Becoming Self-Aware: A Farewell to The Swellers

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Sometimes it takes a band breaking up for you to truly appreciate how special they are and how much of an impact they’ve had on your life. Such was the case with bands like Thrice and Moving Mountains a couple years back, and such is case with The Swellers now. All three are examples of bands that weren’t really on my radar until a little later in their career and didn’t truly become favorites until they were almost ready to call it quits.

I discovered Thrice a little late in the game, during my junior year of college when they released Vheissu, and their early work never resonated with me quite as much as their last few albums. Their music was present in my college and post-collegiate years, but never in the captivating, all-consuming way that other post-hardcore/emo acts like Thursday and Taking Back Sunday were. After putting Thrice on the back burner for a few years, I became blown away by their last LP Major/Minor and subsequently started to appreciate their back catalog even more. And then about a year later, they announced their farewell tour, which I was lucky enough to see in two cities. I had a similar experience with Moving Mountains; I stumbled upon them a little later in their career, when they opened for Thrice (oddly enough) in 2011. While I was never a huge fan of their post-rock heavy debut Pneuma their last two LPs have now taken their rank among my favorite albums of all time.

As far as The Swellers, they’re a band I’ve liked quite a bit since I first saw them open for Paramore back in 2009. Much like Thrice, their music had a pretty decent presence in my mid-late 20’s, but for whatever reason their albums never quite made the transition into heavy rotation on my turntable. That all changed when I heard The Light Under Closed Doors for the first time last year on a road trip through New England and New York that involved me meeting up with friends and seeing Taking Back Sunday play in five different cities. The hundreds of miles I drove that week were soundtracked almost exclusively by The Swellers, Saves The Day, and of course Taking Back Sunday. I developed a deep appreciation for The Light Under Closed Doors; “Big Hearts” served up an instant shot of nostalgia, hope, and joy at a time when I was getting hit pretty hard by what I like to call my “quarter-life crisis, part deux,” “Becoming Self-Aware” quickly became one of my personal anthems, and “Call It A Night” honestly made me weep. When I arrived at my last destination on the trip—Portland, Maine—I immediately drove to one of my favorite record stores and purchased the album on vinyl. It has definitely been in pretty heavy rotation ever since.

Right before I went on my TBS road trip and rediscovered the Swellers, I reconnected with another thing from my past that I had kind of abandoned: long-distance running. After dabbling in cross country during my high school and early college years, I set goals to train for longer races in my mid-20’s, which ultimately led to injury and burnout. Then, after practicing yoga for a few years, I developed a renewed sense of appreciation and ease with running longer distances, which were always set perfectly to long pop punk/emo playlists of the Saves The Day/Taking Back Sunday variety. I’m especially particular about the tempo of the songs I run to; I need something to both inspire me and keep me going at a steady pace. So after my long road trip, I decided to try running to some Swellers songs, and the rest is history.

I’m not sure if it was the songs themselves, the fact that I interspersed them with songs from another one of my favorite bands—Weezer—or the sense of freedom and rejuvenation I felt after taking that much needed break from life to go on the open roads, but I was running faster and longer without the feelings of burnout, strain, or defeat that had always plagued me. I ran to my Swellers/Weezer playlist for weeks on end until I did what I had always thought of as the impossible: complete a full 13.1 miles. I’d like to think that the familiarity and personal connections I had with the songs— especially those on The Light Behind Closed Doors— and the feelings of pure joy and exhilaration I felt from associating them with my long drives across New England were what encouraged me to literally go the extra mile to achieve my goal.

A few days after I finished my own personal half marathon, I learned that The Swellers had decided to break up and were planning a farewell tour. Even though I had only been to two of their shows and felt like more of a casual fan than a diehard supporter, I was hit by a wave of loss and sadness when I heard the news. Their music had only recently made a significant personal impact on me, and now I would only have one last chance to see them perform. I’ve seen a fair number of bands from my teenage and college years break up, and I’ve gotten teary-eyed at several farewell shows, but perhaps because of the particular place I’m at in my life right now, this farewell felt more bittersweet than usual.

The band’s decision to break up coincided with my decision to transition out of a full-time career I had been immersed in for the last four years. I was working as an independent contractor, teaching yoga to adults and children, and the struggle to make ends meet without burning out became too much. I had experienced an intense moment of clarity during that recent long-distance run when “Becoming Self-Aware” popped up on the playlist. I realized that while I will always feel grateful for the freedom and flexibility my career offered me and the amazing people I met in the many classes and workshops I taught over the years, I was no longer in love with the work I was doing and needed to move on. Shortly after making this decision I read an article by The Swellers’ drummer, Jonathan Diener about the challenges of being in a mid-level band, and I drew a lot of personal connections to their struggles on the business end of things. Even though I had experienced a brief, blissful period of “selling out” my classes at a big corporate yoga studio chain—akin to a major record label in some ways—I was pretty much always a mid-level yoga instructor. Much like a band who tours extensively, I put far too many miles on my car and too much wear and tear on my general well being teaching too many classes just to pay the bills. This simply wasn’t something I could do full-time through my 30’s. And while it felt like a relief in many ways to give up several of my classes, it was a bittersweet departure. Months later, I’m still at a bit of a crossroads, caught between careers, working part-time jobs and attending school part time, but still very much hopeful and optimistic for whatever my next step might be.

A few days before I saw The Swellers on their farewell tour I took a mini road trip up to Portland, Maine to fill out grad school applications and write my personal statement. I needed the time on the road and the change of venue to clear my head, and Portland seemed like the perfect place, since I’ve considered it my home away from home for years. It was also the place where I bought The Light Under Closed Doors on my last major road trip, so it felt extra symbolic. A good friend of mine teaches yoga in the city, so I took her class in the morning, which was honestly the first positive, bullshit-free yoga experience I’ve had since stepping away from my full-time job as an instructor. After class I sat at my all-time favorite cafe, just down the street from my favorite record store, and the many words and paragraphs of my personal statement just came pouring out. The process of writing that essay helped put my past in perspective and calmed many of my fears and anxieties about whatever my future might bring.

I put the finishing touches on my essay just hours before seeing the Swellers play at a unique venue just two doors down from the apartment where I said goodbye to my 20’s not too long ago. It was like VFW Hall meets old school Italian Wedding Hall, and perhaps due to its oddly charming, DIY/celebratory ambience, it just felt like the perfect setting to bid farewell to a band that always did things themselves and persevered despite never quite becoming a household name or selling out a tour. I went to the show with my brother, his girlfriend, and one of my best friends who also recently quit her full-time yoga gig. Each member of our group is currently in a weird transitional place in life; like the members in the band, we are getting ready to say goodbye to certain things that just aren’t working for us anymore, and we’re optimistically bracing for the changes we’re about to face.

While at first I was overcome by nostalgia for the carefree, post-collegiate life I lived right down the street from the venue, and then by a grim, depressing feeling that my younger, happier days were behind me and that it would all be downhill from here, that feeling changed when The Swellers took the stage. They plowed through a pretty impressive, comprehensive playlist with a genuine gratitude for their fans and a love for their work. The energy with which they played began to transform my woeful pessimism into mindful positivity. I’m mindful about the fact that it will be challenging to switch careers, move to a new city, and return to school in my early 30’s, but I’m trying to maintain a positive outlook, and I know that these challenges will all be for my benefit.

I’m sure each member of The Swellers will find some success and happiness in whatever their next adventure might bring them, and to loosely quote one of their most memorable songs, I’m sure they’re “on [their] way to better things.” Their music re-entered my life at the perfect moment, and it played an important role in guiding me toward some better things for my future. While I didn’t get to personally say goodbye or thank them after the show, I’m truly grateful for this band and for what they’ve created. And the fact that I got to see them play one last time at such a pivotal point in my life made me happier than I could have imagined.

15 Albums That Turned 15 This Year (Part 1 of 2)

1.) Piebald- If It Weren’t For Venetian Blinds, It Would Be Curtains For Us All

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The odd time signatures and creative song compositions that characterize this album make it one of the more memorable, compelling releases from the late 90’s emo era. Piebald were always different than other bands who got lumped into that amorphous “emo” category in that they never seemed to take themselves too seriously. Although they definitely did show us their serious, emotive side at times, their lyricism and delivery were generally more playful and humorous than that of their “heart on your sleeve” confessional emo peers, which provided a refreshing counterbalance to the emotionally heavy stuff I tended to listen to in my high school years.

2.) Saves The Day- Through Being Cool

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Full of incredibly catchy riffs, soaring choruses, and impassioned teenage poetry-style lyrics, no other album captures that angsty, youthful essence quite like Through Being Cool. From the power chords that kick off the album’s opening track “All Star Me,” to the “Whoa!”s of “Banned From The Back Porch” that bring the album to a dramatic, crash-and-burn close, this is an album that relentlessly rocks out all the way to the finish line. With this legendary LP, Saves The Day provided a blueprint for the waves of of pop punk and emo bands that would follow in its wake.

3.) The Get Up Kids- Something To Write Home About

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Combining irresistibly catchy melodies with powerful, pensive lyrics and sprinkling in some sweet, synthy ear candy to boot, Matt Pryor and company came up with a winning formula that made this album truly live up to its title. It seamlessly transitions between emo anthems that rock out with a gloriously bouncy fervor and tender ballads that leave an even more poignant imprint on teenage hearts everywhere. I challenge you to resist tapping out the opening drum beats to “Ten Minutes” and “I’m A Loner, Dottie, A Rebel,” and to keep a dry eye throughout the closing track, “I’ll Catch You.”

4.) Jimmy Eat World- Clarity

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Revered by longtime fans from the band’s late 90’s heyday as well as a whole host of younger fans and countless bands who emerged during emo’s “third wave” and beyond, the influence of Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity spans wide and far. This is somewhat odd for an album that was considered a commercial failure upon its release and which led to the band getting dropped from Capitol Records; it’s a little like Weezer’s Pinkerton in this way. And because I tend to place Jimmy Eat World and Weezer in the same listening category (super catchy, melodic, power pop-style rock), I equate Clarity with Pinkerton and Bleed American with “The Green Album.” The former albums are somewhat more rough around the edges and confessional in nature, whereas the latter offer more polished, straight up power pop with at least one obvious radio hit. I’ll listen to tracks from Bleed American when I want something fun, uplifting, and amped up, but I’ll play on Clarity from start to finish when I’m feeling the need to become completely immersed in a tenderly melodic, melancholic album.

5.) American Football- Self-Titled

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If I were asked to nominate one piece of work as the quintessential melancholic/contemplative emo album, American Football’s self-titled debut (and only full length album) would get my immediate vote. More nuanced and subtle than most of the work being produced by their peers at the time, this album was a bit of a departure in terms of my listening preferences during my high school days. I was accustomed to the more driving power pop and pop punk influenced sounds of all the aforementioned bands in this list, so the more delicate, but still raw and angsty stylings of American Football came as a pleasantly alluring surprise. Their combination of jazzy dissonance, ornately sparkling melodies, and roughly hewn vocals that shifted from sweetly lulling to intensely anguished captivated me like nothing I had heard before. Aside from getting all nostalgic and teary every time I hear the album’s opening tracks, “Never Meant” and “The Summer Ends,” I hear hints of its influence in several “modern emo” bands, from Into It, Over It and You Blew It! to Prawn and The Hotelier.

6.) Dismemberment Plan- Emergency & I

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In many ways, this album changed the way I listen to and think about music. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before, but it recalled elements of the Pixies and Weezer, among other bands. In fact, I think I described them to a friend in high school as “The Pixies meet Weezer, on speed.” As a kid raised almost entirely on pop punk and emo, Emergency & I might have been the first truly “genre defying” album I purchased and subsequently fell in love with. From the oddly intriguing synth bass and falsetto vocals that kick off the opening track, “A Life of Possibilities,” to the beautifully frenetic mess of sounds and rhythms that is “Memory Machine,” to the hypnotically pulsating, Talking Heads-esque closing anthem, “8 1/2 minutes,” this whole album is a relentless tour de force of delightful, otherworldly sonic pleasures. And fifteen years later it still manages to sound surprisingly fresh, relevant, and unrivaled in terms of its quirky innovation.

7.) Pinback- Self-Titled

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I discovered Pinback shortly after I became a huge fan of the Dismemberment Plan. They were another band that appealed to my “emo” sensibilities, but managed to sound different from almost everything else I was listening to at the time. They were like Sunny Day Real Estate’s more lighthearted, playful cousin or a more chill, melancholy counterpart to bands like Modest Mouse and The Dismemberment Plan. And their self-titled debut album was what I would listen to when I needed to chill out during my teenage and college years. Its songs were uniquely structured, layered and compelling enough to be considered catchy, but carefree and breezy enough to also be considered soothing. Much like Emergency & I, this album continues to sound fresh and innovative fifteen years after its release. It manages to draw me so deeply into its bittersweet abyss of darkly soothing vocals and simple but otherworldly beats and hooks that I discover something new to latch onto with every listen.

8.) Modest Mouse- Building Nothing Out Of Something

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Well before Modest Mouse scored a not-so-modest radio hit with “Float On” in 2004, they were putting out messy, angst-ridden gems with cryptic lyrics like “Never Ending Math Equation” and spaced out, sprawling, contemplative indie-rock-punk jams like “Interstate 8,” the first two tracks on Building Nothing Out Of Something. This collection of tracks is less of an album and more of a collection of B-Sides songs from previously released EP’s, but the songs are of such a high caliber and flow so well that I’ve always considered this my favorite Modest Mouse album. The songs span the spectrum from super Lo-Fi and bleak (“Grey Ice Water”) to insanely catchy, repetitive, and sophomoric (“All Nite Diner”). Even the seemingly quieter, more introspective tracks are tempered with the playful, angsty intensity that makes this band so unique. While I have a deep appreciation for the band’s entire catalog and still enjoy listening to their more commercially successful later albums, this wonderfully sloppy collection of earlier tracks has always remained my go-to selection when I’m in the mood for some Mouse.

Album Review: Weezer- “Everything Will Be Alright In The End”

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It’s been 20 years since Rivers Cuomo first sang about his sweater coming undone and his resemblance to Buddy Holly, and in that time he and his bandmates have gone through quite a fascinating and tumultuous ride. From Cuomo’s period of depression following the band’s critically panned but cult favorite sophomore release Pinkerton, to two other self-titled albums commonly referred to by their color that never quite lived up to the legendary “Blue Album,” to the suspected drug overdose-induced death of former bassist Mikey Welsh in 2011, Weezer have traveled a pretty unpredictable path full of various obstacles and detours. And it seems as though 20 years after releasing one of the most iconic albums of the 90’s, they’ve almost come full circle, proving that all their missteps and moments of bleakness have made them an even stronger band, capable of not only returning to their roots and reconnecting with the fans they may have alienated along the way, but also finding a refreshed sense of vulnerability and wit that makes this collection of 13 new songs more impactful and enjoyable than just about anything they’ve released since their mid-90’s heyday.

While it would be futile and rather unfair to try to compare the new album to Pinkerton or The Blue or Green Albums, Everything Will Be Alright In The End is full of the big rock anthems and fun, catchy power pop that made the band’s first three releases such fan favorites. The opening track, “Aint Got Nobody,” comes in with the same bold, poppy melodies, killer riffs and playful guitar solos that fans fell in love with years ago on tracks like “Say It Ain’t So,” “Why Bother,” and even “Hash Pipe.” The following track, “Back To The Shack,” is an insanely catchy, power pop anthem with a simple, repetitive chorus that reveals Cuomo’s witty insights into his tortured relationship with his fans and offers them a “sorry not sorry” sort of apology for the risks he and his band have taken throughout the last decade.

Weezer continue to explore their troubled relationship with fans in tracks such as “Eulogy For A Rock Band,” which takes the perspective of a disenfranchised fan base who are mourning the long lost glory days of their heroes (Goodbye heroes, you had a good run/Fifteen years of ruling the planet/But now your light’s fading), and the geeky humor of “The British Are Coming,” in which Cuomo plays the role of Paul Revere to his “punk ass redcoat” fans “telling him what to do and where to go.” This group of songs that examines stardom and fandom truly reaches its pinnacle with “I’ve Had It Up To Here,” which finds Cuomo venting to his fickle audience, “I tried to give my best to you/But you plugged up your ears/And now I just can’t take no more/I’ve had it up to here,” and channeling his inner Freddy Mercury with a gloriously dramatic bridge, singing, “Oh, if you think I need approval/From the faceless throng/That’s where you’re wrong.”

Cuomo’s relationship with listeners is not the only one he attempts to lyrically amend; he devotes another group of songs on to his Pentecostal minister father, who recently came back into his life after years of estrangement. With “Foolish Father,” Cuomo seems to absolve the sins of his father and free himself from resentment, as he sings, “Forgive your foolish father/He did the best that he could do,” and is backed by a triumphant chorus who close the song with a reassuring refrain that bears the album’s title, “Everything will be alright in the end.” Yet another group of songs explores his relationship with women, the strongest of these being “Go Away,” an especially poppy and gently rocking duet with Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast and “Cleopatra,” an all out rock anthem in which he declares his freedom from a codependent relationship, while still wishing his lover the best.

Everything Will Be Alright In The End certainly does its best to make amends on many levels and to reunite an iconic, influential and still very relevant band with fans they may have abandoned along their somewhat strange, divisive journey through the 2000’s. It seems Cuomo & co. have finally put the many experimentations and disappointments of their career behind them in order to return to what they do best: delivering massive, catchy rock anthems laced with just the right amount of ironic humor and introspection that will take listeners right “Back To The Shack” with them.

Album Review: From Indian Lakes- “Absent Sounds”

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It must have seemed like quite a daunting task to create a worthy follow up to their stunning 2012 album Able Bodies, but From Indian Lakes have managed to channel that album’s majestic beauty and nuanced artistry into an equally enthralling new body of work, while also pushing their creative boundaries to move their songwriting into exciting new realms of melodic and lyrical possibilities.

Absent Sounds finds the band expanding even further upon the masterful songwriting and musicianship that made Able Bodies such an impactful, artfully constructed album. The ten tracks on this new LP seamlessly weave together a wide range of dynamics, melodies and moods, creating a compelling listening experience in which new details and treasures are unearthed each time. The title seems somewhat misleading, as nothing at all appears to be “absent” from this collection of songs. Each sound, each lyric, each tiny, seemingly inconsequential detail is impeccably placed and well timed so that nothing feels lacking or lost.

The album moves along with a natural ebb and flow that gives it an almost prefect sense of balance, timing, and structure. Quieter songs transition quite gracefully into ones marked by more layered melodies and heavier sounds so that nothing at all feels choppy or out of sync. The gently hypnotic pulsations and sweetly pining vocals of the opening track, “Come In This Light,” give way to the darker marching beats and more complex structures of “Label This Love” and “Breathe, Desperately” in a way that feels fluid and logical. Amid the emotional, lyrical, and melodic intensities that make the album flourish, the band comes up for air in the form of some more simple melodies and quiet moments with songs like the poignant, acoustic based “Runner,” and the lush, sparkling pop sensibilities of “Am I Alive” and “Awful Things.” It’s moments like these that keep the album afloat and prevent it from drowning too deeply in its own darkness and dramatic intensity.

While it’s especially challenging to nominate the best tracks from such a strong, cohesive body of work, two standout singles, “Ghost” and “Sleeping Limbs” are arguably the pinnacles of the album. The former is a powerfully emotive confessional strengthened by the interplay between soaring, dramatic choruses and more gentle, subdued verses, artfully strung together with touches of jingle bells and keyboards. In some ways it recalls early-mid ‘00s Death Cab For Cutie. The latter begins as a chill, reflective, gently flowing track that soon becomes beautifully draped in layers of shimmering guitars tempered with just the right amount of dissonance and lyrical darkness. Both tracks accent elegantly decorated, gently driving melodies with majestically swelling crescendos that showcase lead singer Joey Vannucchi’s unparalleled vocal prowess.

From Indian Lakes are a shining example of a band who continue to refine their craft and develop their style in the most delightful of ways. I could list so many other reasons as to why Absent Sounds is one of the best albums of 2014, but you should probably just sit down, listen to it from start to finish, and let its treasure trove of sounds and surprises enfold you.

Sorority Noise- “Everyday” (Buddy Holly cover)

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This Buddy Holly cover may start out in a rather innocuous, sleepy way, but just past the one minute mark, something magical happens. The band sets forth a joyously noisy burst of energy and unleashes a killer guitar solo that sets the song on fire. It culminates in a rousing, full band chorus of drunkenly happy voices that should definitely bring at least the hint of a smile to your face.

Sorority Noise will include this cover on their upcoming split with Radiator Hospital, which comes out on Sept. 30 via Soft Speak Records. All proceeds from the split will go to V-Day, an organization that works to end violence against women. You can pre-order the split here and stream the Buddy Holly cover via Absolute Punk.

From Indian Lakes- Runner

For the fourth single off their upcoming album Absent Sounds, From Indian Lakes have decided to show us their softer, more sparse, acoustic side. This new track, “Runner” recalls the best moments on the band’s 2011 Acoustic EP, sounding a bit like “The Bells,” but slightly more uptempo and sonically adventurous. While the band’s musical style is so malleable and fluid, with Joey Vannucchi’s voice adapting beautifully to just about any instrumental backdrop, their forays into more subtle acoustic territory find these guys at their most sublime. With “Runner,” we are treated not only to the sweeter, more gentle side of Vannucchi’s voice, but also to a chill, meandering electric guitar solo that brings the song to a wonderfully hypnotic finale.

Stream the song below and order Absent sounds here before its 10/7 release date.

Young Statues- Run The River Dry

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This new single from Young Statues’ upcoming album The Flatlands Are Your Friend will lure you in with its enchantingly dark, driving beat and hazy washes of reverberating guitars and synths. The slightly downcast but altogether compelling vocals cut through the emotionally dense landscape of the song with a refreshing, but subtle sharpness.

The album will be released on 10/21 via Run For Cover Records, and you can pre-order it here. Fans of The American Scene, Mansions, Seahaven, and even Arcade Fire will definitely want to check it out.

You can stream “Run The River Dry” here via Stereogum.