and deeper appreciation for Cities as an album, Christian as a songwriter, and Anberlin as a band. In April 2010, my blog averaged 204 views per day. On one day in particular that month – what WordPress labels as my blog’s “best day” – 2,158 people viewed the blog, thanks to promotion by Christian himself on Twitter as well as music news communities such as AbsolutePunk.net.

Basically, as the title says, what follows is a tour guide to Anberlin’s third album, Cities. I’ve scoured all corners of the internet for interviews with Anberlin’s singer and lyricist, Stephen Christian, and in the end, I emerged with his explanations and insights into every single song on Cities, as well as some general insight into the album as a whole. I’ve added in some thoughts of my own as well, because Cities is one of my favorite albums of all time, and all of these songs hold great meaning for me. The finished product is pretty lengthy, as you can see, but I believe that it’s all worth reading for fans of the band and the album, and if your experience reading it is anything like my experience writing it, the meaning these songs hold with you will double after discovering what inspired them. Each quote or important piece of information has been assigned a footnote number, and the links to the sources I used are at the end of the post. I’ve split this up into multiple pages, so don’t forget to keep reading once you reach the end of a page.

I hope the tour proves enjoyable for you!

You can click on each bolded song title to read the song’s lyrics. They’re not official lyrics from the band, but they’re the best I could find online.

Cities

Cities was recorded in July and August 2006 in Seattle, WA. Most of the recording was done at Compound Recordings, except for the drums, which were recorded at London Bridge Studio. Anberlin returned to producer Aaron Sprinkle for the third consecutive time – but not before some serious deliberation. In the end, the band and Sprinkle say they took care to change things up whenever possible (including turning to a different engineer and mixer), to make this album sound different than Blueprints for the Black Market and Never Take Friendship Personal, which were also produced by Sprinkle[1]. At the time of recording, Anberlin consisted of Stephen Christian (vocals, lyrics), Joey Milligan (guitar), Nate Young (drums), Deon Rexroat (bass), and Nathan Strayer (guitar). The album’s title was initially rumored to be Reclusion.[2]

On December 26, 2006, the band released the Godspeed EP via iTunes, giving fans their first taste of the recording sessions  It featured the album’s lead single “Godspeed” and “The Haunting,” a b-side which Stephen had originally intended for his solo project Anchor & Braille until the rest of the band convinced him to record it as an Anberlin song[3]. “The Haunting” would later appear on the band’s b-sides compilation, Lost Songs.

Tooth & Nail Records, the band’s home since their debut, released Cities on February 20, 2007. The album was considered by the band to be the third and final installment in a trilogy, with Blueprints tackling the theme of man versus nature, Friendship taking on man versus man, and Cities representing the struggle of man versus self.[4]

STEPHEN SAYS: “I once heard someone say you can either get inspiration from influential bands, or you can become the influential band. I think by now we had to do what was natural for us and not listen to the musical climate around us. Anberlin is now completely Anberlin. I am not going to say that we were not influenced, because I think musicians are a byproduct of everything that we have heard, read, studied, encountered, and written, but I feel like we drew from ourselves on this record. I know, for myself, three months before we recorded, I stopped listening to anything I felt could influence me. I picked up a lot of blues and jazz, from Simone to Stitt, but my favorite during the “cleansing phase” was Serge Gainsbourg, a French jazz artist.” [5]

“I think the original title was Songs for Darker Places, and then it was Songs for Darker Cities, and then Darker Cities, and then Dark Cities, and that sounded too much like Batman, so we were just like, okay, Cities it is.” [6]

“The third record takes on the ominous and daunting task of introspection. The city represents individuality and the pursuit of life, and this is the most autobiographical album of my career. The city represents one’s own self; to the fearless, it looks conquerable, but to the timid and fearful, it looks unobtainable.” [7]

“I think Cities was more of a guinea pig experiment to see how invested the fans were into Anberlin. It just seemed like before people were just waiting for the hook. That’s why, in “A Whisper & A Clamor,” there’s a line about being so tired of writing songs that people hear but no one listens to, no one hears what’s really being said. I felt like this was the time to go inside myself and find out what’s really going on behind the scenes. I felt that whoever you are, no matter what race or age or sex, I think that we all go through the very basic same things in life, whether that’s love, hate, family, beliefs or whatever it might be. I just wanted to dive into those topics – what could we all relate to? Whether it’s depression in “Hello Alone,” or drug use in “Godspeed,” or battling it out with God in “(*Fin),” I feel that they are topics that everyone can relate to and really feel a part of. It was an experiment because I honestly did not know if the fans were going to like it. This was my heart-on-sleeve, devil-and-demons-in-my-head kind of record. I’m just glad that I lived to not regret that.” [8]

“An analogy I can make is with Weezer: here is Rivers Cuomo coming out with their second record, Pinkerton, that was all very heart on sleeve-ish as well, and the critics just ate him up – ‘this sucks, this is the worst thing, no one wants to hear this crap.’ And he vowed that he would never write a record like that again. Now people say that it’s the best record that Weezer ever did, but he lived to regret the record and hated it ever since because he felt that people didn’t understand it. That was a little scary for me, reading those things, I went back and tried to read all the interviews he did after the album came out and people just tore him up. I’m glad that people not only accepted Cities but appreciated it. The whole goal of it was to delve into the psyche and feed the shadows and at the end of the day, find out that there is hope out there. There is a better life out there for you, if you pick yourself up you can make it in this world, I don’t care who you are. That’s the underlying theme of the album.” [8]

“Every city has a different culture, a different feel, whether it’s Seattle or Tokyo, every city is going to feel different at some point, and of course there are lessons you can learn from the city, or something that someone can teach you, and I guess that’s what I wanted with each and every song. Each and every song I wanted to be different in some way, whether it’s a different story or different musically, and then at the end of the day I wanted it to teach a lesson, whether about failure and success, about not giving up, or about depression – no matter what the subject was, I wanted people to walk away feeling like this was a little bit more than just music.” [6]

National Geographic’s “American Transgender” – A Response

In May 2012, National Geographic aired an hour-long documentary feature called “American Transgender” that looked inside the lives of three adults who identify as transgender. It’s available to watch on YouTube.

I want to preface my response with this: I’m trying very hard and very consciously not to be a buzzkill here. One of the most effective methods of educating is sharing stories and getting to know other people. Stories, friendships, relationships, conversations – these are the tools that help to reverse ignorance. I don’t intend to demonize National Geographic, and I certainly don’t intend to criticize or pass judgment on the people whose lives are documented in this special. What I want to do is examine the structure, the discourse, and the implications of “American Transgender” – what it says and what it does not say, what it illuminates and what it ignores.

“American Transgender” is framed by a wedding. It begins with one of the documentary’s three subjects, Clair, an MTF transwoman, shopping for a wedding dress, and it ends with (spoiler alert!) her wedding on a Hawaiian beach to another one of the documentary’s subjects, Jim, an FTM transman. The third subject is also an FTM transman, named Eli, who is married to a woman named Amanda.

For me, this was one of the most problematic elements of the documentary – that all three stories hinge not only on heterosexual monogamy, but that they hinge on the institution of marriage. I suppose it can be interesting to look at how the transgender identity actually can fit snugly into the institution of marriage and heterosexual monogamy, but the implication that it should fit is far from useful – it is dangerous.

Again, I have nothing against Clair, Jim, Eli, Amanda, or anyone of any gender identity or sexual orientation who wants to partake in marriage. Everyone should be allowed to do what they see fit with their lives, bodies, and personal relationships. If marriage makes sense and improves the quality of life for these individuals, then of course they should get married. But the fact that this documentary does not include the story of a person who is transgender and who is not interested in the institution of marriage, or who exists outside of heterosexual monogamy, seems to me a decision that was made in order to hide the less traditional and more complex forms of relationships that exist for the choosing. It feels like an act of airbrushing.

As I was watching this, a thought popped into my head: “They’re depicting the act of falling in love as equivalent to falling into a binary.” Not necessarily the gender binary of male/female, but the binary of personally unfulfilled while single/fulfilled while married. The structure of encapsulating the telling of these stories within the frame of a wedding only seems to reinforce this. The pain and the hardship of transitioning is rewarded and justified by falling in love and getting married. Or, It Gets Better. You Get Married.

As if to attempt to answer my concern, several seconds later, Jim and Clair are sitting on a couch together, and Jim says, “If I felt like we were falling into stereotypical gender roles, Clair would clean the house all the time and and cook all the time, and [inaudible] … I wish,” as Clair jumps in and says playfully, “I fell more under the gender stereotype of princess.”

This was the extent of the documentary addressing gender roles. As for addressing falling into stereotypes in other ways, such as their post-transition gender presentations strictly aligning to the masculine/feminine binary, the documentary remains mum. I hope I’m not sounding like a broken record here, but I feel like I need to reiterate once again that I’m making no judgments of any trans* person who chooses to present themselves inside the masculine/feminine binary. I just think that National Geographic did the trans* community a disservice by only including subjects who fit themselves inside that binary. The genderqueer identity is never mentioned by name or even alluded to as an existing option.

Along the lines of what the documentary does and does not show, both Jim and Eli have had surgery during their transition, and although I don’t believe it was ever explicitly stated (I could have missed it), the impression is given to the viewer that Clair, too, has undergone surgical procedures during her transition. I would’ve liked to have seen and heard the story of a person who identifies as transgender but has chosen not to pursue surgery, simply because this is a path that lots of transfolks take, and while it is acknowledged by one of the subjects that not every trans* person desires surgery, it is never depicted, and these people are left vague, invisible, and impersonal to the viewer.

What my beef with “American Transgender” ultimately comes down to is the methods by which this documentary seems to legitimize the trans* identity and those who claim it. The act of transition is legitimized through the act of falling in love monogamously, which is later legitimized through the institution of marriage. The acknowledgement that one’s gender identity does not always “fit” with one’s birth sex is legitimized through the depiction of trans* people who still mostly “fit” inside the masculine/feminine binary of gender expression – whose outward appearances are clearly legible as either “man” or “woman.”

This documentary suggests that someone who identifies as transgender is “just like you, just like anyone else” (and those exact words are spoken by one of the subjects). While this kind of assimilation is not necessarily a bad goal – and while it can and does improve the quality of life for many trans* people – it is problematic, because it is an oversimplification.

If assimilation is our only goal, then we’re probably hurting just as many people as we’re helping, because monogamy, marriage, surgery, and the masculine/feminine binary are not universal and do not apply to everybody. “American Transgender” does not explicitly state otherwise, but in its implications and its portrayals, it captures a very narrow and traditional view of what it means to be transgender in America.

-Matt R. Metzler

Book Review: Amy Bender, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake”

On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the slice. To her horror, she finds that her cheerful mother tastes of despair. Soon, she’s privy to the secret knowledge that most families keep hidden: her father’s detachment, her mother’s transgression, her brother’s increasing retreat from the world. But there are some family secrets that even cursed taste buds can’t discern. – Official book summary

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is like a sustained dream – at times normal-feeling, then a little odd, then very unsettling, intriguing. And also like a dream, Lemon Cake ends with some of the most intriguing questions raised by Aimee Bender ultimately unanswered; the reader sees a little light, a few, small things become a bit clearer, and then the dream is over, and the reader is lifted out of it, left with a fascination for the dream world and, most of all, the emotional residue.

I think that’s my favorite aspect of this book – the emotional effects that Bender’s writing produced. Much like Rose discovers that she can use the medium of taste to feel emotions in a strange, unresolved way, Bender’s language and imagery accomplished this same transaction through the medium of words. I think my favorite moment of the novel was Rose’s discovery of her brother Joseph, sitting in his apartment, quiet, alone, in the midst of a literal disappearing act – the leg of a chair strangely substituted for his own leg. I felt something funny in my stomach that must have been akin to what Rose felt, seeing a chair leg sitting inside of her brother’s shoe – uneasiness, fear, confusion, a sense of something very wrong unfolding, but more than anything else, pure captivation.

The novel also serves as a sort of coming-of-age story, following Rose from the day she first discovers her ability throughout the remainder of her education, and into her post-academic life. These parts of the story are remarkably human, in the context of the oddities that Bender litters throughout the text: Rose struggles to understand why her parents’ marriage is disintegrating, she navigates her way through friendships that begin to fail as high school comes to an end, she tries to manage a long-standing crush on her brother’s best friend but ends up fooling around with a jock who means nothing to her instead. And Bender also gives the reader a sense of family history, which gives even greater depth to the world of the novel.

Lemon Cake is a great piece of magical realism, as is the collection of Bender’s short stories which I’ve also read, Willful Creatures. It’s certainly not for everyone, and Bender’s refusal to answer what are perhaps the most captivating questions she raises – the questions of magical realism – will leave some readers frustrated and unsatisfied. But if you feel like taking a trip into a bizarre story world for a little while, and if you can accept from the outset that, like a dream, the pieces aren’t always going to fit together or be properly explained to you, then I definitely recommend The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

Rating: 3.5/5

-Matt R. Metzler

You can buy a used copy of this book on the Amazon.com Marketplace for less than $5.

Also recommended: Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Album Review: Transit, “Young New England”

Transit, “Young New England”
Released by Rise Records on April 2, 2013
Produced by Ted Hutt and Gary Cioffi; mixed by Gary Cioffi

Rating: 5/10

Young New England is a record about who we are and where we are from.” Transit presents this quote to their listeners at the end of the video for “Weathered Souls”, released a week before the album, and in the record’s liner notes, as well. If we are to take this as the band’s mission statement for this collection of thirteen tracks, it would be all but impossible to say that they didn’t meet their goal. After all, if these songs define Transit for the band members themselves, who are we to argue? But this only raises another question. Does Young New England define Transit for the fans, too? Does Young New England do an adequate job of capturing and developing the elements of Transit that fans fell in love with?

“Nothing Lasts Forever” kicks off the album with the crackling of old vinyl as Joe Boynton enters with his first lines. Almost immediately, it becomes apparent that Boynton’s vocal delivery has taken on a new quality of some sort; after a number of listens, I think I’d describe this quality as “looseness.” Compare how tightly Boynton spits out the chorus of “Long Lost Friends” (from Listen & Forgive) to how the words of “Nothing Last Forever” seem to simply roll off of his tongue without much of a push. Young New England is a “loose” album, from start to finish, and this is evident primarily in Boynton’s work as a vocalist and lyricist.

When the music does tighten up, however, the songs shine. “Second to Right,” “Sleep,” and “Bright Lights, Dark Shadows” demonstrate that Transit’s music hasn’t lost its punch. On the other hand, “Thanks for Nothing” showcases the band’s new penchant for mid-tempo, easy-going songs that just sort of trot along for a few minutes before fading out. This track is also a prime example of the head-scratching lyrics that Boynton has penned this time around: ”Love is a song, follow my melody to sing along. Tell me how do I sing along?” and ”I can’t fix you, you’re already broken” are lyrical clunkers if I’ve ever heard any.

“Thanks for Nothing” also serves as a representation of the album’s biggest flaw: piss-poor engineering. As the lead vocals and the backing vocals trade whoa-oh-oh’s during the pre-chorus, the backing vocals sound comical, and almost pirate-like (don’t you just want to sing yo-ho-ho when you hear that voice?). During the last minute of the track, the backing vocals during the chorus itself actually become painful to the ears; the attempted harmonies do nothing to improve the hook of the chorus, and instead come off sounding like tone-deaf howling.

The band stumbles with its use of backing vocals elsewhere, too. They threaten to ruin the otherwise highlight of “Lake Q” when Boynton doubles the phrases “too young to let go” and “speak up or speak slow,” the second iterations sounding like they were sung through a cell-phone. This effect returns during the bridge, the distortion a strange choice for an otherwise clear and clean song. The bridge of “Sleep,” too, is marred by an odd choice to layer Boynton’s spoken delivery of the lyrics beneath the melody sung by him and Tim Landers.

Tim Landers: the most underutilized member of the band remains underutilized in these songs. Sure, his guitar lines are sharp, and when partnered with Torre Cioffi, the guitar work rises to the forefront of the album and serves as its best quality. But we’ve seen from his work in Misser that Landers is a talented vocalist, as well. Why is he only given small pieces of “Second to Right” and “Sleep” to take the helm as the lead vocalist? This is a particular troubling absence on Young New England, more so than the band’s past work, because Boynton’s lead vocals have never been worse. His delivery of “Hang It Up” at the heart of the album is a disaster; not only does he sound off-key as he reaches outside of his range, but he tries to tap into vocal stylings that are clearly not natural for him. The effect is jarring, and the performance comes off as forced and not genuine.

There are two errors in the album’s production and engineering that are so blatant that they’re practically unforgivable. At around two minutes and forty seconds into “So Long, So Long,” when Boynton sings the word “stars,” a sharp volume drop occurs for no reason whatsoever. In “Bright Lights, Dark Shadows,” Boynton has a terrible case of mumble-mouth as he begins the chorus, slurring the phrase “mask the pain” into something very close to “masturbate.” Surely many pairs of ears listened to this album between the time when the mixing and mastering were completed and the masters were sent to be pressed. The band, close friends, the record label, etc. How were these errors not caught? How is it even remotely possible that nobody told Boynton to go back into the vocal booth and enunciate a bit more clearly?

When all is said and done, Young New England is the most disappointing product that Transit has ever released. Very few tracks escape the curse of laziness, whether vocally, lyrically, or sonically; and these become the highlights of the album (“Second to Right,” “Sleep,” except for the aforementioned caveat during the bridge, and “Don’t Go, Don’t Stray,”). Aside from these cuts, nearly every track features a cringe-inducing choice by the band that simply does not work. It’s one thing for a band to take a more relaxed and looser approach to their craft, and such a choice doesn’t necessarily result in a lesser quality. What does result in a lesser quality, though, is meaningless and uninspired lyrics, strange, unnatural, and off-key vocal inflections, and unobservant mixing and engineering.

I can’t bring myself to call the album as a whole a failure, because Tim Landers, Torre Cioffi, Daniel Frazier, and PJ Jefferson all excel in their individual roles, and the musical foundations of these songs are exactly what fans of Transit have come to expect from these talented musicians. Even the songs themselves are not poor songs, per se – they are just poorly executed. If everyone involved with the creation of this album had taken a closer, more critical look at what they’d made, and if they’d just cleaned it up around the edges and re-recorded a few of the vocal mishaps, this could be a worthy follow-up to Listen & Forgive. Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened, and Transit’s fans are left with a record that is troubling and bruised.

-Matt R. Metzler