The leitmotif of modern indie-rock is littered with nonsensical or overly-emotive lyrics delivered by effeminate males with poorly tuned instruments. It’s created a bit of a stigma for anyone branded with that label. However, a refreshing trend is emerging in the form of groups like Bon Iver and Florence + the Machine, driving a paradigm shift toward well-crafted, thoughtful material flawlessly executed by highly-skilled and talented artists. On the cusp of this musical renaissance we find Goshen,Vermont’s own answer to The Band, Chamberlin.
For fans of: Bon Iver, Starsailor, Jeff Buckley, Five for Fighting, Fleet Foxes, The Head and the Heart
While the spirit exuded by Look What I’ve Become, the band’s new EP released September 4th of this year via Audiotree Records, stems from overwhelming feelings of distrust, discontent and disorientation- it is rife with the type of torment that resonates with audiences. Albums like Fleetwood Mac‘s Rumors and Pink Floyd‘s The Wall shine as brilliant examples that band discord can, once in a great while, somehow yield brilliant results. In that regard, Look What I’ve Become does not disappoint.
The band’s co-founders, singer/guitarist Mark Daly and guitarist Ethan West, crafted the EP together with performer/producer Luke Reynolds (Blue Merle, Guster) in early 2012 having concluded a massive American tour (culminating in a 3-month, 20,000 mile high-speed burn around the states). Sadly, relations between the five bandmates had deteriorated due to the stressful schedule and unfamiliar circumstances.
“We were exhausted,” said Daly, “2011 was essentially us running a marathon without ever trying a 10K, except imagine that while trying to run that marathon you end up chained to four other guys, drinking too much and yelling at each other hungover in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Kentucky.”
As a form of function, Daly and West arranged 5 new songs with Reynolds in preparation to track in Nashville in February, 2012 with engineer Brad Bivens (Kings of Leon, Norah Jones). This was intended to capitalize on a small window between tours and generate new content for the band’s rapidly growing fan base. Their debut album, Bitter Blood, and previous EP, a well-received collection of cover material, had them playing to packed ballrooms and theaters opening for fellow Vermont-ies Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. The next release would be a big step toward establishing the group as a rising star on the indie music circuit.
“Suddenly,” Daly continues, “we found ourselves all set to record these new songs that the other guys hadn’t been a part of at all. Personal tension aside, we hadn’t rehearsed together in over six months and having worked out most of the arrangements already with Luke on bass and keys, we were very worried that the music would suffer if we tried to force everyone in at the last minute.”
The duo had an excruciating decision to make.
As Daly tells it, “Back in January, before Ethan and I left for Nashville to record Look What I’ve Become, we sat down with the rest of the band. With no amount of small shame, we explained that they wouldn’t be playing on it. Chuck, our bassist, finished his beer and walked out of the bar without saying a word. A few days later, Eric, who played keys told us he was quitting. Jamie, our drummer, wasn’t sure if he would stay. Ethan and I weren’t sure if Chamberlin would exist when we returned.”
This inner-turmoil heavily informs the material on the EP, with Daly and West exorcising feelings of guilt, jealousy and resentment throughout the five songs. At points, the issues are brought to bear tonally— as with the album’s first single, aptly entitled “Jealousy.” The song’s soft beginnings, lightly strummed acoustic guitar and glistening electric accents soon swell into anthemic choruses proclaiming, “Jealousy, look what I’ve become…” The lyrics speak of a mind overcome with betrayals, real or imagined, and desperately trying to realign itself. An overdriven guitar wails on the bridge, cathartically diffusing the wistful introspection of the verses, finally resolving back into a quiet tension that spurs the listener onward.
The impact of the band’s state was certainly not lost on the pair as they recorded the album either. West recalls, “Simply put, this EP is about jealousy, despair and resentment. While recording the vocals, it really hit us that we had inflicted those same feelings on our band mates—or rather, our best friends. As Mark sang the chorus of “Jealousy,” we avoided eye contact and waited for the moment to pass…kind of like two awkward unfamiliar teens walking by each other in a high school hallway. He was singing the lyric, ‘Look what I’ve become.’”
The album’s opening track, “Thief,” makes it very easy to draw a contemporary parallel to resident Indie-music icons Bon Iver based on the use of falsetto and the melodic underpinnings of Chamberlin’s sound. While spacey, ethereal notes emanating from an organ drift lazily in the background of the mix, driving drums and a pulsing bass-line provides a solid bedrock for the thin, glistening electric arpeggios that cut a straight shot to your eardrum. This is a band that delights in atmosphere, and tastefully accents the core of their songs with expertly laid vocal, organ, and guitar lines. A wafting psychedelia takes root in the bridge, as soaring vocal harmonies fall in ribbons over slide-guitar and trembling organ pads, evoking Pink Floyd at their finest.
That said, the album is not all overt angst and anguish— there are also more pensive moments of reflection as well. “A Pleasant Conversation Over Drinks,” the second track, and “Maryland,” the fourth, convey the album’s themes subtly while exploring dissolution of relationships ( “Conversation” from a place of betrayal, “Maryland” from more of an emotional disconnect). The charming aspect of each song is an enduring sense of hope that these connections can be salvaged in some form in spite of the present discord.
There is an economy in the orchestration of the album that lets the material speak for itself. The arrangements are far from pretentious, with all instrumentation perfectly serving the forward momentum of the songs. None of the orchestration feels showy, but perfectly accentuates the tone and mood of the pieces. “A Pleasant Conversation…” is a groove-driven, soulful and sexy piece that’s definitely danceable (with lyrics addressing agonized pangs to connect physically with someone who’s betrayed you- a brilliant dichotomy of tones) , while “Maryland” is a bit more poignant with a folksy air reminiscent of indie acts Fleet Foxes and The Head and the Heart.
In the afterglow of a thorough listen, the record comes to embody a certain infusion of jazz elements that are neither abundant nor obvious once you’ve hitched your ear to the melody of the tracks. Their presence is tangible, however, and draws other comparisons to mind: for instance, one to musical icon Jeff Buckley. Like Buckley, Daly’s vocals are so ensnaring that it’s easy to get lost in the melody- however, you do the mix of the album and it’s stellar instrumentation a disservice to simply focus on the voice at the forefront. There are grooves on this record (pun not intended) that possess the listener so completely that one falls into a trance-like state and just… sways. It’s an immense compliment to admit a group can make you forget you’re listening to music and make you physically listen to music.
The album’s final track, “Block it Out,” is a pulsing, spacey and soulful tune that spins the various threads of the record together in a resolute, anthemic crescendo. The lyric, “Block it out… I know these thoughts won’t make me who I am,” addresses feelings of trepidation with an unrelenting determination and speaks almost like a mantra as we surge towards the end of the record.
Like the intricate inner workings of an anthill, there is considerable activity beneath the surface with this group and these songs. The band’s story is as compelling as the material, but the album is so listenable that you nearly gloss over the emotional underpinnings that conjured it. The songwriting is so smart that it doesn’t feel self-referential or downtrodden. Personal heartbreak is expertly rendered here, but blended with feelings of regret or animus there are definite declarations of optimistic sentiment. It’s a definite departure from the woe-is-me indie scene we’ve come to know and, admittedly, mock.
There’s a universality to the content that transcends an album about betrayal and jealousy from a band on the verge of falling apart. The themes it presents are metaphors for all interpersonal relationships, and the struggle to be true to oneself while harmoniously existing with others is something we all struggle with. If this is cloyed with a bit too much of Jerry’s Final Thought, I apologize. However, having experienced a similar situation while recording an album- I know all too well the pregnant silences that exist between scorned bandmates. We’ve all hurt someone or been wounded to the extent that we begin to tear at the fabric of our very nature… and to do so with grace and poise, let alone artistic brilliance, is a difficult and admirable thing.
The irony of a band writing an EP about jealousy and cheating, only to cheat on each other to make it does not go unnoticed in the group of close friends. “We can all joke about it now,” says West, “and even though Mark and I still feel bad for hurting feelings along the way, we’re also very proud and excited about how Look What I’ve Become turned out musically. It also gave us an opportunity to address some major structural issues before moving forward together. It is often impossible to recover from an affair, but every once in a while people bounce back stronger.”
Look What I’ve Become is an album mature beyond it’s length: a brilliant picture of male masculinity at war with itself set to themes of classic American music. All the elements are here- folk, rock, jazz, soul and psychedelia- but in equal measure and proportion to allow a greater harmony of the components and create a style all their own. If this record is any indication, there are great things on the horizon for this group from Goshen, Vermont. The landscape may be rocky, but these young men have proven they can navigate it expertly.
In summation, I’m very eager to hear what this band will have become (a-thank you) on their next full-length record. It’s bound to be brilliant. Pick up Look What I’ve Become at your earliest convenience- you won’t regret it.