Essential Set List–Relient K

This comes from an idea that I borrowed from the fine folks over at Chorus.FM (formerly AbsolutePunk.net), although their’s was an Essential Playlist, so I’m altering mine ever so slightly. I’ve decided to kickstart my blog with music, something that is, for me, akin to food and sleep in terms of necessities in life. This is an idea I’ve been working on for a few weeks now, so it works in that regard. Look for more review-based systems going forward, mostly albums, but shows, too. This, however, should at least get people thinking, and maybe talking.

Essential Set List—Relient K

  1. Sadie Hawkins Dance

I understand this song is “essential” early RK for most fans, so we’re going to kick this show off old school and give the sillier moments their due up front. It’s a fun song that would get the show rocking from the outset.

2. Mood Rings

Keeping the old school train rolling, a song about the, shall we say, uncertain moods of the ladies in our lives feels like an appropriate follow up to a tune about getting asked to a school dance. For all its silliness, though, the song does pose some interesting questions and, at its end, bring up not the worst idea of all time.

3. Over Thinking

This is an overlooked song from Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right, but Three Do, and for our purposes, it helps to turn the tide a little bit towards the more thoughtful part of the show. It didn’t take long, I know, but for my money, this is an interesting song that points at the band’s ability to play with time and speed, all while beginning to hint at more serious lyricism. All the while, it doesn’t kill the early set momentum too much, which is really about to pick up the pace for a while from here.

4. Devastation and Reform

The set kicks into another gear with this song, from the underrated Five Score and Seven Years Ago, which features likely the best opening guitar riff of Matt Hoopes’ storied career. Thematically, it moves nicely from the set up of the previous number, and begins to push the pace of the set even further. By this point, the set is really moving, and this song, one of the band’s all-time highlights, is a good one to bring up at this point.

5. Forget and Not Slow Down

The title track and opener for, in my humble opinion, the band’s best record comes in next, with its distinct and unforgettable piano riff to get things rolling in a slightly different sonic direction. Part of what makes FANSD such a stellar record is how eclectic the sound space, turning the standard RK sound on its head more than a little bit. The song is effective in its continuation of the thematic idea set up so far, too, as its message of pushing forward through the hard times is an essential part of the band’s catalogue.

6. Local Construction

Likely the best song of their most recent album, Air For Free, this driving piano-driven tune is also one of the strongest works of the band’s career, so it makes sense that its one of the few inclusions from that record. The flow from the previous song into this one works well—Matt Theissen wouldn’t have to move from his piano, for instance—and while it slows thing down a little, the construction of the song (pun intended) makes sense as a follow up to the song before it. It also sort of answers the theme of “Forget,” with a reminder that we are all always works in progress.

7. The Lining Is Silver

This is the only B-side on the list, but it also stands as one of the band’s best. It picks the pace back up a little bit, and also utilizes probably the best use of the phrase “kumbaya” outside of the original song. Again, though, we have a nice through line of lyrical ideas that started with “Devastation” and moves forward to here. It’s also one of the songs that gets a lot of air time in RK live shows, so it works out well in that regard, too.

8. Don’t Blink

Let’s be clear here: 2013’s Collapsible Lung is by and large not a good album. It leans too heavily on boring pop trends, and is as far away from the elegant and interesting rock record that came before it. That said, there are a few solid songs on here, and this is one of them. It hints at a strong pop sensibility, without completely sacrificing the guitar-driven rock sound that catapulted RK into the mainstream a few albums before. It fits nicely next to “Lining,” too, with a similar vibe and message.

9. Candlelight/Flare

This tune is another from the band’s seminal record, and continues the fun, upbeat vibe of the last few songs. A perfect love song if there ever was one, it stays away from overtly obvious tropes of the love song genre, instead coming at the subject in a fresh and interesting way. The tag of “Flare” feels appropriate, too, since it finishes the song out effectively, and allows for a nice move into a slightly different sonic space.

10. Failure to Excommunicate

After a few less rock-and-roll moments, it’s time to kick it back up a notch; and this under appreciated tune from The Anatomy of Tongue in Cheek is the perfect song to do so. While the recorded version maintains a little of the band’s early career cheesiness (mostly because of the clearly synthesized string section, I’d say), it is a wildly honest song that showcases Thiessen’s witty lyricism in a way that wasn’t often seen on those early records—still clever, but also incredibly sincere. The sonic chance is nice, too, as this song as more hints of a modern rock sound, something the band would explore more in this album’s follow up. It also alters the focus of the lyrical content a little bit, something that will be a theme for the next several songs.

11. I Need You

Continuing on both the sonic and lyrical theme, this tune from Five Score is one of the band’s more interesting and, dare I say, heavier outputs. On the record, Thiessen’s voice has a previously unused edge to it, perfect for the heavily distorted guitars and pounding drumming. The dueling vocals are a highlight of the song, too, making Dave Douglas’ role in the band—both on the kit and as the second vocalist—even more essential.

12. God

The theme of this section of the show, if you haven’t guessed by now, is most definitely faith, a concept that seemed to disappear from RK records—at least in a direct sense—toward the middle of their discography. The previous two songs in the set are certainly more overtly faith-driven, but none of them come close to the honesty of this song, the second song from the band’s most recent album. Thiessen out and out states a belief that seemed to have disappeared, at least based on some of the songs on Collapsible Lung, in a song that is wildly honest and genuine. It only works, though, because of the quality of the songwriting and the pacing of the music, which feels thoughtful and engaging.

13. Forgiven

As you can probably tell by now, the formatting of these songs is following two major conceits: first, is the flow of the songs in terms of sound and pace and energy, etc; the second, is thematic. With that said, “Forgiven” represents a nice move in both arenas from the song before it. The theme carries over, and the piano still works as the feature instrument, although this tune is a little more a driving, punk rock beat than “God,” which bounces a little more. The piano riff that drives this song is one of the best the band has ever produced, and helps to push the keys—an instrument that felt more like novelty earlier in the band’s discography—into a different mode of operation.

14. For the Moments I Feel Faint

The show takes a little turn here, as these things tend to do toward the middle of things, as the band will strip it down for an old-school jam that does a nice job of closing down the thematic idea of the middle portion of the set list. While this is a simple, very church-y, youth group love song to God, it would also feel criminal to leave it off a essential list of Relient K songs. In a live setting, I could see the band trying to do something different with it, maybe make it sound like a quirkier, Air For Free b-side, while still maintaining its original charm. In either case, the song provides the turning point into the 9-song finale to close out the main part of the set.

15. Collapsible Lung

As previously noted, the album of the same name isn’t very good overall. This tune, however, is the exception to that rule, as it gathers up elements of both Mhmm and Forget and Not Slow Down, with it’s meandering piano and sudden driving second chorus, and makes them work. This is a shorter, yet just as thoughtful, “This Is the End”/“(If You Want It)” from FANSD that stands out in terms of how intentional it feels as compared to the rest of the CL album. Sonically, it plays as a nice segue from the acoustic feel of “Faint,” as the song opens with simply voice and piano, and then pushes the feel forward into the next several songs.

16. Up & Up

Honestly, I’m not sure which version of this song I prefer here. The acoustic version features a different second verse, and has a more textured overall sound; but the original album version fits the sonic mood that is being set up for the next few songs. Maybe some sort of hybrid version will work? Either is a great choice, as the band begins to channel its rosy optimism into slightly more realistic expressions. While this tune conveys the idea of potential for better things, it isn’t afraid to admit that the reason you have to think that way is because crap hit the fan in the first place.

17. Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been

The second in a line of hit singles from the band’s most widely recognized album, Mhmm, “Who I Am” is one of the most essential songs on this list. This isn’t just because the band already plays it on every tour anyway, but because it is an incredibly well-constructed and written pop song, veiled by the crunching guitars and piano that, along with lead single “Be My Escape,” launched the band into the stratosphere for a while. Even though they’d never reach that commercial height again, this is one of the peaks of the band’s songwriting.

18. Sahara

I’ve already stated that for my money, 2009’s Forget and Not Slow Down is the band’s masterpiece, even if Mhmm garnered the most attention and, surprisingly, 2007’s Five Score and Seven Years Ago, is actually the record that hit the highest chart slot, at #6 in the United States, mostly, I’d guess, due to the success of the previous album’s singles. That said, this late album track from FANSD is, for me, one of the strongest and most emotional songs the band has ever written. The building energy of the song, climaxing in an outro featuring a bevy of guest vocals, and the metaphorical lyricism stands out in the band’s catalogue, allowing Matt Theissen an opportunity, for the first time on this shockingly optimistic break-up album, to vent out a most refreshing anger regarding the end of the relationship. It’s a slow death, the song suggests, but it almost hurts more that way. The build up leads perfectly into the next song, too.

19. Which To Bury, Us or the Hatchet?

Yes, even RK was susceptible to the screamo movement, as evidenced by this stellar song from their breakout album. It sets up right next to “Sahara” in terms of energy, even if its aggression and emotion rings a little less true when compared to the wave of the former song. That said, it still feels essential to me, given that if often gets overlooked amongst some of the stronger work the band has put out. Not to mention, it creates one of the better one-two punches of song placement on the band’s discography, which leads directly to the next song.

20. Let It All Out

The end of “Hatchet” is a stark contrast to the rest of the song: a sudden blowing up of the aggression leads to a quiet, lamenting piano/vocal outro, serving as the perfect lead into one of the group’s more honest songs in “Let It All Out.” While the truth of the lyrics is essential, and fits the thematic ideas presented throughout much of the rest of the set, the sonic choices don’t fully kill the mood and flow of the set. The tune starts off quieter, but eventually picks back up to a slow, but forward driving beat, before cascading into a soft, introspective closer, yet again setting up the set for another lovely segue.

21. Savannah

At this point, we’re almost just rocking back and forth between Mhmm and FANSD, and seeing as these are the strongest records the band has put out, this shouldn’t be a huge surprise. The mournfulness of the last three songs—albeit in wildly different forms—gives way to more of the signature RK hopefulness, as “Savannah” serves as a stark contrast to “Sahara,” with the dry death of the latter relenting and morphing into a slight sense of “maybe.” The former song touches on what happens when you first see a former love happy with someone else, especially in a place where you don’t expect to find them: in this case, a place that both the narrator of the song and his ex seemed to have visited together. While still sad, there is a sense that everything is going to be okay, an important part of the majority of RK’s songs. Sonically, this song rolls in from the quiet of “Let It All Out,” building in a masterwork of dynamics and instrumentation.

22. Life After Death and Taxes

This is a slightly unusual selection, as it still maintains some of the band’s early tropes—sugary sweet lyrics laced with puns and pop culture references—while starting to showcase a turn towards more mature themes. In that regard, the penultimate song of the main set picks the pace back up quite a bit (it’s closer to “Sahara” and “Hatchet” than the previous songs), all the while hitting on the main point: in the end, some of these small things don’t matter. Forgive the pun of the title, and you’ll hear an excellent guitar riff and pulsating drums, making it one of RK’s forgotten great songs.

23. Heartache

The main part of the set closes out with another new song, but one that, in my estimation, does an excellent job of wrapping things up in more than one way. Thematically it brings together all of the main ideas presented throughout the essential set list; all the while, the overall feel and sound of the song does a lot of the things that a great Relient K song should do: the driving piano, the changes in time signature and thoughtful lyrics from Matt Theissen. Sure, the song is new, making it harder to argue in favor of how essential it is in the long run, but the overall appeal of it is unavoidable.

Encore:

24. Be My Escape

The encore for a set of this magnitude is inevitable, but I chose to spin the usual means of running the end of a set around and start with the song everyone would expect to finish with. Of all the songs in their catalogue, “Be My Escape” manages to capture the two most essential things: it is immensely good and it was immensely popular at its height. This is not true of many RK songs. They have a lot of good—and some great—songs, and I’d argue that while this song is excellent, they’ve got better in terms of quality; but the massive thing that was this single upon the release of Mhmm cannot be understated. They hadn’t been that huge before and they haven’t been that nationally important since. For that reason, it makes sense for the rapturous clapping and clamoring for an encore to be interrupted—if only for a moment—by the song’s signature and instantly recognizable opening guitar riff, building it to a fever pitch, and then dropping down into its meloncholy (and often overlooked, because, for time’s sake, it was the “talked over” part of the music video) ending, which moves perfectly into the set’s finale.

25. When I Go Down

Yes, I’m choosing to slow it down a little for the end. Rather than finish things out with the biggest hit of the band’s career, I’m arguing that the momentum of that song will work as a perfect segue into this tune, the closer from Mhmm, as well as, in my estimation, the perfect way to end an essential Relient K set list. While not nearly as well-known as “Be My Escape,” this song does so many things well, including the ebb and flow of the music and the movement of the lyrics. Its instrumentation is lush and thoughtful, and if the song wasn’t a little on the long side, it’s my thinking that the band could have ridden the wave of “Escape” and “Who I Am” into a third, slightly off-kilter single from the album. The reason for ending the entire set this way is because, like “Heartache,” it does an excellent job of bringing together all the themes of the set, as well as being a lovely musical transition from the end of “Escape.” For me, it functions as both an essential RK song and the ideal way to close out this essential set.

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