Posts Tagged ‘Chicago’

neon fictionLately, it almost seems like a trend for members of punk bands to start acoustic side-projects during lulls of touring and writing with their original bands.  You might blame it on “the increasingly grim state of the music industry,” and you might be right too, but that’s not to say that every Tom, Dick, and Harry can push out a well written acoustic album in their droll downtime from making crowds of fans all sweaty and light-headed at stanky punk shows.  Fortunately, Sundowner’s main man (and The Lawrence Arm’s guitarist/vocalist) Chris McCaughan seemed to have taken his good ol’ time to write Neon Fiction in between Lawrence Arms albumsprobably even to many impatient fans’ lamentbut let’s be honest, it was well worth the wait.

Neon Fiction is a bit of a step in a new direction from previous Sundowner records, most noticeably from an instrumental perspective.  To call this album an “acoustic album” might be a bit of a stretch.  Plenty of tracks feature fellow Larry Arms bandmate Neil Hennessy on drums and bass guitar, and many of the tracks even utilize the pretty standard punk trio instrumental structure which would be considered anything but acoustic: electric lead guitar over a rhythm guitar, rolling electric bass, and driving punk rhythms on drum set.  Really, just about the only ingredient Neon Fiction‘s nostalgic opener “Cemetery West” (along with a few other similarly structured tracks like “Concrete Shoes” and “Paper Rose City”) is missing to be considered a full-fledged, less intense, Lawrence Arms song is the third and final delightfully crusty Larry Arm, Brendan Kelly.

What're you doing Chris?  No shoes on the bed!

“Chis! No shoes on the bed.” No Mom, it’s punk.

Setting the lyrical tone for the rest of Neon Fiction, “Beautiful Ruins” speaks of the brisk and bustling city of Chicago like she’s a beautifully tragic lady who McCaughan leftwhich isn’t that surprising considering McCaughan had recently left his hometown of Chicago for his girlfriend’s homeland of Portland, Oregon (which I’m sure Fred and Carrie would agree is quite a different place).  Further on in the track list, “We Drift Eternal” can get quite heavy sonically, and, at times, the song even reminds me of another Larry Arms side-project known as Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds, especially during the palm-muted verses.  One of the few acoustic songs on Neon Fiction, “Grey on Grey”, is a growing depiction of simple love, and one of my favorites from the album.  Towards the end of the track, drums start to crash and McCaughan settles into the outro pleading “hope you’ll love me the same way, when the colors are grey on grey.”  “Life in the Embers” is sure to make you bob your head and set your life straight while “Origins” (Neon Fiction‘s last truly acoustic track) consists of a pretty non-traditional song structure, especially for how traditionally Sundowner the lyrics are; honest, introspective depictions of hometown living.  “Paper Rose City” is yet another great example of how Sundowner has mastered the blending of acoustic and electric instrumentation to make for bright, full, and light songs.  Another particular favorite of mine from this album, “Poet of Trash” is a devilishly booming son of heart-felt self-deprecation with a tinge of hope.  “Wildfires” is a bouncy uplifting track which, rather than sung next to an uncontrollable “wildfire”, is probably best played next to some comfy, recognizable campfire which burns not in some wild forest, but behind the flannel covered chests of the campers (sorry for the cheese overload all over your eyes, but I couldn’t help my sorry self)a perfect closer for such an eclectic and minimalistic approach to a full-band version of Sundowner.

~ D.B.

relient-k-is-for-karaokeIn the interest of not mincing words, let me be blunt: I’ve never liked Relient K that much. I don’t hate them or anything, I just was never the biggest fan. They’ve always been a little too cheery, a little too happy-go-lucky/unicorns-and-rainbows for my taste. It doesn’t help matters that the first time I ever heard a Relient K song I was sitting in Sunday school. Most things I heard in Sunday school were a bunch of hogwash anyway, so I’ve probably subconsciously—and very unfairly—grouped Relient K in with talking snakes and immaculate conception, even though the band, to their credit, really doesn’t shove the religion thing down their listeners’ throats.

Having said that, I’ll definitely give Relient K credit for one thing: they can pull off a darned good cover song. That’s why I do enjoy their latest release, Is for Karaoke. The album consists of 14 songs by other bands, reimagined by Matt Theissen and company quite effectively. I say “reimagined,” but in truth, most of these covers stick pretty closely to the originals. Is for Karaoke spans a decent spectrum of pop music—from 80s classics to 90s rock to modern post-2000 hits.

Of course, my favorite songs are the songs whose original versions I already liked. As a huge Third Eye Blind fan, Relient K’s cover of “Motorcycle Drive By” might be my favorite out of the lot. Also notable are the covers of the Wallflower’s 90s hit “One Headlight,” Chicago’s (slightly cheeky) love ballad “You’re the Inspiration,” and Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song.” And although I think Weezer covers are a dime a dozen these days, the version of “Surf Wax America” here is certainly respectable.

If you like to imagine yourself running away with the circus, this version of They Might Be Giants’ “Doctor Worm” will tickle your fancy. If you’re a club-trotting 17-year-old you may enjoy Cindy Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” If you like modern pop, Relient K includes a cover of Justin Bieber’s “Baby” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” I barely know who those artists are, especially Barkley. How do you say his first name? Nar-rolls? Nar-whals? And I really think Justin Bieber could pass me on his way to the local Mini-Mart to purchase a cinnamon bun and I wouldn’t recognize him.

The real gem of the album, in my opinion, comes near the end: Theissen and the gang’s reworking of Toto’s “Africa” sounds just about perfect. The harmonies that Theissen and guitarist Matt Hoopes weave in the choruses are quite excellent. Even my mom liked it!

Sure, this album is a bit goofy, a bit tongue-in-cheek, a bit unicorn-y. Just like I think Relient K’s actual records are. But it’s still a fun distraction from your everyday musical routine. Sometimes you need some good ol’ fashioned fun. Give it a listen, but try not to picture that Sunday school pastor with the creepy mustache who smelled vaguely of peanut butter! (I just made that up, that never really happened.)

~J.M.