Tigers Jaw – 9:45
Sidekicks – 8:45
Cave People – 8:00
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Making yourself vulnerable isn’t easy but it often makes for lasting art and that is certainly true of Tigers Jaw’s fifth full-length, spin. The album marks a new chapter for the Scranton, Pennsylvania-based indie rock band for many reasons: Not only is it the first collection of songs that was completely written and recorded solely by Ben Walsh and Brianna Collins, but it was also the first time they had a full month in the studio without having to worry about outside responsibilities. Furthermore it’s the inaugural release on Atlantic Records’ new imprint Black Cement, a label spearheaded by the band’s longtime collaborator Will Yip who returned to the production helm for spin.
All of these factors converged to create an album that sounds more fully formed than anything Tigers Jaw have done in the past and simultaneously establishes them as a band whose appeal truly transcends genres. While Walsh initially encouraged Collins to start singing lead vocals and songwriting with 2014’s Charmer, the duo’s collective output on spin is a collaboration in the truest sense of a creative partnership. “In a lot of ways this record is a return to the way the band started in the sense that it was coming from two people working very closely together and I think that resulted in something that was really cohesive,” Walsh explains. “The whole experience felt really organic even if the recording process was different than anything we had done in the past together.”
While Tigers Jaw’s previous four albums were recorded on tight deadlines and even tighter budgets, for spin the band would record six days a week for 10 hours a day over the course of an entire month — and while the band didn’t think they’d ever need that much time, ultimately they ended up utilizing every minute. “Having all of that extra time allowed us to track everything song by song to give each individual track its own unique focus,” Walsh explains. “It allowed for the freedom to play around with different ideas rather than keeping things tied to the way we wrote the demos; the performances, tones and structures were really tailored to each individual track which gave us so much room to play around and experiment together.”
From the sweetly syncopated, fuzzed-out bliss of the opener “Follows” to the midtempo melodicism of “June” and liltingly lovely ballad “Bullet,” spin sees Tigers Jaw stretching out sonically and correspondingly Yip was the perfect person to encourage the duo to approach things in a different way than they would have initially conceived. “Will is great at understanding what you want to get out of a song and pushing you to achieve that,” Collins explains when asked about Yip’s role “He had ideas especially about song structures that I might not have thought of and we had enough time in the studio to fully explore a lot of those ideas and see how they turned out. He didn’t try to change the way we wanted the songs to sound but he allowed us to step outside of our comfort zone.”
Tigers Jaw have always been known for their incredibly relatable lyrics and for this album Walsh tried something new: He experimented with stream-of-consciousness writing as a way to get his ideas out of his subconscious in an unfiltered fashion. “The lyrics I wrote for spin are very personal in the sense that there’s a lot of material relating to mental wellness, coming to terms with getting older and pursuing something creative like this band even though that might not be the conventional path for someone my age,” he explains. The album also sees Collins taking a shine to writing duties whether she’s writing a love song like “Same Stone” or getting introspective on the dreamy sounding “Brass Ring.”
Ultimately though, there isn’t much distinction between Walsh and Collins on spin in the sense that the two of them come together to form a collective whole — and not only do their styles perfectly complement each other, but at times their vocals are so in sync that it’s difficult to tell where one person’s voice ends and the other’s begins. “The two of us worked together so closely on this record especially when it came to layering our harmonies and I think along with open guitar chords and Casiotone organs, that’s what really makes this album sound like us,” Collins summarizes. “We needed to do what felt like Tigers Jaw — and I think we were able to do that in a really exciting way this time around.”
Growing up is weird. As it turns out, growing older can be even weirder. For musicians birthed in the fervently youth-centric world of punk rock, growing old gracefully is a largely foreign concept. Eventually most pop-punkers age out of their angry disaffection or creatively flame out whenever screamy break-up anthems start to seem tired, whenever you start to too closely resemble the very same people your younger, angrier self was rebelling against in the first place. In the case of The Sidekicks, the transition from high school hellions to erudite pop band has been a journey some twelve years and five full-lengths in the making. When considering the band’s continuing evolution, as evidenced by their new album, Happiness Hours, frontman Steve Ciolek is both happy and a little perplexed. “Every time we make a record I think about how strange and amazing it is that we’re still making records,” he laughs, “But at some point you have to stop worrying about what kind of record you’re supposed to be making and just make the kind of music that you yourself want to hear. I think it’s healthy to ask yourself, ‘What if this was the last thing we ever did? Would I be happy? If the band was forced to end tomorrow, is this the note we’d want to go out on?’ In the case of Happiness Hours, I think we all definitely would be.”
Not that the band shows any signs of stopping anytime soon. Formed in Cleveland, Ohio in 2006, The Sidekicks learned their chops via the old punk rock finishing school—by playing lots and lots of shows, sleeping on floors, and generally devoting themselves to recording and touring at the expense of any other kind of life. The bands earliest recorded efforts—2007’s So Long, Soggy Dog and 2009’s Weight of Air—reflected this. By the time they released 2012’s Awkward Breeds, the romance of punk rock was beginning to wane and the influence of pop music began to creep in. This transition was fully realized on 2015’s <>Runners in the Nerved World, a Phil Ek-produced stunner that not only would showcase the band’s tightly honed pop sensibilities, but would keep them on the road for the better part of the next two years.
In order to help realize their vision, the band—Steve Ciolek (Vocals & Guitar), Matt Climer (Drums), Toby Reif (Guitar & Vocals), and Ryan Starinsky (Bass & Vocals)—enlisted veteran producer John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur, Jr, Kurt Vile) to produce, engineer, and mix the record. Agnello’s more hands-on approach, which involved prodding the band to constantly consider and question their choices, proved instrumental in helping the band push themselves in ways they might not have otherwise. “It was really about putting aside our emotions and looking towards a common goal,” says Ciolek. “It’s what I really like about being in a band, and what I always wanted when I was younger. You have these four people who are all really invested in the same thing and it wouldn’t be what it is were it not for all of our personalities being wrapped up in it. That’s what makes it so cool.”
The twelve tracks that eventually found a home on Happiness Hours show a band in full control of their powers. Each song presents its own little narrative microcosm and contained universe, all contributing to a record that, as Ciolek describes it, “feels like a potential collection of singles, every one of them a pop song, every one of them meant to make you feel good.” To that end, songs like “Other People’s Pets” “Medium in the Middle” and “Weed Tent” rank among some of the sunniest, most ebullient songs the band has ever recorded—all ringing guitars, charging drums, and soaring vocals meant for private bedroom dance parties and long, meandering drives. Still, the record’s beating heart is undoubtedly the title track, which Ciolek also cites as an emotional touchtone. “If someone was like, ‘What’s the album about?’ I’d tell them to just listen to that song. Equal parts childhood nostalgia and critical self-examination, “Happiness Hours” explodes the notion of how we look at ourselves and compartmentalize memories: “If I rearrange the story/ Or magnify what I see/ Or execute a freeze phrame/ Moments can just be/ So if happiness comes in hours/ Well it looks like its that time again for me/ Gravestones deserve flowers/ Lovers deserve poetry”. For Ciolek, the strength of the band’s new songs spring from the idea that these narratives—about lost loves and new loves and childhood friends—reach squarely towards a kind of universal experience. “They are relative to my life, but they aren’t just about me,” he says, “And that’s another thing about getting older. Unlike when you’re a kid, when every song has to be about falling in love or breaking up—about me, me, me—you get to a point when you really want your art to be inclusive. You want everyone to be able to locate themselves somehow in your songs.”
Just as your goals change as you get older, so does one’s expectations. For The Sidekicks, despite their storied pop-punk past, the band’s main hope is that people can always expect something new, songs filled not just with loud guitars, but also things like trumpets, pianos, flugelhorns, and the occasional tambourine. “I think the expectation with our records is that it’s going to be something that you’re going to have to sit with and it’s going to be different than the last one and there’s going to be new things there, “ says Ciolek. “The only real rule we had for ourselves, the most important question, was ‘Does this sound good?’ Cool. Let’s put it on the album then.”
Having spent the past three years not only writing songs, but also playing the occasional friend’s wedding, Ciolek and the band have adopted a kind of joyful looseness they hope will carry over into their forthcoming live shows as well. “We ended up learning 40 or so covers while we were trying to make this record,” he says, “It’s like, at any point, like at the very end of our show, we could easily go into a whole medley of wedding songs, to play like Earth, Wind and Fire’s ‘September’ and we’ve done that a few times. I hope people are ready.”