Category Archives: Reviews

Album Review: Oso Oso, “Real Stories of True People, Who Kind of Looked Like Monsters”

Oso Oso, Real Stories of True People, Who Kind of Looked Like Monsters
Rating: 8.0

In James Baldwin’s 1965 novel Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin follows a young American man in Paris as he floats unaffectedly through relationships with both men and women, never finding happiness. This character, David, opens himself up to no one out of fear of losing his sense of safety to “the dreadful human tangling occurring everywhere, without end, forever.” David considers the idea that all people have their own individual garden of Eden—their own mindless, risk-free state of innocence within which they could presumably live their entire lives. Here, they could be unscathed by the person pain that comes along with being vulnerable, being in true relationship with another person. “Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know,” David says, “but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both.”

Oso Oso’s debut full-length album, Real Stories of True People, Who Kind of Looked Like Monsters, navigates questions and themes that aren’t really so far from those explored in Giovanni’s Room: vocalist and lyricist Jade Lilitri starts this album’s story after the flaming sword has descended, and after that risk-free state of innocence, that first naïve and sheltered understanding of love, has met its end. “When it all folds in on itself, you gotta cushion the fall,” he sings on the album’s opener, “Track 1, Side A.” The song opens with an anxious build-up, a slightly queasy melody that develops slowly only to come to a halt and make way for a much clearer and more playful riff. Lilitri’s vocal phrasing and go-for-broke attitude on this track at times calls to mind Third Eye Blind; he sings in drawn-out syllables and piercing yelps, repeating the rallying cry, “You gotta not be so scared.” This song serves as an opener to the rest of the album, yes, but also as the closer to something we weren’t invited to witness. In this way, we can call our own Eden to mind, and then buckle in for the rest of the ride together.

The album really takes off on track three, “Another Night,” which finds drummer Jimmy Ristano as well as Lilitri (who plays everything on the record except for drums) firing on all cylinders. It’s a fast-paced pop-punk song that features some of the fiercest vocal delivery on the record, and while it would be easy to zone out to the breakneck rhythm and Lilitri’s harmonies, it’s worth making an effort to keep up with the lyrics: “Found an old photograph of you and me / from a day that we spent laying out on the beach / and with every photo I’ve gotta to look underneath / cause nothing is ever as it seems, you know what I mean? / Like I couldn’t smile, cause I forgot to breathe / too consumed with the thought that we’d have to leave.” Following on this song’s heels, “Where You’ve Been Hiding” is a perfect complement to the previous track’s punch. It’s contemplative and meandering, waiting until well past the three-minute mark to shift into high gear, and then providing one of the most satisfying moments on the record. It might be my favorite song on Real Stories of True People, reminding me at both its calmest and loudest points of Northstar (seemingly one of the only early-to-mid-00s band in this genre that has not staged a comeback).

It’s hard not to look at this album track by track, because each song captures a different feeling or a different experience of self-realization. “Wet Grass or Cold Cement” wrestles with guilt, and the see-saw of feeling liberated versus second guessing what might have been in a recently-ended relationship (“I left and got away with it,” Lilitri says with ambivalence); “How It Happened” bemoans the futility of going through the motions with another person, courting someone out of rote, out of habit, rather than out of desire; “Easy Way Out” and “This Must Be a Place” embrace, at last—if somewhat sullenly—responsibility for living in the present moment (or, more accurately, responsibility for the consequences of not living in the present moment): “And I know what they say / you’ve gotta keep yourself protected / like love’s just some selfish game / where I always let them win.”

Lilitri’s vocals are certainly at the forefront of the album, and for some listeners, they will be the make-or-break element to Oso Oso’s music. The most comparable vocalist to Lilitri in this music scene at large might be Tim Landers (of Transit, Misser, and Off and On), although Lilitri’s range stretches a bit further, demonstrated by the way he harmonizes with himself throughout the album (the harmonies at the end of “Josephine” are a definite highlight). Musically, most of these songs are either mid-tempo head-bobbers or hard-driving head-bangers, and plenty of them make use of power chords and palm-muted verses. This is to say, it’s a pop-punk album—despite the fact that its press release seems to go out of its way to deny this, saying that it “thankfully … never stumbles into pop-punk’s shiftless landscape.” But pop-punk doesn’t have to be an insult, and as demonstrated by the songs that make up Real Stories of True People, it doesn’t have to be directionless and gimmicky, either. Lilitri writes compassionate, insightful lyrics about becoming a caring, self-aware person. I mentioned Northstar earlier, and sonically, parts of this album also remind me a bit of Saves the Day, but Oso Oso’s songs are never vindictive or mean-spirited like Northstar or Saves the Day’s sometimes were. These songs are less about finding blame and fault in others in the wake of suffering, and more about recognizing the habits and tendencies in oneself that contribute to loneliness and a lack of engagement.

In Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin writes, “For I am—or I was—one of those people who pride themselves on their willpower, on their ability to make a decision and carry it through. This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all—a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named—but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not. … I succeeded very well—by not looking at the universe, by not looking at myself, by remaining, in effect, in constant motion.” In Real Stories of True People, Lilitri slows down this constant motion, and spends the album looking inward. The final line of closing track “This Must Be My Exit,” after all, is a confession: “I was just running away from getting to know myself.”

This whole thing is a bit of a stretch, you might be saying. And it could be; after all, I already happened to be re-reading Giovanni’s Room when I heard this album for the first time. But I’m not trying to suggest that Real Stories of True People is the modern equivalent of Giovanni’s Room or anything along those lines. I’m just saying that Real Stories of True People contains a lot more substance than the average pop-punk album, and it deserves to be taken seriously, because its themes are nothing less than the human condition itself, and learning how to grow from failed relationships—both of which are relevant to, well, all of us. “People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents,” says James Baldwin. “Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.”

Or, as Jade Lilitri puts it, “You gotta not be so scared.”

-Matt Metzler, for AbsolutePunk.net

Album Review and Interview: Mansions, “Doom Loop”

For a band that was on the brink of giving up during the writing of their dark and sludgy sophomore release, Dig Up the Dead, Mansions’ follow-up to that album is startlingly confident, aggressive, and upbeat. After gaining the reputation of being a “fuzz-rock” band from their live shows, Mansions – made up of Christopher Browder, bassist Robin Dove, and drummer John Momberg – decided to adopt that description and explore it with Doom Loop.

They achieve optimum amounts of fuzz, no doubt, but they also pick up a lot more achievements along the way. The guitars are crunchier than they’ve ever been, and the riffs are downright filthy (“Out for Blood,” “The Economist”) while still managing to slide straight into the most sure-fire choruses that the band has ever written. “I’ve thought about avoiding a big chorus or not being super melodic – but I realized that’s just not who I am,” Browder said in a press release. “I like pop songs, yet at the same time I like things a little fucked up and distorted. Might as well run the vocals through a guitar pedal.”

The weirdness of “Two Suits” and “Flowers in My Teeth” comes off as charmingly cryptic, and lyrically, Browder’s metaphors are unexpected and fascinating (“La Dentista” stays quite true to its name, with lines like “we’ve got our hands in your mouth, you say you’ll change,” and “I could pull out all your teeth, but you’d still lie to me”). There are lots of nods to the band’s older material tucked away in Doom Loop, too – “100 Degrees” could be a sequel to “Tangerine,” album closer “Falling Down” makes a powerful reference to one of the bleakest lines in “Dig Up the Dead,” and you can practically hear Browder winking as he delivers the final words of the chorus to “Last One In.”

Not only is the album a sonic evolution for the band, incorporating thick heaps of distortion alongside electronic blips and jitters and giving Dove’s vocals a couple prominent features for the first time, but Browder has evolved as a vocalist, as well; his percussive phrasing in the verses of “100 Degrees” and his falsetto in “If You’re Leaving” prove that he’s grown confident enough to try a few new vocal tricks, and they add even more flare to his already established command over the songs. 

Christopher Browder kindly agreed to talk to me for the first issue of Brickwork about Doom Loop, out now on Clifton Motel, as well as how Mansions has grown since their 2009 Doghouse Records debut album New Best Friends. We spoke a week ahead of Doom Loop’s November 12 release date.

MATT METZLER: Doom Loop comes out a week from today – is it a busy week for you, leading up to that?

CHRISTOPHER BROWDER: Not especially, really – we’re not on tour or anything right now. We might try to do an in-store kind of thing, but when we’re not on tour we’re kind of just living normal life and working and that kind of thing. So it’s not really any different, but we’ll try to do something fun to make it special.

How was the recording process this time around?

It was cool. It was similar to how we recorded Dig Up the Dead in that we didn’t really go to the studio to record it, we recorded everything except drums in our apartment in Seattle, and drums were recorded in Austin, where our drummer lives, and he got to go into a really cool studio down there and record them – which was interesting, because we didn’t get to play the songs full-band or anything, I just sent him demos and he recorded the drums.

I’ve read some interviews where you described Dig Up the Dead as dealing with existential stuff, lyrically, and New Best Friends was more about personal relationships, so what kind of stuff was on your mind when you were writing Doom Loop?

Probably kind of a combination of the two. I think lyrically, even if the songs are referring to pretty concrete things, I think the lyrics are a little less concrete, or a little less literal than some of the other records. Like, on New Best Friends, what I was into at that time was really direct, pretty literal lyrics, which, there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but for this round there’s a little bit more metaphor to it. But it’s still very much rooted in interpersonal relationships, and the existential questions that go along with that.

So you’re releasing this primarily on vinyl and digital, right?

Yeah, and we’re going to have CDs at shows, because I think that’s one of the only places where people buy CDs still.

So was that more of just a practical decision, then, not to do CD preorders?

Yeah. I mean, we didn’t even really have a big discussion about it. The label that we’re putting it out with, I think in their experience the CDs never really sold that great for preorders, you know? And I can’t really remember the last CD that I bought, personally. But I know that, at shows, CDs are definitely good to have, so it just seemed to make sense. And the vinyl comes with a digital download, so even if you don’t have a record player, you can still get the vinyl just to have it.

Earlier in your career you released some stuff on crazy formats, like Thyme Travel on cassette, and the mini-disc of demos – do you see yourself doing more of that in the future?

I think we’re talking about doing a cassette soon for Doom Loop, which would be cool. Yeah, I think that stuff is fun, and it’s cool to make a special thing for people, but I don’t like making things collectible just for the sake of making them collectible. But I think it’s cool to do. The mini-disc thing was cool because I had a mini-disc player when I was younger, and I was able to pull that out. But I think there’s something fun about tapes, even though it’s sort of hipster or stupid, but it’s fun and it’s good if you have a car that just has a tape player, you know?

So, switching gears a little bit – you opened for Fall Out Boy earlier this year, how did that come about and how was it?

I don’t quite remember exactly what happened with it, but I know that when we were shopping Dig Up the Dead around to different labels and trying to get somebody to put it out, one of the few people who responded to it was actually Pete [Wentz] from Fall Out Boy, weirdly enough. I don’t know if he even remembers that at all, so that might be weird to talk about. But the big thing was that the label putting out our record, and that did the vinyl for Dig Up the Dead – they’re called Clifton Motel – is made up of guys that work for Crush Management, a big management company that manages Fall Out Boy. So I think they just needed somebody for one show that for some reason the other bands couldn’t do, so they hooked us up with that. And it was fun, it was definitely different for us playing those kinds of shows, the same with the ones with Taking Back Sunday – it’s a bigger world than we’re used to, but they were all super nice, and them and their crew treated us really well. It was a lot of fun, and the kids were really nice at the show, too.

You kind of already talked about this a bit, but I was wondering what your daily life is like when you’re not on tour, you’re just working other jobs?

Me and Robin, who plays bass in the band, we both have office jobs, basically. We do the 8-5 thing, Monday through Friday. It’s been cool, we both started temping as just a way of finding stuff in between tours, to make some money on the side, and we both were pretty lucky with where we got placed for temping, we’ve stuck around those places longer and been able to move up and they still let us leave when we have to, especially when we’ve been writing and recording and there’s not really band income coming in while you’re doing that, so it’s good to kinda have a normal life for a while.

Since you’ve lived in Seattle for a while now, have you found any noticeable differences in your songwriting since you’ve moved to a big city?

The songwriting’s definitely different, but I don’t know how much it has to do with the move. I think the space that we’re in emotionally is very different up here, and I think a lot of that has to do with being up here and being part of a big city, and finding those temp jobs, and finding a way to make it work where we’re trying to make the band happen but still be able to pay our bills and that kind of thing. So I think that definitely put us in a different space, whereas, writing Dig Up the Dead, it was feeling like, well, this is probably it, I don’t think we can keep trying to make this band thing happen. We were in a fairly small city in North Carolina, and so I think that contributed a lot to the overall tone of the record being sort of dark, or more depressing I guess, because we weren’t particularly happy then.

Have you ever viewed any element or aspect of Mansions as political in any way?

Not really… yeah, not really. I definitely have pretty strong political views, but I generally get turned off by bands voicing real political things, even if it’s stuff that I agree with, just because, I don’t know – I think a lot of people in bands aren’t really that informed and you get this kind of reactionary stuff. There are different levels of things, like I want people to agree with us politically of course, but really I want them to relate to me as a human being, and if that helps affect their world view to where they change their political beliefs then that’s great, but I don’t usually try to convince people to agree with those same things. I guess I never really imagine that being successful; I don’t see a lot of people really changing people’s opinions. It seems more like they just get the reaction from the people that already agree with them, and everyone’s like “Yeah, you’re great!” and then the other people are like, “Oh, I hate you because I don’t agree with this.” And it just isn’t very productive, you know?

Have you ever had any experience with record labels or tourmates or fans trying to pin Mansions down into a certain scene or something that you didn’t really feel like you identified with?

Yeah, I think because our first record was on Doghouse Records, who, especially at the time, had a certain reputation with certain bands, but for me, that wasn’t really what I saw them as, because they had a lot of bands that I really loved like The Get Up Kids and Koufax and stuff like that, but I think coming out with our record at that time meant people said, oh, you’re this kind of band, and so this kind of website and magazine is going to be interested and these other ones aren’t. But I think musically I never really felt much in common with those other bands, and especially when we played shows with a lot of the bands, it was just like, man, we are in some totally different worlds, not believing in the same things about what music should be or what the point of doing this is. So I think we never really felt a part of that, and I think that that group of fans never really responded that well to us, anyway, so it was a weird thing where we were kind of getting pushed toward people who didn’t really want to hear us, to no fault of their own at all. I don’t know, we’re in a sort of middle ground where we’re not hip enough hip enough or scene enough. Which I’m totally fine with, and most of the bands that I really love are in that same kind of middle ground, but yeah, it can be a little funny sometimes.

So does that shape the way that you handle and present the band?

A little bit, yeah. And I think we’ve gotten more careful about it as time has gone by, about choosing the types of things that we do, and as we’ve gotten more support from different places we’ve probably had more options – like, we can premiere a song at this place instead of this place. It’s weird, it’s like all that perception it’s all really a lot of small decisions and moments kind of added up into a bigger whole, but yeah, there are certain tours that we know we wouldn’t really do, because they don’t make sense for who we want to be.

Earlier on in your career, you released a lot of material in a really short amount of time, like with the EP Initiative and around that time period, and then it’s kind of slowed down a little bit and I was just wondering if that’s because you’ve been focusing on these songs a lot more than maybe you did in the past, or if you’ve just been having less time to write and record?

Yeah, I think there’s a combination. Before New Best Friends came out, I’d been writing songs for years without them really coming out anywhere, and after we recorded New Best Friends, it took a year for it to actually come out, so there was still this backlog of other songs, and then – definitely, the time on my hands played into that, I had time to just be writing and recording. And the thing that was cool about the EP Initiative was that we had those deadlines set up that were pretty tight deadlines, like every two weeks there needs to be another set of songs done, and that forces you to make decisions, where you’re like, okay, this is what the song’s going to be, I’m not going to be able to redo it again, and, you know, that’s that. There are songs that came out with all of that that I wouldn’t have put on a record because I don’t think they were good enough or I would’ve re-recorded something, but I still like how it happened, because it forces you to just accept where things are at after a certain amount of time. So that was a big part of it, whereas now it’s definitely been more focused on album stuff, where there’s probably just as many songs coming out, but we’re really trying to edit those down into the best set for a record. But also, we don’t have as much time to work on songs, so it’s not the same as before as far as having all that time to write.

I’ve noticed that you use a lot of religious symbols and motifs in some of your lyrics, like in Seven Years and On My Way, and I was just wondering what it is about those images that draws you to them when you’re writing a song?

I think it’s interesting. I think it’s very elemental, as far as, that’s just kind of like the biggest question there is, you know? Is there a god, and if so, what does that mean? So I think that’s just endlessly fascinating in a certain way, and I think there’s a lot to say about that, and I think a lot of music that I like speaks to some of those questions. I just think it’s kind of like a well that is never ending as far as things to talk about and to think about.

I was also wondering about the lyrics to “OMG,” and this is mostly just because I relate to that song a lot personally because I have Crohn’s disease and it’s always a struggle to get my body to agree with me basically, and do what it’s supposed to do, and I was just wondering sort of what that song means on your end?

I guess I don’t want to give away the keys to the castle too much, you know? But yeah, it’s that kind of thing, where it’s like, my body doesn’t do what I want it to do all the time, for sure, and I think that’s just a very human thing, and there’s also the kind of metaphor of the body as like the flesh, where that’s the kind of human nature or instinct part of you, that doesn’t always lead to good things, I guess, you know? So it’s kind of a combination of all those different, that kind of brain vs. body kind of thing.

Thanks for sharing that.

No, no problem. I’m glad that you like it, and I’m glad that you know your stuff, it’s a good thing.

I know you’re a big Ryan Adams fan – I am too, what’s your favorite stuff by him?

It was actually his birthday today, I don’t know if you know that. I didn’t realize it either, but I hadn’t listened to him in a while, but I had the urge to listen to Heartbreaker today, which was awesome, and then I realized it was his birthday. But, man, what do I like best? I like Cold Roses a lot, that one especially with time has gotten better to me. Heartbreaker means a lot to me, it was a very specific time in my life that I listened to that a lot, and I mean, like some of the songs are not his best but the songs that are good are like his best songs ever. I guess the one that kinda got me down the Ryan Adams rabbit hole was Love Is Hell, Pt. 1 specifically, part two is okay but part one… I just don’t know another record like that, that does what that record does.

Yeah, that’s the first stuff of his that I got into as well.

That’s awesome, what songs do you like on it, or what’s your favorite song on it?

I really like “This House is Not For Sale,” that might be my favorite song by him.

Oh yeah, for sure. Did you know that it’s about the movie Beetlejuice?

Yeah, that’s so crazy. I listened to it for a long time before I found that out, and I mean, it was definitely surprising because it seems like it would be so much deeper, and it obviously is still deep, but to know that it’s based on a movie just sort of throws you for a loop.

Yeah, totally. It was one of those things where that should ruin the song, but it doesn’t. And have you ever heard our song called “When I Sleep”? The arrangement of that one is kind of ripping off “This House is Not For Sale,” as far as some of the tones and things. It’s always cool to meet another Ryan Adams fan.

I just wanted to say thanks again for taking the time out to talk to me, especially because, like I said in my email, we’re just starting this publication, and this will be for our first issue, and it’s really nice to be able to have a cool, substantial interview with someone who isn’t just a local musician in Ohio, so I really appreciate that.

No, no problem, I’m glad you’re trying to make it happen. And thanks for asking! I’m a little bit rusty on my interview game, so it’s fun to be doing it.

-Matt Metzler, for Brickwork

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

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