Songs About Places

By Jackson Anderson

Punk music has an intrinsically tangible and physical quality to it that is one of the most characteristic and unique aspects of the genre that I have done a disservice to by failing to address up until this point. While it’s true that everyone is from somewhere, the importance of the roots and the lineage of punk artists is more important than any other music genre. Punk fans know where the procurers of their art come from because it is important to them. They know which bands are a part of the Midwestern punk scene or the East Bay punk scene or the Seattle punk scene. One might think that this has to do with punk elitism and the desire to stick to music within one’s own clade. There is some truth to that, –and 80’s punk gangs that roamed the streets of Los Angeles are a testament to that– but ever since the internet age this interest in the history of artists has become equivalent to that of the “about the author” section of a novel.

 

Knowledge about punk authors also tends to be much more necessary than authors of literature due to the simple fact that most punk music tends to be nonfiction. Unlike a memoir, however, punk listeners only get vignettes and snippets into the lives of their favorite musicians. In a memoir the about the author section becomes the jurisdiction of the department of the redundancy department, but additional clarity can be sought when only tantalizing bits of story are given.

 

With the advent of this new global age and fascination with the experiences of others, many punk artists have embraced the individuality and localization of their music. This, however, is not necessarily a novel concept. Seminal punk bands sang about their individualistic and particular regionalized experiences during the birth of the genre both as a tool of community building with people inside those specific regions, and to help spread the word that the struggle was real and the same throughout the world. The major shift in recent years has been the focus on how sometimes its different in different places rather than the same, and yet these differences have lines of similarity that everyone can relate to.

 

Additionally, while everyone loves to write about home, the exotic has always had an allure. From proto-punk bands through to the modern day, everyone loves to sing about what it’s like in other places. This creates a particularly interesting line of comparison when different bands talk about the same place and wildly different stories emerge. I can think of three songs titled “Montreal” that range from both capital and lowercase “r” romantic to depressing and desolate. Which begs the question, does the place shape the experience, or does the experience shape the place?

 

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One of the many classics from The Lawrence Arms collection of b-sides includes “Nebraska” a desperate pleading of a song that is a direct dialogue from vocalist/guitarist Chris McCaughan to some guy named Mike in which Chris nearly gets down on his knees and begs Mike to break off not only the shackles of depression and self-loathing, but also the titular Nebraska.

Let Nebraska disappear

In golden flames of grain.

I know you can’t imagine

Having company right now.

There’s a world of tired faces

Who understand this pain.

There’s a better life.

Waiting on the outside

Of these decaying walls.

There’s a bit of a double meaning behind this verse, in which Chris is encouraging Mike to break free from his self-imposed mental torment while simultaneously physically leaving his prison of Nebraska. The only description of Nebraska the listener gets is in this verse, but by titling this song Nebraska, I don’t think it is a huge leap in logic to suggest that Chris is implying that much of the source of Mike’s depression and feelings of hopeless lack of fulfillment is due to his surrounding OR that Nebraska is a suitable metaphor for these feelings. Either way you slice it it’s not looking good for the corn husker state.

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To redeem Nebraska, one only needs to turn to Signals Midwest’s album track, “At This Age.” Touting their Midwestern locale in their name, Signals Midwest is a band that revels in the Midwestern experience, particularly in their latest album At This Age. In their title track vocalist/guitarist Max Stern lays out his desire to escape the big city with “somebody who might know how to traverse the terrain and the traffic without getting lost in the glow of a phone,” and be able to see the stars in the sky. What better destination to accomplish this than the great state of Nebraska?  Max and his companion’s actual trip to Nebraska isn’t detailed in terms of the physicality of the state, only what they said and thought, but Nebraska’s golden flames of grain are romanticized as a form of beautiful escapism from the dead droning lights of Cleveland compared to Mike’s eternal hell.

Two Midwestern punks from two different big cities have two very different views on the same place. That tends to be how it goes, though, isn’t it? What is alluring and fascinating about songs about places is how similar the differences are and how different the similarities are. Lines of symmetry can be found in foreign countries or foreign cities, and places that one has been to or lives in can sound like an entirely alien land. The magic lies in the interpretation, and that is what is special.

The Screamed Song

By Jackson Anderson

In punk music there exists an antithesis to the acoustic track. There isn’t a nice universal term for me to use, so for the simple sake of alliteration I’ll refer to the yin to the acoustic track’s yang as “the screamed song.” As I hope I was able to get across in my guide to punk music, the genre is incredibly diverse and varied; sometimes entire albums consist of solely acoustic tracks or screamed songs. That being said, I probably wouldn’t be taking time out of my day to be talking about those subgenres. I have nothing against them, I enjoy folk punk I great deal, and there are a great many subgenres of punk music that consist of entirely screamed vocals. I’m not too into many of those, but I respect them for what they are. What I like about both acoustic tracks and screamed songs are the contrast that they are able to create when juxtaposed with the usual mid to high tempo clean to gruff vocals that is typical of the middle spectrum of punk music that the majority of punk fans –myself included– find ourselves listening to the majority of the time. The acoustic track is good for the slow and cerebral, for the tearjerkers. The screamed song has another place that is equally, if not more important, especially in punk music given its roots.

 

 

Acoustic tracks of course are not limited to slow and cerebral tearjerkers; that was a gross oversimplification of what has become an entire subgenre of not only punk music, but beyond that as well. Of course, patterns exist, and acoustic tracks –especially in punk music– do tend to be slower and sadder than the music that they bump shoulders with. Screamed songs tend to find themselves in the opposite situation. Screamed songs tend to be shorter and faster in terms of composition and full of more anger, spite, and venom in terms of theme.

 

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The album that holds the title of Jackson Anderson’s favorite album of 2016 is constantly evolving due to the fact that an amazing new record seems to come out every week. The current title holder is Direct Hit!’s Wasted Mind, a concept album about the world’s craziest drug trip. It’s not exactly the subject matter that usually interests me. I was a little disappointed with myself in how much I liked this record at first, because I found it to be shallow and childish. However, after a bit of digging and research, I think Direct Hit! are hiding some gems of wisdom under the guise of rampant drug abuse. Now who does that sound like? 

 

The interesting thing about Wasted Mind is that the majority of the album is low-saccharinity rating (and this high saccharinity) pop-punk, complete with catchy hooks and smooth vocals. Four songs in, it seems like vocalist Nick Woods might have done one line of coke too many as the album’s tone dramatically shifts. Woods lets out a guttural scream, and –for the first time on the album– a wild keyboard evocative of a carnival joins in. Woods then launches into a bitter tirade explaining the reason for his (or the characters in Wasted Mind, at least) drug addiction.

 

You’re sitting calm and unalarmed

But it won’t be long – It’ll have you wrapped its finger with its charm

Then you won’t speak, and you won’t breathe

And so you see how this is all you’ll ever be?

It takes your soul

It makes it old

It sands it down, bleaches it out until it”s sold all for a pill

A cheaper thrill

You’ll swallow more because you’ll never get your fill

Well help yourself, your high won’t wait

It’s a special strain developed by the State

It comes on quick

It don’t let up

So tell your friends about it, help ’em all get fucked

So have a seat, and take a breath

We’ll chalk an X up on the day the high’ll end

You’re talkin’ hours?

I’m talkin’ days

We’re talkin’ take a break from work cause where you’re going you tell time a million ways

Pay!

The price is brains!

We’re all insane!

Pay!

The price is brains!

Don’t be ashamed – We’re all insane!

 

Tying up a loose-end life?

Been fighting all your years just to find a different way to die?

So sad, but I’m glad we get to talk about it just so I can… Fuck You!

I’m going to rudely cut in here to say that these three lines are sung straight in Woods’ sugary-sweet poppy voice right up until “Fuck You!” which is screamed in the style of rest of the song. There’s a beautiful sort of animosity in it that really encapsulates the true message of Wasted Mind: –the message that came to a complete and utter surprise to me–winners don’t do drugs, as told by four guys with plenty of experience.

Now you’re sitting numb, deaf, blind, and dumb

It worries some, but in your skull you’re so content to be a lump

We’ll bring you feed – that’s all you need

And make you bleed because you just can’t measure up

Go help yourself

High couldn’t wait

Oh yeah, that special strain developed by the State

It came on quick, it won’t let up, don’t tell your friends about it they’re already fucked

Then the straight-sung chorus repeats. As I was typing these lyrics out I noticed something that I hadn’t before: this song has a lot of words. It barely crossed the three minute mark, but a lot is said in those three minutes. A lot of that is owed to Woods’ rapid fire delivery and screamed style; if this were an acoustic track it would be twice as long. “Paid in Brains’s” status as a screamed song also works really well considering the subject matter. Ten of the twelve songs on Wasted Mind are goofy, fun songs that embrace the drug abuse and run with it. They don’t see it as a probably and are almost cartoonish and kid-friendly in their presentation of the subject matter. (Just look at the album art.) They’re upbeat pop-punk songs about doing every drug at the same time. When “Paid in Brains” and the album closer, “Do the Sick” break the illusion with their screamed vocals it very quickly pulls the listener back into reality. These two songs deal with the dark sides of the drug abuse, with the consequences and the repercussions that the lifestyle that Wasted Mind presents, and their screamed style is crucial to achieve this.

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The Hotelier’s Home, Like NoPlace Is There holds a very special place in my heart. It’s a relatively new album and a very new discovery for me. It has a perfect album closer that I felt I couldn’t do justice, so I completely neglected to talk about it when I was talking about album closers. It’s an album I have been meaning to talk about for a long time, but every time it feels too hard. Writing about Home, Like NoPlace is There requires effort. It requires multiple listenings. It requires the expenditure of emotional capital. It’s one of my favorite albums, and I’m scared I’m going to get it wrong. It’s a concept album, because of course it is. The concept is incredible: a man comes back to his childhood home to find it empty, the previous owners evicted, and various memories from his life come rushing back to him. These memories aren’t pretty, though. The album deals with an unhappy childhood, with abuse, with suicide, with gender dysphoria. It is one of the few albums that is able to make me cry every time I listen to it.

A just criticism of punk music is that a lot of punk rockers can’t sing. I’ve gotten use to it, and sometimes when I venture out into other genres I forget how talented people can actually be vocally. Of course, plenty of punk musicians have really good voices, and I’m not saying that all punk musicians are terrible singers. It’s just that a lot of them are average. The Hotelier’s Christian Holden isn’t average. The guy can really sing, he has both an incredible vocal and emotional range. It’s pretty interesting that he still decides to (very arguably) compromise that talent by including a screamed song in Home, Like NoPlace Is There in addition to vocals that border on screaming at the end of “Among The Wildflowers.”

“Life In Drag” is a divisive song. Just looking at the title I bet you all have some opinions about it before you’ve even heard it (which I bet many of you won’t do) or looked at the lyrics (which I hope you all do.) I wouldn’t have mentioned gender dysphoria if I wasn’t going to talk about it; “Life In Drag” is that song. Christian Holden –nor anyone in The Hotelier, for that matter– is transgendered; “Life In Drag” is told from the point of view of a narrator and not personal experience.  The song is a bitter, oh, so, bitter tirade against an old friend that has abandoned the narrator. From the point of view of someone that has little knowledge about the subject, I find the lyrics to be brilliant, and I would never have known 90% of what Christian was saying if I didn’t look them up.

I tried to keep a steady hand.

Tumble blocks

Start again

I held your side when you let go

And you came back well-rehearsed

In holding your own.

A broken seal

A past self-known.

Retrieve my heart from the Alamo.

I need it here

to touch your skin,

Reconfigure, deconstruct, and begin.

The centers shrunk between your eyes.

Sharper corners/broader sides.

And I felt week

in women’s wear

Genderfucked, dilated,

Stuck holding a stare.

I’m going to interrupt again. They said “genderfucked” I don’t think that would have worked without Christian’s delivery. I don’t think a lot of this song would have worked without his delivery, which he absolutely nailed. Again, this is all thanks to his screamed style.

You taught me how to guard myself.

To keep my heart

Unscathed in health.

I think you got carried away.

Reached out your hand,

It carried you

away.

Well it’s life in drag.

You wore an armor that covered your face.

It’s life in drag.

I wore hands high to show truce and embracing.

It’s life in drag.

Who taught you to hate yourself?

Who forced you to confide in spell?

Mistook ‘pathetic’

For empathy.

Cast a stone at the foe

And the stone hit me.

I held your hand

In ritual

To show disarming.

While you were a weapon

Inside yourself.

Inside your body.

I can’t pretend,

I can’t conceal my apprehension.

When pressured against

The callous of your palm

I reconciled

Because you couldn’t feel me there.

You wore binary like a badge of fucking honor.

While I struggled dealing with the loss of yet another

Life in drag

I might have to do a reprise of this song someday, it deserves to be analyzed line-by-line. For now I’ll say “that’s heavy, man.” It’s incredibly heavy. It’s a dark song on a dark album, and I think the delivery is what allows the subject to be broached, especially by an outsider. A person is talking about having to live their life cross dressing to feel normal, and losing their only compatriot. This narrator feels shame as they do what they feel has to be done, and are alienated even in their safe space. It has no chill. I’m glad that The Hotelier wrote this song, and I’m glad that they took the direction that they did with it, particularly in regards to Christian’s vocals and the bass-heavy, (I’m talking the guitar, not the mix) uptempo and aggressive nature of the song.

This post was a bit longer than I wanted it to be simply because both of these songs had so many words in them! That was an interesting find that I hadn’t considered before in screamed songs. Most of them do tend to have a lot of verses and few choruses, allowing for a lot to be covered despite the fact that, on average, screamed songs tend to be shorter than their non-screamed brethren. Sonically, they might be too abrasive for some to stomach, but I encourage the adventurous to test the waters of screamed songs. Like acoustic tracks, I find that screamed songs in subgenres that tend to have few of them tend to be more well-written due to the fact that they stand out. Albums that have both are also keepers if you can find them (Posture & The Grizzly, I’m looking at you.) If you’re looking to deal with songs that are a bit heavier and lacking in frivolity, screamed songs are a good thing to count on.

The Album Closer

By Jackson Anderson

The last track on an album is always the most important. Having lame or unmemorable last songs is a surefire way to ruin a good album. I can think of a very specific instance of an album I recently listened to that I loved right up until the last track, which was a crappy, out of tune acoustic track that ended so abruptly that I wondered if Spotify had crashed. I like to keep it positive, so I’m not going to name and shame this band, but, come on guys, if you were going to stick this thing in your album you can’t have it as the last track. The album closer is the last song you hear when you listen to an album; it’s what you remember. Whenever I listen to this unnamed album the last thing I hear is a noticeable voice crack and a strange, unsatisfying ending to a song. It’s like a bad desert ruining an entire meal.

 

 

On the other hand, the album closer is an incredible opportunity for musicians to make their art as good as it can possibly be. There are a lot of good album closers out there, because musicians know how important it is to ensure the last track is up to snuff, but the truly memorable ones aren’t just good; they’re great. Like a good season finale on TV or last chapter in a book, a memorable album closer can create a very satisfying end to an album that leaves the listener with that feeling of awe. It gives them that goosebump-riddled feeling of frisson due to the intensity of what they have just experienced, and it fills their passing thoughts and troubles their sleep schedule.

 

 

One of the things that always impresses me in an album closer is a little bit of cohesiveness. Album closers that resolve a tension introduced earlier on in the album are those that stick with me and fully take advantage of the fact that they are what they are. A closer to an album rarely tends to be a single, but it also tends to be one of the most revered tracks on the album that directly addresses that it is not a song alone in a vacuum, but a song that is published alongside a specific number of specific tracks at a specific time. I very easily fall into the line of thinking that every album is a concept album, but whether artists intend it or not songs on albums tend to be related as they were written over a related period of time by a related group of people. This relationship is often amplified by the fact that bands (at least those that I listen to) tend to have only one or two songwriters, and as multifaceted and talented as they may be, common threads emerge, and all albums end up having some sort of cohesiveness or recurring themes going on in them. It’s not like there is anything wrong with this; these recurring threads and cohesiveness in albums is exactly why they are my preferred means of consuming music. Good albums feel like seeing a movie or reading a book or watching a TV show or playing a videogame with a nice story; it’s a united storytelling experience with a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is conflict, development, and resolution. Resolution is always a particularly satisfying thing to experience, and music is in and of itself a very sensory and emotional oriented experience, so what better way to address the resolution than an album closer?

 

 

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The album art to Elway’s Better Whenever is quickly becoming a familiar face around here, and for good reason. The album deserves discussion. It perfectly fits this article, which is probably why it’s here. It’s one of those albums that isn’t really a concept album, but still is very cohesive and possesses all the good characteristics of any story in the form of conflict (or tension), development, and resolution. We get to learn a lot about the character of our songwriter, Tim Browne, a guy who you might remember from a songwriter spotlight, and if you’re anything like me, you become quite invested in his little story. “Better Whenever,” the title track that is not to be confused with the album (I may have to eventually talk about title tracks, so much to do, so much to do) lays out the conflict. Tim Browne is an unsure and insecure man that feels the need for others to validate his lifestyle. He loves being in an obscure punk rock band, but he does it more for the people than for the sake of being in an obscure punk rock band, or, you know, making music. He feels the need to “hemorrhage his neuroses out” with his loved ones lest he bottle it all up inside and become depressed and stagnant. He can’t deal with his problems on his own. There’s a couple lines from the song that I feel the need to point out when we eventually get to the album closer. They are: “When I get down I need you here ’cause there’s a demon, there’s a desert, there’s a fear,” and “Have another drink with me, we’ll toast to our obscurity.”

 

 

 

There’s so much going on in Better Whenever, but I’ll leave a broader analysis to another day. This album has one of the absolute best final tracks period. It starts off with a depressing recollection of the album’s events, as Tim is taking inventory over lost loves and wasted days. We even get a nice little reference to Leavetaking, Elway’s previous album that can be simply summed up as a love story and a trip to Chicago, and then, in the chorus, we begin to get our resolution. I’ll post the lyrics first because I feel like I can’t leave anything out.

These passing trucks can be my swan song

And you’ll insist I’ve done it so wrong

But living through my losses makes the world so much less daunting

I’ve got nothing left to fear but fear itself

It’s triumphant, a storybook ending about the evermoving vagrant. It seems to evoke the old saying “Not all who wander are lost.” It’s great, if you buy into that sappy crap. After a guitar solo, Tim brings the listener back to reality.That line about fearing fear, it’s significant. Fear is pretty scary. With his voice starting at barely above a whisper, we get the last verse of the album.

Fear is an empty glass in an empty bar

Opposite the girl you’ll never have

She asks if I ever feel like I’ll disappear

Well, I’ve been battling my irrelevance for years

So have another drink with me

We’ll toast to our obscurity

Stagger, medicate, repeat

‘Til our youth blinks out forever

We’re back at “Better Whenever.” The fear that he was talking about, it’s loneliness, it’s irrelevance, it’s obscurity. He’s come to terms with it. He is an undistinguished, wisened drunk in a punk rock band that only some kid in Utah cares about, and he’s fine with it. He’s fine with toasting to his obscurity with anyone now. That’s what he’s going to do until his youth blinks out forever. The ending to Better Whenever has always given me an intense feeling of satisfaction, and evokes the imagery of the hardened western hero riding off into the sunset. It’s the modern, pedestrian version of the western ballad, but I find myself finding a lot more in common with Tim Browne than Rooster Cogburn. The bow that is nicely tied onto the story of the former also has the added layer of cynical realism that makes it much easier to swallow. I’m not a huge fan of endings where everything goes almost too well, but this one strikes the balance just right.

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I had a hard time coming up with a second example. What I’m talking about is extremely prevalent, but I either felt like I didn’t know enough about the album to go into as much detail as I did with Better Whenever, or the album closer was a just a good song, but lacked that oh-so-precious cohesiveness that I was looking for. I began to look through my music catalogue with increasing desperation, hoping that I could fudge one of my favorite album closers to fit my narrative, when I realized that the answer was hiding under my nose the whole time. When I listen to The Lawrence Arms’ Metropole I listen to the deluxe edition, so I get three extra tracks, lucky me. The price I have to pay for this privilege is that I sacrifice the status of “October Blood” as an album closer. It very clearly was meant to be that way, and I found that out fairly early on in my listening, but I wasn’t looking at the fourth track from the end in my search. Luckily, my favorite band is here to bail me out again and save the day with their incredible lyricism and musical prowess.

The Lawrence Arms have been labeled at times, an immature band. While I could not disagree more, they don’t make it easy for themselves when they write songs about masturbation and have EPs titled Buttsweat and Tears. With Metropole, The Lawrence Arms try and divorce any sense of immaturity –while still writing songs about masturbation– and deliver a record that is much more cerebral, introspective, and softer (both sonically and thematically, getting old will do that to you) than their previous efforts. Well, at least Brendan does, Chris always did that to some extent at least.

Metropole is actually probably the most proper, dictionary definition of bookends storytelling that you’re going to get. The album opens exactly as it ends with the phrase, “I was born and I died, and just a moment went by.” In the opening song, “Chilean District,” this is put through a lowpass filter to make it quieter and subdued, and serves as a strange sort of future echo before the album really gets going. This phrase –deliberately chosen I’m sure– is a short and terse description of what Metropole is about: regret and getting old. The album can really be boiled down to just that. It’s hard to adequately express my fondness for this album, –I could say I really like it with a high number of reallys– so I’ll just say that my favorite band has seven albums and five of them are so good that it’s not worth comparing other music to them. This album is on that list. I could go into detail about how exactly it is that The Lawrence Arms express their feelings of aging regret, but, again, that’s another story for another time.

After roughly thirty-one minutes, the listener arrives at the twelfth and final track, “October Blood.” It’s the only album closer that Chris McCaughan has ever got in The Lawrence Arms,  and he kills it (in a good way.) He sums up how fast life happens, and how a life goes past in a single moment. He looks over his past as a song and a brother, he takes inventory of his travels, and ruminates on why he has done what he has done over his life. This song also takes perhaps the best advantage of a unique quality to album closers: silence. This is a bit ironic considering a deluxe edition was made for Metropole, which instantly spoils the cadence. Or maybe it’s not because you get silence either way. I haven’t decided yet. Either way, it’s beautiful. When Chris says “I was born and I died, and just a moment when by,” for the last time, the song doesn’t end even after the last guitar chord, bass stroke, and drum beat have all played. A woefully underrepresented instrument in punk music, the piano, plays a short melody, and after that fades out, there is ten seconds of water running, then the sound of an audience clapping, and then, finally five seconds of silence.

Often, I have asked myself, “What does this mean?” This is a hard question to answer because The Lawrence Arms is a band that never does anything without careful deliberation, and will never answer the question truthfully. They’re weird like that. They are brilliant artists and musicians that pour their heart and soul into their work, and are incredibly reticent to give away the answer. They also just like to mess with people. Their liner notes for The Greatest Story Ever Told, for instance, are filled with references to non-existent artists as the source for their inspiration for writing some of their songs. The benefit for this general failure to address what their music actually means is that I can take a stab at it without having to worry about being proved wrong.

My interpretation of this bizarre ending bit to Metropole is that it is a bit of meta-commentary. Everyone in The Lawrence Arms is a lifelong musician, and it’s all they ever have been. They come alive on the stage, when they play their music, and that is when they tell the stories of their lives to the world. At first, I thought it a bit self-aggrandizing to include clapping and cheering in “Chilean District” and “October Blood,” but when I realized the bookend component to it (and when I remembered the fact that The Lawrence Arms aren’t that famous or well-known) it seemed more likely it was a comment on the album itself. They are born and killed as their stories are told in the album, and they are resurrected every time Metropole is given another spin. It’s a sort of subtle fourth-wall breaking that works because it never actually says, “Hey look at me I’m a musician playing music in an album.” It resolves the fears introduced about aging and being unable to accomplish enough in life by immortalizing The Lawrence Arms in the form of music. The act of telling the story is a part of the story, and “October Blood” is when the listener is clued in on it.

The Reprise

By Jackson Anderson

I have finally found the time to sit down and write this thing, so here we go. The best, concise, dictionary definition for the word reprise I could find, was in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, in which the second definition of the first definition of the French definition (yeah, I had to go pretty deep) of the word is “The repetition of the exposition preceding the development” or a “recapitulation” insofar that it is musical. I like this definition because it’s more than just “a musical repetition,” because I think the reprise is so much more than that. I’m going to pick apart this definition a little bit, and tweak it to suit my own definition of the reprise, and how I typically see it appear in music. Punk rock loves to use the reprise, and the genre uses it very effectively, although more often than not it tends to use it in bookend fashion rather than this relationship of exposition-development that is suggested in the Merriam-Webster definition.

 

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The concise definition of the reprise being a repeated musical phrase is essential to what it is at its core though, I needn’t discount that. A reprise wouldn’t be a reprise if it didn’t have the essential element of recurring musical motifs. Okay, so what am I actually talking about? To bring one of 2016’s kickstart bands back into the fore, let’s welcome Cold Wrecks back to the stage. Their album Breaking very effectively uses the reprise. A quick note before I move on:

 

 

Most of the reprises that I am talking about here are bigger, album-encompassing reprises. They are recurring musical passages that come back after up to sometimes forty minutes of being absent. A reprise happens in nearly every song, often called a chorus, and many repeated chords and melodies fit the definition of reprises. But all that becomes terribly uninteresting and obvious. I’m a big picture kind of guy, the bookend reprises that recur in separate songs are the type that interest me. That wasn’t a quick note at all.

 

 

Right, so Cold Wrecks. This little lyrical motif is introduced in the third song of Breaking, titled “Suburbs.”

I’m just trying to flush the suburbs from my blood

And I’m scared that you’re the person I’ll become

And I don’t hate you, I just know you’ll never get it

And you don’t have to get it

These lines make up the chorus of “Suburbs” and it gets to the crux of what the song is all about. It’s about wanting to leave home, and the difference in lifestyle that vocalist Mike Vizzi has compared to his parents. What’s important about this motif is that it’s “catchy.” It’s part of a chorus, it stands out. You remember it. This is important because the first time you hear this song you don’t know that these lines have any greater importance than any other lines. Even if you’re a music snob like me that really listens intently to every song and tries to see what the artist was trying to accomplish with their music, they still have to do the work for you, you can’t do it for them. Cold Wrecks are able to pull this off in a wonderful fashion, especially since they introduce this motif so early on, and then leave it for nine tracks.

So nine –amazing, might I add– tracks later, we arrive at “Broken,” the album closer. It’s a gut-wrenching song about how the death of a mutual loved one affects one of Mike Vizzi’s friends. It details both his own sadness, and the sadness of his friend, claiming that his friend’s hurt made the tragedy that much harder to bare. It’s really hard for me to pick a favorite song from the album, but “Broken” would definitely be tied for first place if I had to. During the ending off this song, an interesting little round happens. Mike sings the exact four lines word-for-word that I quoted above, the chorus from “Suburbs,” while bassist Craig Shay and guitarist Matan Uchen sing “distract me,” which, interestingly enough, are the only words that are featured as the offical lyrics for the song during this section. Even the first time I heard the album, I instantly recognized the motif. I didn’t go, “Hey, that’s a reprise!” because I don’t talk in musical jargon in my head, but I probably said something along the lines of, “Hey, they did that thing where they repeated something from an earlier track on the last track of the song, I love it when they do that!”

So there’s a couple of key things going on here for the specific type of reprise that makes my heart sing. The initial motif has to be introduced early on, typically within the first two to four tracks of the album. It has to go away for a while, and really, it has to come back on the very last track on the album. I love the bookends feel to the album that this gives, it seems to tie the whole album together nicely, reminding me of earlier songs, and uniting the album under a few phrases that sum up what it is about. Breaking is about a lot of things, and Cold Wrecks could have chosen a lot of great motifs to repeat, but I’m glad they chose the chorus of “Suburbs” to the tie album together with. It seems to nicely say, “I’m grown up now, and real, terrible things can happen to me. I’m ready to leave the suburbs,” when juxtaposed with the heartbreaking events of “Broken.” Breaking is a mature record, and I wouldn’t look at it as a coming of age record, but as a record about a group of people whose age has already come.

Here’s a link to Cold Wrecks’ bandcamp. You can listen to all of Breaking there for free, but you really should buy it. It’s one of my favorite albums of this year.

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Luckily for you, I have another perfect example of my favorite type of reprise because, hey, who doesn’t love more examples? Captain, We’re Sinking’s incredible record, The Future Is Cancelled, does practically the same thing as Breaking. They introduce a catchy, easy to remember lyrical motif early on in the album, and then return it as the album ends during the final track. During track number two, “Brother” we get this motif:

Things just have to change

My brother are you okay?

We get a lot of it. It’s an anthemic, repeat-filled chorus that aims to get inside your head. Captain, We’re Sinking are definitely trying to plant this inside your head so that they can bring it back later, which is a good idea, because they introduce it really early on, and the album is an emotional rollercoaster that I always get incredibly invested in; it’s easy to forget the previous track right as the next one starts.

I have always been a little conflicted about the track ordering in The Future Is Cancelled. It’s one of my favorite albums of all time, but the penultimate track, “A Bitter Divorce” just screams “album closer.” But then “Shoddy Workmanship fades in. There’s one last hurrah that almost spoils the cadence. It’s a great song, but I have always felt like it should switch places with “A Bitter Divorce.” I care a lot about stuff like this. I listen to albums. In order. That’s the way that music is meant to be listened to. Bands know this and take it into account, and it always seems to be the best way to listen to music. I listen to playlists occasionally, but I have always found that albums are better. I’m going off on a tangent here. Anyway, “Shoddy Workmanship” stands out as a questionable album closer, until it doesn’t. That’s my tautological way of saying, Captain, We’re Sinking are smarter than I am, and I should just shut up. The album closes off with Leo Vergnetti (who, by the way, is the opposite vocalist than the one who sings in “Brother,” which I think is a great touch) singing “Things just have to change, my brother, are you okay?” Again, it’s a perfect way of tying the whole thing together. The Future Is Cancelled is a starkly depressing album about depressed people doing depressing things. And yet it ends on an optimistic note. I think that’s because Greg Barnett, Leo Vergnetti, Zach (What is your last name, dude), and Bill Oreande wanted to share their hardships, and it works out great for them as a band. But they’re still people, and they still have to live their lives, and obviously they do. It could be a foreshadowing note about a change in musical style, a subtle way of saying “life isn’t always this bad,” or maybe the band asking themselves the very question that the lyrics pose. Either way, it’s an uplifting and edifying end to one of my favorite albums to listen to whenever I get depressed.

So there you go. I hope you have a better understanding of the reprise, especially the bookends variety that ties albums together that always give me a sense of frisson. You should check out Captain, We’re Sinking on bandcamp, too. Ciao

The Breakdown

By Jackson Anderson

If you like bluegrass or jazz you probably already know what this is. You probably have a better understanding of it than I do. I’m still going to try my best to explain how this musical concept applies to punk rock and how where it is used effectively. A breakdown, sometimes referred to as just a “break” in jazz, is when instruments in a song stop the usual pattern of verse-chorus-verse to play solos. Different instrumentalists may play different lines than they had previously during the song, and they may also back out entirely while they wait for their respective solo.

 

 

I have some experience with “breaks” in jazz, but I play the bass guitar. When somebody says “solo” I usually tune out of the conversation. I might have some different changes over solos, but I tend to continue on playing. This can sometimes lead to embarrassment if there are some weird specific set of instructions such as “everyone stop playing here for two measures then go into solo changes.” If only there was a word for that. Oh wait. Maybe I should pay better attention.

 

 

Punk bands tend to have a fairly different lineup than jazz bands. Even my understaffed jazz band at my small school more than doubles the ensemble of a punk band. At most you are going to get three guitarists, a bassist, a drummer, and a vocalist. I can’t think of any punk bands that have more than six members. When you add a horn section into the mix for ska-blended bands it gets a little more complicated, but let’s ignore that for now. Punk bands also have this thing where they don’t like to write long songs. Four minutes tends to be on the long side. Going around and doing solos after a verse-chorus-verse song takes a long time. Jazz bands are more than willing to go well into twelve minute songs to let everyone have a solo.

 

 

So what does a punk breakdown sound like? Two of my favorites are on the same album, by the same band, composed by the same songwriter. The Lawrence Arms’ Cocktails & Dreams isn’t actually a proper album, but a rarities collection, but it hold up together so well that I think of it as a full album. The first song I’m going to look at, “Overheated” is a classic melancholic “I screwed up and my life is miserable” song courtesy of Chris McCaughan. I say that lovingly. I just don’t feel like analyzing what is pretty much the same song again. Chris is probably my second favorite songwriter, but he kind of says the same thing in different words throughout his songs. “Overheated” was one of the first though, so I’ll let it slide. So it’s great. It’s emotional. I’m really digging it. Then something happens at the 3:24 mark. A breakdown. Brendan Kelly comes in with these bright bass fills that really stand out as different from the rest of a song. This is very similar to the general idea of a “break” in jazz, where you want to catch the audience’s attention that a solo is coming. So what is “Overheated’s” solo? It’s a fleeting melody. 

 

 

I have to go on a bit of a tangent here. A solo is a deceptive term. It makes you think there’s only going to be one instrument. That is often not the case. In jazz, the rhythm section usually is playing for the entirety of the solo section. That means there is a minimum of five instruments (guitar, bass, piano, drums, and the soloist) playing at all times. That’s not really one instrument. The same tends to hold true in punk rock, and rock music in general. Guitar solos aren’t just one electric guitar playing with the rest of the band sitting there twiddling their thumbs. That would sound terrible. The vocalist will probably shut up and the rhythm guitarist might stop playing, but the drummer and bassist are probably doing something. That something is most likely deliberately not ear catching, but electric guitars on their own sound a little…weird. It sounds like they’re lacking something. So do vocalists. They tend to lack that support system, that steady backbone. I might be showing my hand a bit here, but drums and bass are extremely essential. They aren’t going to be doing anything flashy, but solos would sound trebly and out of tune without drums and bass supporting the soloist. No matter what kind of music you’re talking about, a solo doesn’t mean that one single instrument is the only one that’s playing. End tangent.

 

 

The solo in “Overheated” is a vocal solo. Chris McCaughan gives one of his best performances in the form of a fleeting melody. It’s all set up effectively because of the breakdown. The lull in the song is my favorite part, even more so than the climax. Something about the bass fills perfectly encapsulates everything about the song. They appear absolutely wistful and melancholic. They catch my ear every time. They make me say, “Hey, Chris has stopped talking, I wonder what is going to happen next?” The fleeting melody in “Overheated” is also one of my favorites, but I’ve already gone on enough about that, so I’ll save it. Something to keep in mind about fleeting melodies though: juxtaposition is key. A good breakdown, such as in “overheated” is a fantastic way to achieve this juxtaposition in an effective manner.

 

 

The other world-class (punk) breakdown that appears on Cocktails & Dreams is in “Nebraska” a song that I’ve talked about before, albeit briefly. Similar to “Overheated,” “Nebraska” begins as a conventional verse-chorus-verse song for about three minutes. Unlike “Overheated,” “Nebraska” is definitely not a song that Chris has written multiple times. It’s one of the most unique and stand-out pieces in The Lawrence Arms’ entire discography. That being said, it’s a fairly simple song. It’s another decidedly melancholic song from Chris, but it’s one that isn’t about him, and that’s what makes it special.  It’s a song about a sad person in a sad place, but it’s told in an authentic manner that makes it come alive like almost no other song has. I feel like I know this person that I’ve never met. Right, the breakdown. Three minutes in, Brendan Kelly gives us those bass fills again. I lack the musical understanding to describe what it is exactly what he’s doing –that being said I bet most of my audience doesn’t know musical modes– but the fills in both “Overheated” and “Nebraska” evoke a feeling of a depressing midwestern tale. They are perfect for a song called “Nebraska,” especially when the song is encouraging a friend not to succumb to depression and hate himself. The solo in “Nebraska” is a guitar solo courtesy of Chris. It’s not technical or really all that ear-catching, but it’s perfect for what it does. It is also evocative of the feelings of melancholy and depression. The song literally ends on a disappointing note, as if to say that Chris can’t really do anything but hope that his friend gets better.

 

 

The breakdown isn’t as ubiquitous in punk rock as it is in jazz, but Chris McCaugh and Brendan Kelly are smart guys. They might say they aren’t but I can tell they are. They’re real musicians. They know how to effectively use all the tools in the musical arsenal. They incorporate the breakdown into Cocktails and Dreams to alert the audience –just like in jazz– before beginning a solo, and to break from the nearly omnipresent format of verse-chorus-verse. Their breakdowns are also incredibly good, because, come on, it’s The Lawrence Arms. Brendan Kelly is able to evoke images and emotions to supplement his song with bass fills. That is part of what makes The Lawrence Arms my favorite band.

I’m A Sucker For The Acoustic Track

By Jackson Anderson

Every year there is that one album that comes out that makes me redefine and rediscover what makes punk rock special to me. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. I’ve attended a college essay workshop for the past four days, and I decided to write my essay about how punk rock has helped me with depression and anxiety disorder. This is a little different than what I’ve said before, but it still is generally in line with my love for the genre stemming from this buzz phrase I like to use: raw uncompromising emotional transference. This phrase was featured word for word in the rough draft for my college essay, and is more or less present in the other large essay I’ve written on the same topic, which was also largely born out of academia. 

 

 

Sometimes when I get all lofty and introspective I have to remind myself that I actually do like what makes punk rock punk rock sonically. I dig the screaming. I like how they vocalist is willing to be bitter and pissed off. They don’t have to do these things all the time, but I do actually like it. I always have to qualify these aspects out of the genre because a lot of my favorite songs don’t have these things in them, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like them. I like running the gamut of all emotions, and that includes anger and spite. I’ve recently tried really hard to honor my feelings of anxiety and depression, and I think it would be just as harmful and insulting to ignore any other emotions. I give anger and spite their due when it’s appropriate, although I don’t really feel these emotions that often.

 

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I have fallen absolutely head-over-heels in love with Posture & The Grizzly’s I Am Satan. Listening to the album for the first time gave me an intense feeling that I can describe as akin to a religious experience. It reminded me of the first time I heard Rise Against’s “State of The Union” as a middle schooler and thought that maybe it was a good idea to vent my anger through music. It can be really fun to turn angry music up loud enough so that the bass drum moves glasses. The crash cymbal kind of hurts. Migraine disorder made me shy away from hardcore punk and turning music up loud, and I miss that sometimes. “Acid Bomb” off of I Am Satan sucker punched me and forced me to go back to my hardcore roots, and it was awesome. The album starts off relatively slow with an acoustic track, and even has a few ambient instrumental tracks thrown in, so I wasn’t expecting the gritty, grinding explosion that was “Acid Bomb.” Jordan Chmielowski screams his heart out, bassist Josh Cyr really tears at his instrument, and it made me feel a refreshing rush of energy that reminded me why I like punk in the first place.

 

 

I needed to get that out there. I’m a quiet, shy, unassuming individual, but I do love listening to hardcore punk and turning it up loud. I love dissonant distorted guitars. I love the screaming. So this next thing I’m going to tell you might come as a surprise. Well, not that much of a surprise since it’s the title of this post. I’m a sucker for the acoustic track. The guy who has frequently been the butt-end of jokes concerning comically terrible bands that only feature screaming vocals, with the punchline –if you can call it that– being “So, do you like this Jackson?” is a sucker for the acoustic track.

 

 

A lot of people don’t like the acoustic track. They see it as a cheesy gimmick. I love them. Acoustic tracks always have the uncanny ability of being really good at getting the water works flowing. I cry at a lot of things so it’s not as impressive, but I don’t think a hardcore song has ever made me cry. It’s hard to cry when you’re punching mirrors. I love drums and electric guitars and basses. I play the bass guitar out of all the instruments. That being said, there’s a simplistic beauty to the acoustic track. It’s just some chords and a vocalist. It makes it a lot easier to focus on the lyrics. When everyone is going to be paying extra attention to the lyrics, the lyricist tends to do a pretty good job making sure that they are good. I Am Satan‘s one proper acoustic track, the one that only features Jordan Chmielowski on an acoustic guitar and no one else, has all of these qualities. It’s not a technical marvel, but Jordan is a fantastic singer and a beautiful lyricist. I give you the lyrics of “I Am A Real Doctor.”

I Think it’s really funny how you think every song is about you

You think it’s funny how controlling I can be

Still, I think it’s funny how you take my words for insults

Now you’re flying in a death star far away

I think it’s funny how you said nothing can hurt you

Except your one true lover and me

I think it’s funny how you think things can’t be bad

Just all the time you wasted on me

I think it’s funny how you store bad sex like a bad dream

You think it’s funny how I’m waking you up at three

You think it’s cool when school’s in session

But it’s so slow without being you and me

I know you love to think that these are miracles

But there’s no Gods no disbeliefs

And if only evil abuses carnage

Than I’ll smile with the rose blood in my teeth

Trust me a little

It’s a “real” love song. It goes through all of the trials and tribulations of love. It focuses on the weird quirks of both Jordan and his lover. I don’t know if everyone feels the same way, but this song is beautifully charming to me. It feels very authentic. You can’t invent these quirks. The lyricism is also wonderfully unique. “Now you’re flying in a death star far away.” Nobody has said that before. I’m a little teary-eyed writing this, to be honest. With nothing but his voice and his guitar, “I Am A Real Doctor” feels like story time with Jordan Chmielowski. Except it’s better than that because it’s closer to poetry than prose, and he’s an amazing singer. Maybe I’m just a sucker for the acoustic track.

 

Link To The Song

 

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To give one last example of an acoustic track that I’m a sucker for, I’d turn to The Menzingers’ “When You Died” off of Rented World. This is another one of those songs that is still able to make me produce tears after I’ve heard it dozens of times. It’s story time with Greg Barnett, and the story is heartbreaking.

I was on my way to heaven when you died,

I was racing up the express lane, I was cheating HOV lanes,

I made it to the gate in record timing,

I quickly threw my hazards on, no bother finding parking,

I was on my way to heaven when you died.

I was dressed in all black and I hoped

That nobody would notice me

Or the bolt cutters I was hiding

Underneath my oversized jacket

I snuck around the back and broke you out

When the guards weren’t looking

I was on my way to heaven when you died.

But then it was all over,

They got us surrounded

They beat us with batons

Cuffed us and threw us in the car

When I wake up I want to talk to a lawyer

I demand a fair and speedy trial.

Where do people go when they die?

How do you keep them alive?

How do you make sure that something like this

Won’t ever happen again?

Not to any other friends?

How could a perfect human run out of luck,

When there’s just so many horrible people screaming

“Jackpot!” I cannot help but fear the thing I can’t control,

The things I’ll never know.

It’s a song about death. A very “real” song about death, one of the most genuine and sincere that I’ve ever heard. I sure don’t understand it. It’s comforting to me that Greg doesn’t seem to either. The imagery is beautiful. I love the idea of trying to make death seem like some type of prison or jail that you would bust your friend out of. It’s a very punk way of looking at it. People try to analogize things they don’t understand with things they do, and that’s what I think Greg is doing here. This song never fails to make me take inventory of all the great people I have in my life and be thankful for them. It’s also a favorite for when I feel depressed or anxious. It’s something of a pep talk song for me when I get that way. Go out there and see the world. Do something that makes somebody write a song like that about you. Don’t just sit there and mope and worry. Also, it could be a lot worse. You could be Greg Barnett, hurting so bad that you wrote this song. Maybe I’m just a sucker for the acoustic track.

Link To The Song

The Title Drop

By Jackson Anderson

Aside from being a music enthusiast, I also dabble as a film buff. I don’t pretend to know as much about the film industry as the music industry, and I don’t have any sort of genre specialization, but I still enjoy a good movie. One thing in movies that I have always enjoyed are title drops. Take Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, for instance.

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.

A good title drop gives the movie watcher a sort of goosebump-inducing ah-ha moment of understanding why the movie they are seeing is called what it is called. Now, if you’re seeing a movie called Batman title drops tend to be less noteworthy. You probably don’t even notice it when it happens.

 

 

In music, title drops tend to have the same effect as hearing the word “Batman” in a movie called Batman. Songs tend to be named after a word or phrase that is recurring throughout the song, so hearing it in that song is about as surprising as seeing a priest in a church. Punk songs sometimes fully go the other direction, with song titles being long-winded near-jokes that have nothing to do with the song such as “Show Me On The Doll Where the Music Touched You,” “Local Man Ruins Everything,” “Quincentuple Your Money” and “Doublewhiskeycokenoice.” You definitely aren’t going to hear these titles in these songs, and this fact is as surprising as the lack of a title drop in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. However, there still is a musical equivalent of the title drop that induces that same goosebumpy, “it just went down” effect. It’s not the title of the song being dropped, but the title of the album.

 

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I have sort of committed myself to saying The Greatest Generation is my favorite The Lawrence Arms album because it’s my favorite album of all time, and in a weird sort of way that statement still holds true but Apathy and Exhaustion is my favorite ‘Arms album. It’s weird. Apathy and Exhaustion seems to have a quality to it that The Greatest Generation sometimes fails to attain: cohesiveness. Apathy and Exhaustion is a concept album about exactly what the title suggests. It’s a bitter and tired album about some misanthropic punks who are fed up with life and it’s trials and tribulations. The moment when The Lawrence Arms are the most in-your-face with this notion is during “I’ll Take What’s in the Box Monty” and a title drop occurs in the chorus.

It can happen to you well, I’d love to believe,

But I’m slamming this bottle on this same damned street.

I’ve melted. I’ve felt it. It stings worse than pain.

Apathy, exhaustion, it all seems the same, fire away.

Brendan Kelly isn’t getting anything out of life. He doesn’t see any reason to go on. Or to stop. It’s a depressing sort of nihilism. It’s apathy and exhaustion. For whatever reason this particular phrasing of the dulling banality of life has always particularly resonated with me, and I like to work it into conversation and my writing whenever I can, even if I’m the only one who gets it (which I usually am).

The Lawrence Arms really drive the point home in the song that follows immediately after “I’ll Take What’s in the Box Monty,” “Right as Rain Part 2.” In the second verse of the song, now with a different vocalist, they hammer home the point that the album has overarching themes that carry through each song. These themes are exactly what the album was named.

My tongue is tied.

So tight it’s left me petrified.

I stay up late.

Stumble home at a pathetic pace.

It is a time thief.

It sings in late sleep.

Swollen screams are salivating apathy.

Bottle clinking Belmont neon.

A city sea of sinking freedom.

It’s right as rain.

One salty kiss stays forever in your fingertips.

The first time I noticed the second title drop, (well, half title drop) I wondered, wait a minute maybe this isn’t a collection of eleven random songs, but eleven songs that are connected to each other. This should have been a pretty obvious connection to make, but this was early in my days of musical discovery. I didn’t value albums as highly as I do now. I didn’t know that much about the songwriting process. I didn’t know concept albums existed. I just thought albums were just collections of songs, not that they tended to be thematic collections of songs. Everything seemed to make sense upon hearing that second title drop. Apathy and exhaustion was the whole point of the album, it wasn’t just a clever name that might catch interest; it was a fitting title.

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“Leave it there and be done with it,” I thought to myself, “You’ve adequately explained the concept.”

“Yeah,” I thought back to myself, “I mean I might have, but I didn’t talk about Hang.”

“But Hang will take too much work. Do you want to be here all night? Give that its own post.”

“But it fits too perfectly.”

Fine. There’s this band called Lagwagon and they have been making pop-punk music for approximately four hundred years. In 2014 they did this weird thing where they released a new album. This new album didn’t sound like their previous work. It was a lot heavier. It was angrier. It was political. It wasn’t their usual brand of depressing-but-sounds happy pop-punk. Also every song on the album but two contained some variation on the word “hang.”

Lagwagon had always been dark, but it seemed like with this release they had stopped bothering with trying to hide it. I mean, there was a noose with bees on it as their album art. The album was called Hang. So how do they incorporate the multiple title drops into their album in a meaningful way? They do it subtly, artfuly. I didn’t realize that every song except two contained some variation on the word hang (and many songs contain the word multiple times) until some guy pointed it out to me. It’s almost a lyrical easter-egg for the listener to uncover, and then the title goes from teetering towards “edgy” to feeling much more appropriate. It makes sense. I think Joey Cape is an intelligent man. I don’t think he’s an “edgy” man. He incorporates the lyrical motif of men hanging in a doomed world into an album to express a sort of resigned pessimism in regards to many negative things that are going on in the world.

Just like title drops in movies, dropping the title of an album in a song tends to reveal more to the listener about why the song was titled what it was titled. Apathy and Exhaustion is about the pain that comes with feeling like there is no purpose in life. It’s about the exhaustion that comes with overworrying. Hang is about the disappointment with the sorry state of current affairs. This information is given to the listener in the form of context next to a title drop.