No, I have not fallen off the planet (and other things)

Dear Reader (whomever you might be), I do apologize. The holidays tend to do this to me, especially over the past two years, where they no longer just mean time with my own family, but now time with my family, and parents/relatives on both sides. So while this is a bad excuse, this is the basic reason for my lack of communication in recent days (or weeks).

I really wanted to write about my favorite albums of 2017, but every time I looked at the list of things I listened to last year, I felt unmoved by the clutter. The prospect of paring down the rather long list (I’ve been keeping a log of every album I’ve listened to for a few years now, and it gets really, really long) never appealed to me, and eventually it started to feel too late to write much. This top ten will have to suffice (in no particular order):

  1. Sinai Vessel – Brokenlegged
  2. The Classic Crime – How To Be Human
  3. John Mark McMillan – Mercury & Lightning
  4. Acceptance – Colliding by Design
  5. Lo Tom – Lo Tom
  6. Colony House – Only the Lonely
  7. Paramore – After Laughter
  8. Have Mercy – Make the Best of It
  9. Racquet Club – Racquet Club
  10. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights

Very difficult to mention honorable mention: Brand New’s Science Fiction, an album so loaded in light of recent allegations against lead singer Jesse Lacey that it makes it a complicated listen on multiple levels. Unfortunate. On its own, it’s a masterclass work.

All these albums spent a lot of time in my ears this past year; but 2017 was a year where I spent a lot of time in the car (I drive an hour to teach classes every other day each Spring), so podcasts tend to fill up the bulk of driving time. I’m still struggling with the balance there. That said, there’s a melancholic feeling to all of these records (save, maybe, for Colony House and Paramore, but I think the argue could be made that deeper listens to both supports my original statement), and this, I find, is what often draws me to  music in the first place. I don’t want music to inform my general mood; instead, I choose to create a tone to my life via the music I enjoy, and I think, given the proper balance, this helps keep my overall mood a little more where I prefer it to be.

For many, sad music makes them feel sadder; for me, it reminds me I’m not the only one who feels that way sometimes, and this is enlightening and empowering.

*****

I also wanted to write about all the films I saw this year and which ones I liked the best. However a quick perusal of the year in film for 2017 indicates that I’ve missed a great deal this year (I mentioned this in an earlier blog, and much of that remains unseen by me), partially because life happens and partially because a lot of the “important” films of 2017 haven’t appealed to me (thankfully I purchased MoviePass for my wife and I, so 2018 promises to be better on that front). My “haven’t seen” list hasn’t shrunk too terribly much, mostly because I didn’t list most of the year’s awards contenders, which have become the preferences when it comes time to actually go see a movie.

Again, I offer a top ten list, with few thoughts added:

  1. Dunkirk
  2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  3. Lady Bird
  4. The Disaster Artist
  5. Blade Runner 2049
  6. The Big Sick
  7. Spiderman: Homecoming
  8. Logan
  9. Thor: Ragnarok
  10. War for the Planet of the Apes

I did see The Shape of Water recently as well, but wasn’t as taken by its story as others have been (although it’s beautifully made, as expected). Still plan to see The Post, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Coco, Darkest Hour, and Phantom Thread before the Oscars in March.

Also, I thought The Last Jedi was a brilliant addition to the Star Wars canon, and if you didn’t get it, then I question your ability to have an open mind. Rian Johnson massively expanded the universe that used to exist only as a Skywalker saga, but now is free to literally go anywhere it wants in a galaxy far, far away. How that isn’t good for the series is beyond me.

*****

My final thoughts pertain to my number 3 movie of the year, and its a piece of the film that I haven’t seen anyone else write about (if I missed it, I’d love to read what else has been written). The father in Lady Bird is played masterfully by Tracy Letts, an actor I don’t think I’ve ever seen before (although a quick IMdB search tells me I have in U.S. Marshals and The Big Short, and that he’s also in The Post). To me, he is the hero of the movie, or at the very least he is the glue that holds the whole thing together; and while I understand this might come across as a misogynistic viewing of the movie, for me, Letts’ nuanced, thoughtful and caring performance is what gives the ever-fluctuating relationship between Lady Bird and her mother (fantastic performances both from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf) a counterbalance; Lady Bird never hates her father, instead he’s responsible for holding them together. Hence the glue metaphor.

Yes, ultimately the film is about a young girl coming of age and leaving a home she actually loves more than she thought she did (the scene where the nun points this out to Ronan is charming and telling), but it’s also about how important each relationship in our lives can be, even the ones we tend to overlook. Ronan’s Lady Bird insists on being her own person, but it is the sacrifice of her mother combined with the steadfastness of her father that allows her to do so. She isn’t who she is in spite of her upbringing, something that is often hammered into audiences by movies year after year, but because of this. Writer/director Greta Gerwig (who, by the way, is at the very least the inspiration for Ronan’s performance, as the cadence and timbre of Ronan’s American accent seems to match Gerwig’s to a T) seems to know this instinctively, but I believe the publicity for the film undersells itself. This isn’t just a mother/daughter dramedy; it’s a film about how our families (and, really, almost all our relationships) shape us, even the ones who do so a little less quietly.

Double Show Recap

This week started out with a bit of a bang for me. I got to attend not one, but two, shows featuring three bands that I have a great deal of respect for, two of which I’d count amongst my favorite bands ever. This is a rare 1-2 punch of live music, and while it made for two very long days (other than sleeping, I was probably home for 5 minutes…God bless my wonderful wife), it was a cool experience that I haven’t had in a long while.

Monday night featured my good friends in Emery (only slightly exaggerating on the friends part), along with a pretty expansive list of opening bands that included Tooth & Nail label mates Civilian (whose 2016 LP You Wouldn’t Believe What Privilege Costs is one of my favorites from last year) and LOYALS, a new T&N band that I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for moving forward. Emery has moved away from the standard touring model in recent years, trading in long weeks away from home for shorter stints in strategic groupings of 8-10 shows at a time, making their appearances feel a little more like major events. This show, at Charlotte’s Neighborhood Theater, kicked off this leg of their 2017 Fan Appreciation shows, where they charged a paltry $10 per ticket in an effort to play larger venues and bring in more fans (by comparison, the last few times I’ve seen them have been either in support of a larger band or headlining shows at smaller venues, like Columbia, SC’s tiny New Brookland Tavern). While I would have paid more to go see them, it certainly was nice to not spend a ton of money to catch one of my favorite bands.

The night began rather uneventfully. I wasn’t really drawn in by Washington, DC’s In Your Memory, who sound exactly like you might think they would based on their hometown. While they worked hard to get the small-but-growing crowd into it, there was an obvious disconnect; the audience didn’t know them and didn’t care much that they were trying hard. The band that followed, Atlanta’s The Funeral Portrait, didn’t seem to have their sound nailed down (was it punk? screaming? weird goth stuff?) and the singer  was either affecting a Southern accent or was so nervous it came out of his mouth weird, but his speaking voice felt off. Thankfully, LOYALS came on next and turned the show around. Their synth-infused pop/rock breathed new life into the proceedings, especially because this was the first vocalist of the night who could actually sing, an irony that will never cease to amaze me (call me crazy, but I think the guy/girl who is singing in the band should actually be able to). I’m looking forward to hearing their T&N debut, whenever that comes out. Civilian followed as direct support, and while their set was pretty much the same as it was when I saw them open for The Classic Crime this summer, it was still a quality set, made up mostly of songs from You Wouldn’t Believe, including album standouts like “Reasons,” “I Told You” and “Caroline.” While they brought the pace of the show down again (their music is mostly moody, mid-tempo jams), they certainly continued the uptick in quality of songwriting presented throughout the show.

Emery, to their great credit, doesn’t feel like a band of guys in their late-30’s/early-40’s still trying to maintain relevance in their genre. To be sure, they’ve mellowed out a bit (2015’s You Were Never Alone is by and large their most “laid back” album, which is in quotes because its relative to other parts of the band’s catalog), but they also don’t ignore the heavier parts of their discography. In fact, the set is littered with massive doses of their debut, now-13-year-old The Weak’s Ends, which, depending on your point of view, can either be the best way for the band to handle their shows or a stab at nostalgia (I lean more towards the latter personally, but I never really felt emotionally attached to that record the way I do others in their catalog). But the energy remains top notch, probably at least partially fueled by the massive cutdown on shows from year to year. Instead of having to “bring it” for 200+ shows a year, the band can focus their energy on significantly fewer shows, and in my opinion, allows them to give more to these shows, even as they age. Guitarist Matt Carter and keyboardist/screamer Josh Head are especially energetic, with both men ascending the drum riser and (somewhat carefully) leaping off, along with otherwise dancing and moving around the stage. It was also good to see Devin Shelton back in the fold full time, as his voice feels like an important part of Emery’s sound, providing not only harmonies and countermelodies with Toby Morrell’s voice, but also taking over lead on a few songs (this back and forth has long been a part of Emery’s MO). My biggest disappointment was the lack of songs from You Were Never Alone and The Question, my two favorite records from the band. Otherwise, the band continues to be a musical force even after all these years.

Emery, 11/13/17

Fractions

Less You Say

As Your Voice Fades

The Smile, The Face

I Never Got To See the West Coast

The Secret

So Cold I Could See My Breath

Can’t Stop The Killer

In A Lose, Lose Situation

By All Accounts (Today Was A Disaster)

Rock, Pebble, Stone

The Note From Which A Chord is Built

Churches & Serial Killers

Dear Death, Parts 1 & 2

In Shallow Seas We Sail

Walls

From Crib to Coffin

 

Tuesday night was another show night, this time a co-headling tour featuring Thrice and Circa Survive at The Fillmore in Charlotte. I’ve seen both bands several times over the last few years, but I’d have to say that Thrice is the band that was the bigger draw of the show for me, and I’m quite glad they decided to bring their hiatus to an end and come back. At this point, they straddle the line between the incessant full-time touring that a band like Circa engages in and the more deliberate, muted version that Emery follows. Since their return in 2015, Thrice has played more consistently on tour, but so far as I can recall, this extended stint with Circa, which followed a summer run opening for Incubus (yeah, kind of weird), is the longest they’ve been out essentially consecutively. I’ve been fortunate to see them twice already since they’ve returned, first in the summer of 2016 with La Dispute and Gates, and now with Circa, Chon and Balance & Composure, both at Fillmore.

Balance & Composure opened the show, but due to traffic, we missed a few of their songs, although we ended up hearing most of their set, which featured songs from both their 2013 release The Things We Think We’re Missing and last year’s Light We Made. Having just seen them on their headlining tour a few months ago, I got what I needed out of BalCo (as Anthony Green called them) for this particular show. They were followed by Chon, an instrumental band out of San Diego, who presented their wordless, fusion virtuosity rather effectively. I’m usually torn on instrumental bands live, as the lack of a singer/frontman can make it difficult to connect with the band, turning them into nothing more than background noise; but it’s difficult to ignore the skill of each member of the 4-piece, and so I found myself intrigued in just watching fingers and arms flail about, all the while creating some really complicated and interesting musical sounds (I felt the same way watching Animals As Leaders open for Thrice on their farewell tour, as well as Caspian, who played with Underoath on their Rebirth Tour).

Thrice followed, since a co-headling tour just means that the two bands play for the same amount of time, not that each band gets to go last (how would that even work?). I’ve heard different things about co-headling tours from different places, but my general understanding is that sometimes the bands switch who plays last each night, but that the set length is the most defining element here. That said, each Thrice and Circa got an hour on stage, giving each ample time to cover as much of they could of each band’s catalog (Thrice’s is now 9 albums long, if you count each piece of The Alchemy Index as one album, while Circa’s now spans 6 records, including recently released The Amulet). Thrice covered a wide array of their discography, including a song from each album except (sadly) 2011’s Major/Minor and choosing a B-side from 2009’s Beggars in favor of album cuts, including a mid-set from each element of the now-10-year-old The Alchemy Index (and announcing a soon-to-be-released vinyl repress!). The set was mostly high energy, with only a few of the Alchemy Index tracks bringing the tempo down. The band was as tight as they’ve ever been, and Dustin Kensrue’s voice was in top-form, although I could tell he was holding back a little on the scream-heavy portions of some songs, either because he was saving his voice or wasn’t as interested in the guttural growls found on the recorded versions of some of those earlier songs. They even included longtime fan favorite “Deadbolt” without audience prodding (even though I would be fine if I never heard it again). The set was unsurprisingly heavy on songs from their most recent album, which leads to the only downside of the show as it was: the co-headling designation forced the band to decide how many deeper cuts they played versus new songs; the band obviously decided to focus on the latter. Not a bad thing, since To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere is a stellar addition to their discography.

Circa Survive closed things out for the evening, and this is where I have to admit something: I think I’m kind of done with these guys. I’ll probably still pay attention to their albums moving forward, but the days of making their shows a priority are likely over. I wasn’t floored by The Amulet, as it feels like the band is in a bit of a rut, and it’s becoming harder and harder to differentiate the band’s songs from album to album. I’m not even sure a novice listener would be able to tell any major differences. That’s fine, because there’s a lot of music out there, and I don’t think being a cursory fan of Circa will hurt me in any way. The biggest thing is the live show. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen Circa live, but it’s a lot (sneakily, I remember seeing them open for Mae, of all bands in the world, back when Circa was getting started and just thinking they were super weird), and it’s turning into a law of diminishing returns. Anthony Green, in contrast to Kensrue, doesn’t feel capable of pulling off the high pitches and screams of his records live all the time, and I couldn’t tell you if that’s vocal fatigue or merely lack of ability, because he’s all over the map, even within the context of the same show. My ear tells me that he’s capable (and I’ve heard him be more successful than he was last night), but there was a lot to be desired about his performance last night. I get that he puts a lot of importance on the performative element of the show, as he dances and jumps around stage like a maniac, but it also prevents him from fully delivering on the songs themselves; this, to me, is a detriment. To be honest, I’d have preferred about half an hour less of Circa and thirty minutes more Thrice last night, not only because of Green’s struggles, but also because the latter was forced to cut a lot of great songs from what could have been a 90-minute set, whereas Green needed to focus his energies on a shorter group of songs.

And now I feel better having said that. I don’t feel bad for feeling that way; it’s an opinion. My sister and her friend love Circa more than I ever could, and they were ecstatic about their show. They probably could have done with less Thrice in the same way I could have done with less Circa. I’m trying to turn my emotional response into logic (one of my favorite things to do), when really all I have to say is “that’s just how I feel about it.” Thrice’s deeper feeling and easier means of expression has always connected more with me, and nothing about last night did anything to change that.

Thrice, 11/14/17

The Earth Will Shake

The Window

The Artist in the Ambulance

Hurricane

Blood on the Sand

Firebreather

Open Water

Broken Lungs

Come All You Weary

Deadbolt

Silhouette

Red Telephone

Black Honey

Of Dust and Nations

The Long Defeat

 

Circa Survive, 11/14/17

Child of the Desert

Glass Arrows

Lustration

Strange Terrain

Sharp Practice

Rites of Investiture

Tunnel Vision

In Fear and Faith

Stop the Car

Premonition of the Hex

Frozen Creek

The Difference Between Medicine and Poison is the Dose

Get Out

10 Year Recall: Motion City Soundtrack’s Even If It Kills Me

Even If It Kills Me is Motion City Soundtrack’s best album.

That deserves to be said first and foremost here; and frankly, it’s a little controversial. Sure, it’s not high level controversy (read: not gun control or politics or what have you), but amongst fans of the band, there is little consensus about which album is the band’s best. As is often the case, there’s a contingency of people who still believe that the band’s debut, 2003’s I Am the Movie, it of non-stop wit and rapid fire pop culture references, is the highlight of their career. And while the album is certainly in the conversation, I think it’s backward thinking to say that the band released an album in 2003 and never got any better, in spite releasing five more LPs over the course of the following 12 years. The follow-up, 2005’s Commit This to Memory, is likely the album most cited by MCS fans, and it’s probably the band’s most successful and recognized album (ask anyone who was alive and aware of music during in 2005 if they now a Motion City Soundtrack song, and I can almost guarantee that song is “Everything Is Alright” off CTTM). This is probably the second-best answer (although sleeper options are both the band’s last two records, 2012’s Go and 2015’s swan song Panic Stations, or in other words, anything except the too-goofy-even-for-MCS My Dinosaur Life).

Still, in spite all arguments against it, I still hold EIIKM in the highest esteem, and I believe it’s mostly because it is the most complete record in the band’s catalog. It does feature some of its best individual songs (“This Is For Real,” “Last Night” and the title track among others), but the cohesiveness of the album is what makes it the band’s best. Other records struggle from the sort of ADD-like focus you’d expect from noted scatterbrain (and lead singer) Justin Pierre (mostly lyrically, although essentially all their albums have a sonic space they fit in best), but the band’s third album feels the most linear, the most thought through from start to finish. And while I’d hesitate to call it a concept album in the traditional sense, there is a narrative thread that flows through the entire record, a singular focus that weaves in and out of the first 12 tracks, culminating beautiful in the gorgeous and thoughtful title track.

Both I Am the Movie and Commit This to Memory are, by Pierre’s own admittance, albums dripping in self-destruction, mostly because that’s where Pierre was during the writing of both albums. Memory in particular is shrouded in duality, as the band has made it clear that half the record was written while Pierre was still a functioning alcoholic, while the other game during his treatment, giving the second half a more hopeful outlook on life. To be sure, that album possesses some of the band’s best songs (“Everything Is Alright,” “Hangman” and album closer, and maybe best MCS song ever, “Hold Me Down”), but the lack of cohesion holds it back from feeling like the most complete and best MCS record.

Motion City’s third record also feels the most mature sounding record (or at least it was to that point, as I’d argue that Panic Stations feels like the largest departure sonically), as they play with song structures a little more and the flow of the record sounds a little more thought through, possibly because of the narrative ties. Pierre is in a better head space, too, which gives the record a slightly more optimistic tone, although Pierre can’t help but give into his baser instincts from time to time (“Broken Heart,” for example, while sonically connected to the record, sounds more lyrically akin to previous records). Even those moments feel less negative, more “I can pull out of the muck” than “This is my lot,” and this new perspective grants the entirety of the album a greater weight.

There are two interesting things that happened during this period of MCS’ history, which I’m including as the 4 1/2 years between the release of Commit This To Memory and My Dinosaur Life. The first was that the hits of Memory led to increasing popularity for the band and they set new highs for Billboard 200 peaks with each successive record during this time (16 for EIIKM and 15 for MDL). This is interesting because in many ways, Dinosaur is a return to the sound and silliness of the band’s earlier albums, which would have led me to believe that Even If It Kills Me was some sort of financial failure, but this wasn’t the case in the least. The second was that the move from indie label Epitaph to major label Columbia after EIIKM barely moved the needle on the success of Dinosaur, which again is a strange backwards move by a band that had just hit an artistic high for album number three. The band would only get the one album on Columbia, and their last two albums peaked at #46 and #141 respectively.

I say all this because it just truly shows the rather bizarre career of Motion City Soundtrack. They are a polarizing band in a lot of ways, at least in terms of which album is considered their best work, but for my money, the now-10-year-old Even If It Kills Me will always be the band’s artistic masterpiece, as challenging and moving an album the band ever made.

Pedro is Back!

A few days ago, noted indie musician David Bazan, tweeted out this gem:

For me, a big fan of most of Bazan’s catalog–but one who is especially enthusiastic about his Pedro the Lion material that mostly dates between 1997 and 2004, before Bazan dissolved the moniker to focus on solo material–this is really awesome news. PtL’s lo-fi indie rock is some of the earliest music I can remember that mattered to me within the scene, as I listened to and dissected the jarring content of 2002’s Control so often that I had to mind to write a screenplay based on the album’s weaving, deceit-driven plot. And again, while I’ve enjoyed a lot of his solo work (check out his volume of Pedro and solo tunes featuring the Passenger String Quartet for examples of the quality of his songwriting no matter the genre), the Pedro records were always the ones I found myself coming back to more often than not.

Part of the draw, I think, is the way you can trace Bazan’s spiritual journey simply by listening to the discography from beginning to end, starting with 1997’s Whole EP to 2004’s Achilles Heel, with Control marking the most stark contrast in this area. It is a fascinating move, one that Bazan still seems to wrestle with to this day, and in the late 90’s/early 2000’s and the early days of the internet, one that was only available via his albums. How does a man go from featuring a traditional version of “Be Thou My Vision” on 1999’s The Only Reason I Feel Secure to singing about extramarital affairs and matricide in just three years? I certainly don’t have the answer to this question, but being able to dig into the Pedro catalog again–which this announcement, which promises a full US tour to follow, will certainly push me to do–should be a thrill no matter what.

The cool thing behind the entire thing is that this is was just something Bazan seemingly up and decided to do. Having released a record and toured with a side project band with Starflyer 59’s Jason Martin & Trey Many, along with former PtL member TW Walsh called Lo Tom, Bazan noted that he was just ready to be in a band again full-time. He noted that touring as a solo artist wasn’t as fun, and that the collaboration that came with band songwriting was something he was looking forward to again (read: new Pedro eventually!). This is a sentiment I fully understand. I’ve been in a few bands, and they are hard as operations, mostly because of the time they take up and working with other people is difficult (and this was only on a local level, I can’t imagine full time touring); but at the same time, it’s rewarding to take something that you made, seeing what other talented people can add to it and making it an “our” thing instead of just mine.

This announcement is good news for music fans. Based on the Lo Tom album–which is really good, by the way–it seems safe to say that Pedro’s signature lo-fi, drums&bass driven sound isn’t likely to go anywhere moving forward. Bazan is probably going to continue with what was working for the band, avoiding frills and excessive layering in favor of thoughtful, honest songwriting. The world needs more of that.

 

10 Year Recall: Dustin Kensrue’s “Please Come Home”

This morning I received an email from SRC Vinyl, indicating that my order was shipping. In and of itself, the fact that I’d be receiving a record via the mail was not any big deal. My collection, which I’ve mentioned here before, is fluctuating of late, but holding pretty strong around the 450 or so level, and my means of acquiring said records varies between picking up released from my local shop (shout out to Lunchbox Records in Charlotte!), pre-ordering directly from the artist and–more rarely–buying from online retailers that aren’t affiliated with the artists themselves, but generally work for the labels in some way or another. SRC isn’t one of my major go-to companies, but on occasion, they do run some limited edition stuff that I can’t ignore.

Such was the case with my most recent order, a copy of Dustin Kensrue’s 2007 solo debut Please Come Home, which had three things going for it: 1) this was a special edition, pink Breast Cancer Awareness printing, so part of my order went to a good cause, 2) to my knowledge, the album has only been pressed one other time on vinyl, back in 2012 via Enjoy the Ride Records (possibly a 5th anniversary pressing) and 3) it’s a really good album.

To put it lightly, Please Come Home is a departure from the music that Kensrue was putting out with Thrice, his “day job” band that is categorized by its heavier guitars, piercing drums and guttural vocals, whereas the music of Home feels more like a walk down a street in Nashville or New Orleans. Kensrue insures that there will be no confusion between his solo work and Thrice, as he sashays successfully between folk rock, blues and alt-country (think modern Johnny Cash) without much a hitch, as the album’s acoustic guitars, sparse production and brisk running time (it’s only 8 songs and a shade under 30 minutes in length) all make for a stellar listen.

The difference in styles allow for Kensrue’s strengths as a songwriter to take center stage, as he doesn’t have complex structures and layered instrumentation to cover up for lack of vocal skill or lyrical prowess, which isn’t to suggest this was a problem with Thrice, because it really wasn’t. In fact, I’d like to make the argument that it was the Thrice album before this (and the one that followed, to a lesser extent) that helped to shape the songwriter that Kensrue has become. Prior to 2005’s Vheissu, Thrice’s connections to traditional melodic music weren’t always the strongest, as they were a hardcore band by genre, but Kensrue was always adept at holding onto some melodic elements in the band’s sound. But Vheissu is the first Thrice record that I’d say has beautiful elements to it, both in terms of the instrumentation and the melodies; and while Home is gruff and intentionally low-fi (probably the first time Kensrue would center on a specific overall aural aesthetic, a theme of essentially every record he’s made since then), there is a thoughtfulness to the melodies on this record, likely because this is Kensrue playing a role of vulnerability that wasn’t required of him on Thrice songs.

Please Come Home is also the first of his more blatantly faith-based albums, which isn’t to say that the album is a so-called “Christian” record, just that he allowed himself to write songs that more obviously called upon his faith. Thrice albums were becoming more and more impacted by his growing faith, but this is likely the most outwardly Christian album besides his worship album, 2013’s The Water and the Blood, which sounds a lot like what Thrice would have sounded like if the lyrical direction of that band was different.

In other words, Please Come Home gave Kensrue an opportunity to try a few things out. So far as I know, nobody was pining for a solo album from the Thrice frontman, especially not one that likely didn’t appeal to a vast majority of his band’s fan base, and so the album was allowed to be a well-constructed and considerably thought-out test screening for what Kensrue would become. And over the years, he’s become more and more skilled at weaving all elements of his songwriting–the heavier side, the lighter side, the faith-based pieces and the secular elements–into one exceptional songwriter, something that has become more and more clear on subsequent releases (see, especially: Thrice’s Beggars, Major/Minor and To Be Everywhere is to be Nowhere, along with his true follow-up to this album, 2015’s Carry the Fire).

All that followed, it could be argued, would not be possible if he hadn’t had the opportunity to experiment a little bit. And that, above all things, is what Please Come Home does best: it is contemplative and serene, a little snarky and raw, but also a truly great songwriter stretching his muscles. While it is tempting to look at the album as a blip on Kensrue’s storied career–mostly because of how sparse and quiet it is–this could not be further from the best means of looking at it. It was necessary, but it is also an expertly crafted and overlooked work of American music.

Trouble With “Worship” As Genre

Here’s a complicated issue, because I find myself straddling a line that clearly exists. First, a little background. I listen to a podcast called The Bad Christian Podcast, starring Toby Morrell and Matt Carter of the band Emery and their pastor friend Joey Svendsen, who focus on what they believe to be the realities of the world around them with the slant of Christianity. A lot of the podcast is the three hosts discussing various issues of the day, often with guests, as a means of understanding and opening up dialogue. The goal, I’d say, is to avoid people looking at them as “typical” Christian people, instead hoping that listeners see them as more open-minded and thoughtful than the stereotypes.

I find myself agreeing with them more often than not, especially in their views on the church–although maybe not as far-reaching as they are willing to go in the physical church disappearing completely–but I do recognize that the church should be doing more, especially when the world around it is calamitous and needy. The complicated issue at hand is that of the idea of worship music. Toby and Matt both have history as worship leaders, so they would know a little bit, but the essence of their argument is this: the church was once at the cutting edge of arts, and now is simply following what the secular world is doing, something they see as backwards, since the main goal of church-created art should be as a form of worship. What does it say about God, Toby often wonders, if Christian artists are willing to phone in their work more often than not? The bar seems to be low. Recreate secular sounds and add words that sound vaguely Christian, throwing in a few “God” and “Jesus” references (or, in the case of an especially appropriate example of what Toby is talking about, Danny Gokey’s “The Comeback,” which features ZERO references to either), and you’ve got yourself a Christian hit.

Toby, an excellent songwriter in his own right, took this as a challenge on an episode of the podcast, and a few weeks later, brought a few “church” songs he’d written, trying to follow the “rules” he noticed in most Christian radio songs. Weeks later, Toby recorded one of the songs–cheekily titled “Forever Rain”– and released it on iTunes in the Christian & Gospel genre; and before too long, the song was climbing up the iTunes sales charts, likely boosted mostly by podcast listeners who were in on the joke of it and were willing to spend $0.99 to push Toby’s song as high as it would go (it peaked in the top 20).

The song itself is noticeably hokey. It sounds a little like Toby stopped listening to Christian music in the ’90’s, because the sonic space it occupies resembles church music in the latter part of that decade more than most of the current hits. And yet the lyrics match the often vague nature of many of CCM’s most-loved songs (although it should be clear that there does exist many a songwriter that better understands how to connect the truth of the Bible with lyrical content), and the dynamics of the song feel accurate in relation to typical Sunday morning worship songs. The trouble is, because Toby’s listeners–both to the podcast and of his bands Emery and Matt & Toby–it is difficult to tell if “typical” consumers of Christian music are buying the song, and as of yet, Christian radio doesn’t seem to have paid attention to it at all. So maybe the joke is noted from the outside more than the creators of the song believe.

Like I said, I find myself straddling the line here. I lead worship at my church every Sunday, and so part of what I have to do is pay attention to the worship landscape in order to not continually play the same songs every week year after year. That said, I do agree with Matt and Toby (and David Crowder, who was once a guest on the podcast and said essentially the same things) that music, and all other art, made for and about God should be the best art available. Indeed, most of the best Christian art is on the fringe, and therefore isn’t generally accepted within Christianity as a whole; I, for one, believe this is pretty messed up, and this is the point that Toby, Matt and Crowder (and others like them) are making. If something is good but not easy to understand at first listen or interaction but still serves a form of worship, shouldn’t this be the type of art we want as Christians?

Part of the problem is that most art–mainstream or otherwise–is pretty lowest common denominator anyway. Crappy mainstream movies are often the biggest hits at the box office, derivative music tops the Billboard charts all the time and poorly written, but page-turner books are the best sellers in every avenue books are sold. Most of the greatest artistic expressions are independent, underground or completely unseen or unheard, and so this muddies the argument in the first place. It is pretty clear, though, that almost more than any other niche of art, Christians settle for mediocrity. To me, this is the issue, and the point at which I can fully get on board with the argument at hand.

Do I think that Christians need their own art in the first place? Absolutely. Music, movies, books and all that for Christians are necessary in the same way that these arts probably exist for other sections of society, because those people who belong to these groups deal with the world in their own way and see it through a varied lens. So to box everyone’s experiences into a single form of art would be wrong, that much is clear. The problem is that we’ve made “worship” a genre for all these things, and that forces the music, movies and books to become a copy of a copy of a copy, and so on.

Obviously as a worship leader, I see that there are certain songs that work better for corporate singing, and that we want to use songs in that setting that are Biblically truthful. But I don’t think that the rest of Christian music needs to succumb to falling into the trap of mediocrity. I should be able to worship my God in whatever musical genre I want to or in whatever form I feel is best. As an artist, and as a man of faith, this feels like the right thing to do and the most honest expression of my faith.

Brand New’s “Science Fiction” and the Art of Waiting

Three days ago–Tuesday August 15, 2017 to be exact–Long Islander indie rockers Brand New posted to the band’s Twitter account:

To call this a shock would be an understatement. The band, notoriously fickle about releasing new music, hadn’t released a proper LP since 2009’s Daisy, a decidedly ambitious, but, upon further examination, overly chaotic album that came three years after their critically acclaimed tour-de-force The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. Now, nearly 8 years exactly since Daisy‘s release, the band suddenly dropped the new record, Science Fiction, in a manner only Brand New could get away with. The aforementioned tweet was followed by news that fans were receiving CD copies of the full album, strung out on one track, just two days after the minuscule pre-order went live (and sold out within minutes); the next day (or as I like to call it, today), the band announced a proper pre-order, including a less-limited-edition vinyl, CD or digital download option, the former two featuring an email with an immediate download of the entire record.

So for those keeping up at home: within three days, fans of the band went from not know when–or if–we’d ever see a new full length of Brand New songs, to essentially having the record ready for mass consumption. To top it off, it seems like the band is either not seeing the multiple uploads of the record to YouTube or sees this as a “no press is bad press” type of situation. Considering the fervor with which most Brand New fans swallow up any new material at all and continue to support the band in spite of its insistence on being as aloof as possible, this seems like a well-calculated move on the band’s part.

Even stranger still (as if that’s possible at this point with this band), what little music we’ve seen from them in the past few years now appear to be one-off singles, as the track list of Science Fiction includes neither “I Am A Nightmare,” a 2016 single, nor “Mene” or “Out of Range,” which were released together as a single in 2015. Even more importantly, the surprise, initially tape-only release of leaked demos from the Devil and God sessions aren’t here either. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this album, at least upon initial examination, is meant to be a fully new entity, a move that will no doubt make the throngs of fans even more ecstatic than they would be otherwise (which, for the record, is probably also quite a large amount).

The entire situation brings up an intriguing topic for conversation: what is it that allows a band to get away with something like this in the first place? If most bands disappeared for almost a decade with little more than three songs to tide fans over, I feel confident that the majority of fans would give up on them. If nothing else, the fanbase would diminish quite noticeably. Yet, in the case of Brand New, the rules, as they often appear not to, don’t seem to apply here.

Take, as another example, another well-known band of the early emo scene, acoustic outfit turned radio rock band Dashboard Confessional. I just saw Chris Carrabba’s band the other night in Charlotte, for what was actually the second time since last summer. The thing is, Dashboard’s last album was Alter the Ending, released in, you guessed it, 2009, the same year as the last Brand New album up until now. In his defense, Carrabba has been busy doing other things, including recording and releasing a new record with his old band, Further Seems Forever, in 2012, and doing some light touring on that album, but still, he was able to draw a pretty sizable crowd to come watch he and his band play music (along with openers The All-American Rejects, themselves still basically touring on a 5-year old album, save for a recently released 2-song EP, but let’s be honest, this band is still making a living off songs from 2005, but that’s another story). But Dashboard probably played more shows for this tour–in support of essentially nothing, mind you–than Brand New has in the last five years (just a conjecture), making the entire conundrum even more bizarre.

And yet here we are, finally staring a new Brand New album in the face. It’s one of those musical moments I honestly believed was going to happen. I was beginning to believe they were content to release a song or two a year until they finally called it quits for good (something the band seems to be threatening, if you believe the “2000-2018” t-shirts they released last summer or anything that Jesse Lacey says from stage). The band’s timeline, however, leads me to wonder why they’d even bother. Clearly, unlike most bands outside of the likes of stalwarts like U2, Radiohead, and others of their ilk, Brand New possesses staying power that I’m sure most recording artists would thrilled to have. In other words, I’m not sure why calling it quits is even a thing they’d ever need to do, if all they need to do is occasionally release new music and tour in short spurts to satiate fans.

Maybe the band is getting tired of the waiting, too. As artists, I can’t imagine it was easy to keep watching each year pass by without being able to satisfy not only themselves but their fans. My guess is that part of the delay had to do with Lacey and company not feeling they had something worth putting out; and that as months turned into years and those years almost became a decade, the pressure mounted even further. What’s worse than keeping fans waiting? Releasing something after all the waiting that ultimately disappoints.

Ultimately, that is the good news in all this: the record is pretty good. It’s a building, nuanced album in ways that Daisy, an album characterized by its noise and chaos, struggled to be, and even harkens back to the band’s 2003 breakout LP, Deja Entendu, in ways that will make longterm fans quite happy. The emotions are still high, but Lacey isn’t forced to scream over the wall of sound like he has been of late, as the band allows for the softer moments to shine, something they seemed afraid to do on Daisy. The middle section of the album, especially the one-two punch of “Same Logic/Teeth” and “137,” and moving through to “Out of Mana” and “In the Water,” are some of the band’s strongest work to date. Time will tell how well the record holds up against Deja or The Devil and God, generally considered the band’s best work, and at an hour in length, re-playability might be an issue for Science Fiction; but this is clearly a band that knows what it wanted to do and simply did it. The album is strange and thoughtful, exactly what you’d expect a Brand New record to be.

And if this is indeed the band’s swan song, at least we can be certain they went out on their terms. And that’s always better than fading away into nothing.

Show Review: The Classic Crime, Matt & Toby and Civilian

First, let me apologize for my long absence. I was finishing up my semester and traveling a lot of late, so I’ve found little time to sit down and write. This is to my own detriment, so I’m glad to be back. A few other notes to get us started:

  • I was in Illinois just outside of Chicago recently, visiting E’s family, and we had a day in the city, including a trip to a really chilly Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs play the San Francisco Giants. What an amazing place to watch baseball, and I hope to return regularly when we make the trips up north.

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  • Like I said, school is over, which means I’ve got a lot more time on my hands, but there’s SO MUCH wedding stuff to do that it hardly feels like time is free at all.
  • Little L turned 3 yesterday, and so we are bracing ourselves for what I’m told can be a rough year for children. Add onto it all the changes and transitions she’s got approaching, and I’m nervous, but anticipating an exciting journey.
  • I’m another year older since my last post, 33 years old now. My, how time flies.

Okay, now to the main event. E took me to see one of my all-time favorite bands, The Classic Crime, play a show in Atlanta. The band is from Seattle, so they don’t venture East much, let alone to the East Coastal states, so this was a must-see show. I was joined by my buddies Ryan and JP, whose birthday is exactly one day after mine, and it was a full, but fulfilling two days or so.

Having never seen the band live, I was moderately uneasy about making a 4 hour drive just to see them. I’d been burned before by bands that couldn’t cut it live, and I’d walked away wildly disappointed. Fortunately, this was not the case. On top of everything else, E bought us VIP tickets, so we got to meet the band before the show and engage in a Q&A with them as well (although I’m disappointed that I wasted my question on something not so great) and snap a photo with them.

On top of everything else, the show as great almost across the board. The local openers were interesting–a band that couldn’t decided what it wanted to be, pop, rock, screamo, including an UnderOath cover and the jam bandiest of all jam bands, that literally played two songs in twenty minutes–but frankly forgettable.

The show really kicked off with Civilian, the first touring band on the bill, who played a good mixture of songs off their earlier albums and their latest, last year’s You Wouldn’t Believe What Privilege Costs, a moody, thoughtful and overall stellar record that you should check out if you haven’t. I have to admit, though, that something seemed off about their set. I’m not sure if they were having trouble hearing or what the issue was, but the band didn’t feel as tight as the album suggested, although this did improve as the set went along, suggesting that there was an issue with the monitors or something. It also could be that this was the last show of their second tour in a row, and fatigue was setting in pretty heavily. In any respect, the set was good, but ultimately not as strong as I was hoping.

Civilian was followed by Matt & Toby of Emery playing songs from their acoustic driven side-project. The duo’s first album came out in 2012, and the follow-up, the suggestively titled I Quit Church, is set to be released later this year, and the band–with tour manager and friend Aaron Lunsford on drums–worked its way through songs from both records, along with a Katy Perry cover that E hailed as “the only song she knew” for the entire evening. I will say that watching a heavily bearded, 40-year-old man sing about dancing on a table on a Friday night was comical, and Matt & Toby’s familiarity with one another and sense of humor was evident throughout the set. My only real complaint was how their genre sort of brought the energy down a little, since Civilian’s songs fit the flow better, but I fully understand that Matt & Toby are the “bigger” act, hence their getting the “direct” opening slot.

The main event failed to disappoint as well. The band was tight overall, and played songs that spanned almost their entire career (or all if you only look at studio albums), with singer Matt McDonald showing no real signs of vocal fatigue with this being the last stop of the tour. The energy was high throughout, both from the band and the audience, with the small Vinyl club brimming with people, especially near the front (all of our little group, save for mosh pit stalwart JP, stuck to the back, seated around a table…age is just a number, my foot) where the crowd was enraptured from the opening chords. The set list, I’ll admit, was the one downfall of the show. While this was the How To Be Human tour, and I fully expected a healthy dose of new tunes, there frankly wasn’t a lot of other songs to bulk up the set overall, which seemed pretty short for a band that’s 5 albums into a double-digit year career and headlining their own tour. You can likely chalk this up to the show taking place during a weekday (I’m guessing that Atlanta, like Charlotte, has noise ordinances or curfews to keep clubs from being open too late during the week) and the fact that the band just doesn’t tour much these days, meaning they probably had to focus on perfecting a smaller group of songs as opposed to playing more songs not as well (they actually admitted during the Q&A that they forgot how to play some of their songs).

All in all, it was a fantastic trip and a worthy addition to my long list of shows. The club was small, but intimate and well-maintained, so it was a great place to visit. I continue to lament the lack of great show stops that come to Charlotte, but am glad that Atlanta is at least decently close to catch some of these must-see shows. Make sure to check out music from all the artists (listed below).

The Classic Crime Set List

Holy Water*

You and Me Both

Glass Houses

Not Done With You Yet*

The Coldest Heart

Ghost*

Beautiful Darkside

The Precipice

Driftwood*

Cheap Shots

Salt in the Snow

Abracadavers

The Fight

(*indicates a new song from How To Be Human)

10 Year Recall: Emery’s I’m Only A Man

The second installment in my “10 Year Recall” series goes to another one of my all-time favorite bands, Emery. The band hails, at least originally, from South Carolina, although they tend to claim Seattle as their hometown, mostly, I’m guessing because they really got their start there. They were heavy players in the so-called screamo movement in the early-to-mid 2000’s, and were also thrust into the pseudo-Christian music scene, first and foremost because of their albums coming out via Tooth & Nail Records. Most of that is a story for another time, however.

My beginnings with the indie/emo/screamo music movements was recounted in part in the lead up to my previous “10 Year Recall” about Anberlin’s Cities, so I won’t go through the entire ordeal again. In Emery’s case, however, I can tell you the first time I ever heard their music as at the same time I discovered the aforementioned Anberlin. I popped Emery’s debut record, The Weak’s End, into a CD player at a Family Christian Stores location in Virginia Beach, VA while I was home for a summer, and immediately had to rush to turn down the guttural screams and crunching guitars of the record’s first track, the (in my opinion, overrated) Emery classic “Walls.” That record never did much for me, though, but it was the follow-up, 2005’s The Question, that made me pay attention to what Emery was up to (and I still list that record as one of my all-time favorites).

(For the record, I now find a lot to like about The Weak’s End, but generally consider it one of the band’s most generic and weakest–pun intended–records.)

The band’s third studio album came out in October of 2007 in the form of I’m Only A Man, and to call the reception to the record mixed might be kind. The album purposely moved further away from the straight heavy rock of The Weak’s End, choosing to use more keyboards, synths, pads and other instruments new to the band’s sonic palette, to diversify the sound. On the whole, fan reception was just as poor as the critics, and the band’s reaction to all that shines through pretty obviously based on what happened in the subsequent releases, 2008 EP When Broken Hearts Prevail and the connected 2009 LP …In Shallow Seas We Sail, which saw the band returning mostly to something closer to their earlier sound (although if you pay close enough attention, you’ll notice they continued to experiment on those albums, too, and have continued to do so).

I, myself, joined the noise of less-than-enthusiastic reviews (although as you can see from the date, I was several months late to the party):

Emery — I’m Only A Man

Emery’s music has often been polarizing, but their latest effort, I’m Only A Man, will prove to be even more separating than ever. It’s an album of truly great moments (“World Away”), but also one that will leave you unsure of what the band is trying to do (“Rock-N-Rule”). Overall, I can’t seem to totally dismiss the album because of the talent I know this band has. If nothing else, I’m Only A Man is an album that you should experience rather than letting someone else tell you what they think. (Feb 21, 2008)

Okay, so this wasn’t my most insightful journalistic moment, but I do think that dearth of language here is rather telling, even if I couldn’t have explained this to you at the time. The fact of the matter is that I really didn’t know what to do with the record at the time. There were weird buzzing noises in one track (“From Crib to Coffin”), strange vocal parts (the intro to “Don’t Bore Us, Get to the Chorus,” an all-time awful song title, by the way), a song that sounded like they ripped themselves off (try to tell me that opening riff “The Party Song” from Man doesn’t sound almost exactly like the riff from The Question‘s opening song “So Cold I Could See My Breath,” go ahead), and other signs of a band that was clearly trying to do something different. At the time, I wasn’t ready, and it doesn’t seem like hardly anyone else was either.

Hindsight being what it is, I have to say that I’m Only A Man has managed to age rather well. First of all, it proved to be rather prescient, as the synth heavy sounds that Emery hints at throughout this album became–for better or worse–the driving force of hardcore/screamo bands that would follow like Attack Attack! and Sleeping With Sirens, among myriad others that would use the sonic space of I’m Only A Man sets up.

Secondly, the songwriting on this album continues to be, for the most part, rather top-notch, an element of the record that I was quick to overlook ten years ago. Hearing the songs in various formats (especially in more laid back, acoustic versions) helps to highlight the quality of the craftsmanship that Matt Carter, Toby Morrell and Devin Shelton brought to the table in terms of writing musical parts and lyrics. The album seems to borrow thematically from another album, namely Pedro the Lion’s 2002 concept record Control, as the ideas of digging oneself into a hole via sexual misconduct is a prevalent theme on both records. The Emery record, however, looks at the issue from a different perspective, as Morrell and Shelton’s lyrics don’t seem to allow the protagonists of their stories to simply shrug off the consequences of their choices. This is interesting since the album’s title feels like an excuse, but upon further listens, it’s easier to see that the title is simply a statement of fact. The lyrics give credence to that idea, and while there are some repetitive moments (the lyricists get enamored with the album’s title as a lyric, even if there is no “title track,” per se), the storytelling is quite good throughout.

In some cases, however, the criticism is probably warranted. You wonder if the band tried too hard to create something “different” that they lost some focus along the way. Many of the elements of the Emery sound are still there (the screaming and guitar tones, especially), but there is a chance that the change in sound was at least partially due to the departure of the band’s bassist after the release of The Question, leaving Carter to hold down most of the on-stage instrumentation, which would explain the move toward pads and tracks to bolster the live show. That said, many of the experiments do end of working, namely the driving intrigue of the album’s closing track, the aforementioned “From Crib to Coffin.” It is strange, no doubt, but it is also clever and climactic; and although different from Anberlin’s “(*Fin),” it proves a similarly satisfying way to close a record.

In the final evaluation, I’m Only A Man is an important part of Emery’s discography. It showed they were capable of trying new things and pushing themselves not to just recreate what had worked on the album before. It was a daring move, but it produced a solid third record and continues to propel the band forward to this day, as they look to produce their 7th album 10 years later.

10 Year Recall: Anberlin’s Cities

2007 was a pretty outstanding year for music. It was a year where I was starting to launch out on my own musically, having received my own form of musical education throughout college (informal, via a friend who knew more about these things than I did), and also launched (maybe that’s too strong a word) my writing career via a website called Silent Uproar. The site was pretty legitimate, and the guy who ran it had enough connections to get me advanced copies of albums for review, onto guest lists for shows and even an interview with Nick Thomas, lead singer of The Spill Canvas.

It’s 2017 now, and I’ve decided that 2007 was important enough in a musical sense to start a year-long series of posts that I’m affectionately entitling “10 Year Recall.” It also happens that 2007 was the year I packed my bags and headed south, with July marking my 10th year as a resident of the Carolinas, so all in all, it’s safe to say that ten years ago was a turning point in my life.

The goal is to revisit albums that meant something to me back then and review them from my current mindset ten years later. I’ll try, too, to tap into some of what made the album important for me in 2007, bringing the entire exercise as full circle as possible.

One of the cool things about having written for an online publication ten years ago is that it’s easy to find my original thoughts on a lot of these records. So when available, I’ll post my original review, which should give us a good starting point. We’ll begin this series with one of the most important records of 2007 (and one I need a copy of on vinyl, and not just as part of an anthology box set, Tooth & Nail): Anberlin’s Cities.

Anberlin’s third record was released on February 20, 2007 via Tooth & Nail Records, and it was a pretty important release for me. I was still relatively new to the indie music community, and I certainly hadn’t been intrenched in the scene long enough to really anticipate an album release, so Cities was one of the first times I remember knowing an album was coming out and waiting on it to do so with eagerness (save, maybe, for Mae’s The Everglow, which came out in the Spring of 2005, during my final semester of college). I had discovered Anberlin during my initial foray into indie music, back when I was still buying CD’s in stores, a time that was also interesting for me in that I was seeking ways to connect the CCM I’d grown up listening to and my newfound chosen genres. Fortunately for me, anything on labels like Tooth & Nail was still unquestionably stocked at local Christian bookstores, leading me to bands like Anberlin, Emery and The Classic Crime early in my searching.

By the time I discovered them in earnest, Anberlin, a quartet or quintet depending on the year, from Florida, had already released two albums–2003’s Blueprints for the Blackmarket and 2005’s Never Take Friendship Personal–both of which I gobbled up because of their edgier sound and knack for melodic intricacy. Stephen Christian, the band’s lead singer, had a voice unlike any I’d heard before, and the band’s sound, while engaging, stuck to various pop music tropes that didn’t challenge my norm too much.

Then came Cities, an album that I clearly had no issues with lauding from the beginning. This is my Silent Uproar review that was published the week after the album was released:

Anberlin — Cities

They say the third album of a band’s career is often a defining moment. In the case of Tooth & Nail vets Anberlin, this is more than the case. With Cities, the band has released their best and most satisfying work to date. Amazingly, and most impressively, the album manages to be so many things at once. It contains some of the darkest songs the band has ever produced (“Dismantle.Repair.” and lead single “Godspeed”), but at the same time, churns out some of the most beautiful as well (“The Unwinding Cable Car,” “Inevitable,” and awe-inspiring closer “(*Fin)”). That the band has somehow found the line between unrelenting rock and haunting, yet often gorgeous melodies is a true testament to how far they’ve come. They excel at dynamics, too, which gives the record an almost epic feel, most evident in the spectacular “(*Fin).” To put it bluntly, this is a fantastic record, that should find its way to the top of many year’s end lists when the time comes. It is truly the first important album of its kind to come out in 2007. (Feb 26 2007)

The album did end up finding its way onto my end of year list for 2007, although I don’t remember how high (my guess is it was at least #2, but maybe as high as #1), and often enters into the conversation for the top one or two Anberlin records in the band’s discography (for the record, my list would look something like this: Vital, Cities, Dark is the Way, Light Is a Place, Never Take Friendship Personal, Lowborn, Blueprints for the Blackmarket and New Surrender). That list should be pretty telling as to how connected to this album I still am.

The album still holds up rather well, with its dark, haunting sonic choices and lo-fi production, all qualities which would allow the record to still be made today and not sound out-of-place. The record also sets up the band’s propensity for experimentation with song structure and, to a point, genre, moving away slightly from the more pop feel of most of its songs on previous records, although ironically, Cities proved to be their first record to debut in the Billboard top 20, and the catalyst for the band’s signing with a major label for the follow-up, 2008’s largely lackluster New Surrender.

For me, the success of the album is predicated on two things. First is the haunting quality to the songs, built heavily on the sonic space the album lives in, but also on the semi-cryptic nature of Christian’s lyrics throughout the record. The album’s title and some of the lyrics suggest thematic ideas like losing control of one’s situation and the constant movement of life in your late 20’s/early 30’s (Christian had just turned 30 during the time the album was likely recorded). There is an unsettling feeling throughout, and yet the maturity of the songwriting allows for the band to create songs that feel necessary and urgent for those moments.

The second success is how well-connected this is as an album. 2007 was a few years into the age of digital music, and more and more artists were choosing to release singles they could sell for $0.99 rather than focus on albums as pieces of art. The album wasn’t dead, but it was certainly dying, and so it was, and remains, refreshing to find bands or artists who still pay attention to the molding of a record as a whole. Cities does that unassailably well, as the flow from song to song, as well as the intentional connection between the album’s opening instrumental track “(Début)” and the terrifyingly good closer “(*Fin),” are all top-notch efforts from the band.

Overall, this is an album that has stood the test of time. It was excellent upon its release and continues to hold up after ten years. Now all we need is that 10-year vinyl release and I’ll be a happy man.