Grain Belt Records ■ GBR013
Released June 7, 2011
Mixed by Brad Kern
Mastered by Greg Reierson at Rare Form Mastering
- Soundtrack to the End
- Not the Kid
- Speed of Sound
- Northern Lights
- Fortunate Son
- Coal Miner
- In the Park
- The Lady Is an Arsonist
- Minnesota Girls
Since I moved a few months ago, there has been a serious decline in my concert attendance. Of course, that’s the inevitable difference between living twenty minutes from a venue where you can see independent artists to your heart’s content, eventually catching a small French band that was told repeatedly that they would have a great time playing there–and a place where an hour’s drive would risk reckless driving-level speeding tickets to manage for any kind of established show. As a result, I’ve been to two shows since moving, one at the suggestion of my father (to see Tom Russell in a tiny bar), and one of my own accord, intended to put my foot down on seeing an artist I’d let slip by a number of times. The latter was Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, touring on the back of a live album that will work its way in here eventually.
But we’re in alphabetical order here, and “I” is a ways off. “C”, however, is right where I sit, and Communist Daughter starts with that very letter. As you might have guessed, they opened for Mr. Isbell that night, and made a very solid impression on me. I wandered over to their merch table a number of times over the course of the night, pondering how it was that I would acquire the items I was curious about from Jason’s as well as theirs, and how I would deal with carrying it all as the night went on. I found myself thoroughly enamoured of a number of their t-shirt designs, especially the generic female silhouette with its head replaced by hammer and sickle (especially in yellow on a pink t-shirt) and the “I [Hammer and Sickle] MPLS” ones. I’d not come in intending to spend a lot of money–I always keep in mind that any show will encourage it, either via tour-only music, interesting shirt designs, or something wildly unexpected, and usually plan to have some money set aside for opening acts, but I walked out of there with three shirts, a record, three posters and two CDs. To be fair, they were down to the last shirt sizes, and worked with me there and on posters.
When I mentioned the MPLS design, and that it was funny I was actually at the show in my Doomtree hoodie (their homebase is in Minneapolis, too), vocalist Molly Moore lit up and mentioned that songwriter/vocalist/guitarist for the band Johnny Solomon actually knows them, and he and I had a brief chat about P.O.S.’s recent kidney issues (he’s getting one replaced out of dire need). The two of them, and the rest of the band as they sidled up after the show (I was wandering around that table throughout the night) were extremely warm and friendly, incredibly appreciative and humble. I turned around after leaving and mentioned it was a smart idea to put a band member at the merch table, even if it was mostly for reasons of financial efficiency. Their music had enough of an effect to get me over there, and the fully human nature of the lot of them made me want to show as much support as I could manage–if I were to shake my fist at my unexpected spending, it would be with a broad wink, to say the least.
As is often the case with opening acts, I hadn’t heard a note of their music. Sometimes I do go out “scouting ahead” to be prepared and have a clean studio sound to wrap a live experience in (varying sound levels at live shows can have unfair effects on how a band sounds in that environment), but it was a show I’d left up to the last minute to finally go to, even as I was determined to see Isbell at some point.
While there’s a distant, low sound of picked strings before “Oceans” starts properly, it’s the steady muted guitar, the handclaps, and the tambourine that establish their sound immediately, the stride of it seeming to turn at the speed of a 33 1/3 12″ (which is, of course, exactly what I was just listening to it on), which is a favourite feel of mine. As an opening, it places us right into their sound, less like a fade in, but achieving a similar effect: it’s spare and light, loose in feel, but clean and tightly played; it’s not a cold open, yet it strikes the balance of an effective one kept quiet enough to maintain the ease of a fade in. Johnny and Molly come in harmonized, with keys and more guitars that act to fill the gaps left in the opening. “Or maybe now we’ve lost it all this time…” they sing, and splash cymbal adds a full drumbeat, and the song finds its full voice. Gone are the handclaps, the guitars now fully-voiced and supported at the bottom by bass, and a hazy guitar lead hides behind it all. The song is now right in front of us aurally, emotionally, and with the full weight of conviction behind it, even if there’s some doubt lingering in the words.
The title track follows it, and at first it’s a downbeat, bass-laden, muted guitar chug that reminds of the sort of things that define my less determinate youth’s radio listening (rendering me incapable of greater specificity, unfortunately), that is spiked by the addition of a much warmer set of notes from an organ. Johnny sings this one low, softened, so when Moore’s voice joins his, it’s an unfiltered beam of light along the top of his voice. As he describes a past that fell into a listless and inescapable state, seeming to ruminate quietly, she is like a subtle force moving from behind to suggest that action is still possible. Yet, they reach a bridge and their voices remain harmonized but fall out of step with each other–which, might I add, is a beautiful sound at this moment–but reunite as Johnny finishes the thought: “It’s not right to carry on/It might be over but she isn’t gone/And you never listened anyway”. It’s a kind of shrug; there’s not explicit anger at the situation, nor even self-pitying resignation, just acceptance of a strangely bright and nonchalant kind.
There are hints of the Kinks in their late 60’s heyday in “Not the Kid”, with an opening rollicking bass expanded on by the rhythmic circling of an acoustic guitar. Johnny breathes heavily for effect, singing in a voice that’s almost a morose Ray Davies, until “and spin around in circles” unexpectedly dips downward and the song is suddenly outside any sense of clear inspiration and finds its own melodic progressions. The chorus is the work of his voice kept at its restrained low end, yet moves an admirable space within the clear intention to keep things from going too far from the soft curves it inhabits. Hints of other artists from the 60s float in–especially with an echo-heavy tambourine–but are again subverted when the guitars shift into a more modern melodic approach, shakers added, but the bass and guitar most prominent and sitting in a range that would feel unusual in that time. When the guitars go electric and bells ring out in the background, all sense of the past is lost–and it makes sense. The verses are about the past, and the chorus is about that past being distant and different from the present: “I’m not the kid you/I’m not the kid you remember”.
Having been used in places people may actually have heard it without trying, “Speed of Sound” is reminiscent more of a variety of contemporary artists, though feeling more like unintended synchronicity than direct inspiration. Ethereal and beautifully harmonized vocalizations from Moore and Solomon drift gently over the nearly-insubstantial acoustic’s rhythm, the bass subtly modifying the underlying melody as your ear is drawn instead to their voices. When Solomon starts the verse with the words, “Man I hate this town…” you would expect the words to ring out with some anger or bitterness, some sense of the hatred, but instead they come with a sort of tiredness, as if the fire of the hatred has been snuffed out by the weight of time, instead become tired and too expected to snap or flare with passion. “So I’m looking for the way out/And the life I wanted years ago is maybe not the life I should have found”, he continues and you hear now that maybe it’s so tired because there’s no fight, no search left, because no exit has been found, and none seems likely to appear. And then there’s the inevitable contradiction of the chorus, high, ghostly and passionate: “All those nights wasted on the speed of sound/I still think that I just might come around for one more…” And after it, Solomon’s voice sharpens its edge, and more is added to the thought of this inescapable life: “I’m afraid I’ll stay/It’s not because of all the things that you would say/It’s ’cause every time I fall in love is another time I watch you walk away”, and so his voice is drained again, having admitted part of the cause. The chorus, which is almost a chorus in the other sense–the voices of other entities, besides our “protagonist”, then returns and carries the song off into the ether on the waves of the first vocals we heard, the harmonized “Oohs” of Molly and Johnny.
“Northern Lights” seems to be a gentle piece, wavering hums that seem to be growing into something else, but are suddenly cut into by the full volume of heavily strummed guitars, a driving drum beat, and the lead of a bass that almost hides the guitar following it. It’s the sound of recollections as someone speeds away from the past, probably futilely–maybe physically escaping the locations of the past as described, maybe just trying to accelerate life itself past it all. The chorus is a ray of hope in this: “The northern lights through the windshield”, Moore’s voice appearing only here, both of them rising and full of hope, or at least possibility: “How I wish you could come too/For a better life, maybe another life or two”. But each verse makes itself clear, as it starts with “Down about as far as I can go…” Despite that, it’s overriding feeling is that chorus’s sense of possible futures that may not reflect that past, even if the instrumental passage that follows the chorus seems to take things back down a bit. But it’s followed by a full-fledged display of the chorus: Solomon sings with the backing flavours of Moore’s voice over the acoustic guitar alone, a lovely drum fill bringing the rest of the band back, the emphasis now established by that break. When it all ends at a splash and leaves us with nothing but those initial humming waves, it’s a framing of the past, maybe rendering it exactly that, or maybe solidifying it.
While the title suggests Creedence, the sound is more reminiscent of the Kinks again with “Fortunate Son”: pounding drums, and Solomon’s voice suggesting Ray’s at songs like “Johnny Thunders”, rising and cracking into a less rounded, more uncontrolled crescendo. A huge slash of distorted guitar carrying a wonderfully full-throated organ line drops this association away again, and Molly’s voice furthers the distance, and it’s almost completely lost by that next slash and its drummed echo. When Johnny and Molly are left singing to the organ and bass alone, the song has become entirely its own, in perfect time for the chorus: they are left to their own devices for it, acoustic rapidly strumming behind only their voices. Interestingly, there are hints that this is not too far off in thought from the Creedence, but completely reframed, not as sneering indictment of the “fortunate sons”, but told from the view of a son who is fortunate for escaping the same call in another time, not by social placement but simply by not being the one who chose it. Guilt and a certain shame plague this, but tempered slightly by the thought that there is more to gain by others–family who still have him–despite this. It’s by far the most uptempo, biggest song on the album, and it makes heavy use of an organ, which always makes me happy when done properly (as here). We even get a few more quiet handclaps that emphasize, in a more new wave fashion, the uptempo and upbeat music contrasted with lyrics that can manage only a mild final balance of positivity.
Following in an altogether different sense, “Coal Miner” might be the most somber, quiet, and downbeat of songs. The first lines make clear that this will not be a rollicking joy as the last track–“Another day in the hole/I feel my lungs fill up with coal”. It’s the sound of a man lost in a coal mine collapse, who is trying to stay awake and alive, to hope to be found, though he seems unsure that he will be. He explains that he’s here to feed his family, that this is his home, and that the life’s blood of this home is this mine. He wants it to be understood, “Know that I did all I could/To save the others like Christians should”, but follows it with the notion that maybe this is the end anyway: “So maybe it’s just my time/Walk tall hold your head up high”, and a wash of distortion follows it, to return the internal mantra of the chorus: “All I need is to wake up…”, fading off with the thought that the repetitions of it may be failing in their aim as the song fades. There’s the clever but not hamfisted or clumsy thought of adding just the right kind of echo to the track to sound as if it is coming from the cavernous rock walls of a mine that perhaps has only had its entrance closed, rather than the entirety filled. Or maybe it’s the echo of solitude: thoughts sent out to others that actually just bounce off that rock and back to our fallen miner. Sad, but, beyond the mantra, his last words are telling those behind him to hold their heads up high–if this is it, then so it is.
Johnny’s voice alone with easy finger-picked guitar opens “In the Park”, the two instruments unified in melody and rhythm, calm, but stretching out with a kind of subdued nostalgic glaze. Only bass and Moore’s voice join him on the chorus, his guitar moving to chords from its prior plucked rhythms. It’s one of the most beautiful and aching choruses: “Nothing has gone wrong/It’s just gone on way too long/You and I are bound to make a better way”. The pull of two fingers on two acoustic strings is beautifully sad but tinged with the momentary echoes of happiness as it comes in alone after that chorus, keyboards adding the lightest notes of firm comfort to this. Like the verses of “Speed of Sound” this song benefits strongly from the limited instrumentation it employs for much of it, and makes the slide guitar’s sudden lead and the rising pound of drums and splash cymbal that much more heart-pounding in its hope. But the final notes are Johnny and Molly with that guitar’s plucked strings again, and they stop with an abruptness that’s only accentuated by the amplifier hum that follows it.
A song that stood out at the show because it is somewhat unusual, “Tumbleweed” follows next and appears in many respects to be quite “normal”, the sound of a guitar played with barre chords way up the neck (giving it a ukelele sound, but broader and deeper), a shaker and Johnny and Molly in one of their best harmonies. A fantastic keyboard line, warping and phasing along a more normal organesque sound adds just the right alien tinge to the song to keep the weight of the lyrics from bearing too far down. The chorus seems like it shouldn’t work, like it should feel like a ridiculous choice to sing “Tumble, tumble, tumble, tumbleweed”, but it manages to work perfectly because it’s followed so appropriately by “Drift on the highway”, a few muted strums of the guitar, “and move on”, sung with a downed finality. The drums make their appearance now, the keyboard carrying the song inexplicably upward with the bright, uke-ified guitar, and managing a sort of nodding understanding of the needs of another: “If you’ve got that feeling/Feelings won’t be found/Go ahead and leave me/Just let me let you down”, and the “Woah-oh-oh/Don’t be sorry/Woah-oh-oh/Don’t be sad/Woah-oh-oh/You should leave me/Woah-oh-oh/And everything we had”. The slide guitar lead that begins to wail along in the background accelerates the drama of a feeling that is manifestly subdued, peaking and then exploding into an electronic echo. Exiting on the whirling keyboards and the isolated voice of Moore lets the song drift just as its singer hopes the one it is sung to will do. Knowing this very desire from either side, this is a fantastic representation of it, and a tumbleweed is perfectly appropriate, as is the tumbling the repetition implies.
The insistent picking and brush drums that start “The Lady Is an Arsonist” makes for an off-kilter upbeat song. The upstrokes of a smooth-toned electric guitar add to this sense, the patter of those brushes on snare moving the song at a nice clip, Molly and Johnny stopping suddenly for a half-amusing yet pleasantly fitting aside of a repeated line: “Cause I’m a Southern boy with a can of gasoline”. How in the world that could be an answer for anything is beyond me, yet even live and hearing it for the first time, it made perfect sense. The bridge’s call and harmonized response is similarly off-kilter and fitting for someone who would describe himself in this sense, too: “I’ve never been in love (Oh no)/I’ve never been ashamed (Oh no)”, and gives just the right hint of lopsidedness to the track’s varying inclusions of fire as a theme–gasoline, a liar’s “flaming” pants, the titles arsonist implications, and the inevitable result of receiving “all your flame”.
An acoustic recorded with the sound of fingers moving along strings, played at a deliberate pace, followed by the addition of Johnny’s relaxed and tired voice suggests “Minnesota Girls” is going to be the kind of closer that drops the band in favour of the drifting simplicity of a solo performance. But then the chorus swings its way in, and Molly and the bass, “So get down, you Minnesota girls/Get down to the bottom of the world/And I don’t owe you nothin’/No I don’t owe you nothin’ but blue skies”. The drums quietly make their entrance, a plaintive lap steel sound rising in the background. Now joined by single-picked electric as well as the other instruments, Johnny launches into a second verse, one that explains the tone here: “I dig it in Southtown/Where the music was my life/And the bathroom’s the place where I found it/I lost my friends/I turned off all my lights/It’s never quite as fun as it sounded”, hinting at a life that was just that: better as described than experienced. After the second chorus, roiling timpani (!), deep, echoing bass, electric guitar lead, and splash cymbals, all over a buzzing saw of guitar finally ends with a roll on a cymbal and then strings released to amplifier reverberations.
I’ve had a lot of luck over the years with opening acts. Sometimes they end up eclipsing the headliners in my listening, sometimes they float alongside, sometimes they are quite good but end relegated to a backburner unintentionally. This was an extremely worthwhile reminder that Communist Daughter deserves nothing of the kind. This album is incredibly good–professional, catchy, thoughtful, and all in keeping with a distinct, unique kind of tone. There are senses of bands I mentioned, as well as the vague impression of a Nick Drake-like detachment vocally, but none of them ever coalesce into the thought of even lazily obvious inspiration, let alone direct lifting of any kind. It’s just a sort of timeless, or perhaps temporally multiple, music. It’s largely at ease and warm, and feels like sitting in comfort and warmth, but looking out into a window at the snow. It’s pleasant, and looks lovely, and softens the edges of everything, removes responsibilities for many people briefly, but it’s a cold thing, and uncomfortable to be in after a time. It has the joy of memory for the kind of awe and enjoyment of a past where snow meant something good, as it often does to children–even if that isn’t the age of past being recalled. But it has that same distance that memory implies, of a half-smile and distant eyes, a time that’s gone, clearly out of reach but still there to be remembered.
There are a number of people–like my father–who would truly enjoy this band, and plenty more that I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head, because this is just a very well constructed set of songs. None of the choices, whether “obvious” like a harmonized married couple (I’m not sure they were married at the time, but they are now), or strange like electronic noises or even handclaps inserted into otherwise acoustic and drifting melodies–they always seem utterly appropriate and right, measured and chosen for their effect on the song, not to create a niche or gimmick. It helps, of course, that the two of them have fantastic voices–though I have to say I had no idea that was the sound that would come out of a rather big looking guy like Johnny–bearded, in worn jacket and “trucker hat”, but so soft and completely of a tone that suggests that kind of detached weariness. It’s not exhaustion, though exhaustion may inspire it, it’s not even completely cynical resignation, though there’s some of that as well. It’s a sort of acceptance of the negative, with a subtle hope for the better.
Really, really special thing this–for all that it sounds like the kind of music that would be absconded with by advertisers and television drama (the latter I’ve read has even occurred), there should be no thought that that’s any more an indication of the music itself than the fact that, for instance, Nick Drake’s songs have been used in this way. It’s representative more of the broad appeal of music played and written well.
- Next Up: Converge – Axe to Fall
(Yeah, this one’s a big jump in style)