Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Album Review - Good Old War - Good Old War

Good Old War - Good Old War

Recommended if you like: Dr. Dog, The Beatles, syncopated pop drumming, extensive use of vocal harmony, acoustic guitar riff based songs

Good Old War are a difficult band to understand why they're not more popular in the indie pop scene. They seem to be reviewed overwhelmingly positively whenever they are reviewed. They seem to run in the right sorts of circles. However, they don't get the publicity that similar type acts do. Part of it may stem from their seeming lack of deference to the conventions of the indie pop aesthetic or the indie scene's ethos in general. The problem being they seem to very earnestly want to make good music. If there is one major no-no for indie cred, it's seeming like you're actually trying to make good music. You're supposed to seem like some super genius that rolls out of bed, has a mic setup and just sings some parts and then plays some guitar.

Good Old War don't fit this mold, which is perhaps why they're an odd mix for the indie pop scene, despite looking the part and having all the correct superficial affectations of a proper indie pop band. The good thing is that the music is all the better for it. Good Old War craft their songs in a way that most indie bands are too lazy, unable, or unwilling to do. They have a keen ear for arrangements and how parts fit together and don't like imperfection for imperfection's sake. Playing you music well? What a refreshing and novel idea!

In a description of Good Old War, you obviously must begin with their vocals. Keith Goodwin is the principal singer. Goodwin has a more or less unremarkable voice tone wise. That's not to say it's not a great voice, it's just not remarkable in the sense of a Bon Iver, for example. He could be any indie pop singer tonally. However, he is an excellent technical singer, with a solid if not excellent tenor range. His vibrato is very subtle to the point of almost not being there, which requires him to sing dead on pitch every time (wide vibrato allows you to miss your pitch by a good margin), which he does. In fact, I don't believe that a more distinctive voice would work with Good Old War's songs. Because of the vanilla nature of his tone, it allows him to layer his vocals effortlessly upon the other vocalists of the group.

Tim Arnold and Dan Schwartz could likely be amongst the better front men of any other group, as both have excellent vocal ranges themselves and strong, but again, tonally unremarkable voices. As all three singers have rather unremarkable voices, tonally, where does the spark come from? The spark comes from the vocal melodies, counterpoint lines and harmonies. It's a somewhat remarkable thing these days to actually have a band write great parts, and not just try to cover up rather boring melodies with remarkable vocal tone. Amos Lee, for example, has an incredible voice, but sings over some of the most boring melodies you'll find. Good Old War, by virtue of not being able to just wow you with their voices must write great melodies and parts for their vocals. That's why their music is so refreshing and why people always immediately think of The Beatles, another band with unremarkable tonal voices, but a fantastic feel for vocal harmony and melody.

Instrumentally, they have a tendency to sparse, but fully formed instrumentation. In an overwhelming majority of their songs, you'll find acoustic guitar. All three members play acoustic guitar at times, but Dan Schwartz is the principal guitarist. If the primary element to Good Old War's sound is the vocal parts, Dan Schwartz's understated, yet perfect for the song guitar parts are the secondary ingredient. One could perhaps mistake Schwartz for a guitarist without major chops if you're not listening carefully. While his parts are understated and he seems to disdain the "look at this badass guitar solo" mentality, his parts, when examined more closely, reveal an incredible complexity and understanding of how music works and fits together. And when the song requires it, he can absolutely rip, as evidenced by the riff he plays in Get Some around the 1:32 mark. Even though this is an incredibly difficult technical guitar line, it fits right in the song and doesn't scream of virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity. The more you listen to Good Old War's albums, the more you appreciate the subtle brilliance of the guitar work.

The third major element to Good Old War's sound is Tim Arnold's drumming/percussion. In a band, a drummer serves two purposes: to keep the band in time and to create a rhythmic drive. Arnold's drumming tends towards the latter role, far more than the former. This isn't to mean that the band is out of time, as they're always on beat, it's that because the instrumentation is so comparatively sparse, there aren't a lot of instruments that the drummer needs to keep in time. And the musicians are good enough to stay on time without a steady hit the 1 and 3 beat from the drummer anyway. His style therefore tends toward heavy syncopation and subtle use of polyrhythm. His drumming is as much of a lead instrument at times as Schwarts's guitar, and in fact, at times the two reverse traditional roles, with Schwartz's guitar being mostly a time keeping instrument and Arnold's drumming playing lead lines. This gives their a music a rhythmic feel very different from traditional pop music. Arnold will also play accordion at times, to broaden up the tonal palette of the band. It's not a significant part of the band's overall sound, but does add significantly the feel of certain songs.

If you'll notice, Good Old War doesn't have a dedicated bass guitarist. Some songs eschew the bass entirely, some have its duties filled by the acoustic guitar or keyboards. Some have a very straight forward "play the root note on the beat" type bass. When there, the bass is usually so "root note, straight on the beat" and subtle that it's actually hard to pick up that it's there at all. Live, the band usually doesn't have a bassist. Sneaky Louise is one of the few songs on the album with an identifiable, strong bass line. Which perhaps is one of the reasons why it sounds so different from other songs on the album, despite being structurally similar.

Arrangement wise, the band tends towards making heavy, heavy use of counterpoint and harmony, to extents that very few current bands do. This leads to their songs often being heard as more of a successful piling of parts on top of one another than anything else. Each instrument often has its own story to tell. When listening to Good Old War's songs, it's often fun to listen to the same song several times back to back, trying to isolate a different instrument or voice each time, listening for the distinct flavor each piece adds, and then listen to the whole song together as an overall piece of music. You'll often be left with an awe inspiring sense of how the song was put together.

If the band has one weakness, its that at times they may be too subtle for their own good. Many times the most interesting parts are covered up a bit, which can make some songs seem a bit less interesting than they actually are. For instance, on the ninth track, While I'm Away, the primary melody line is perhaps the most boring part of the song, yet you have to listen very hard to pick up on the acoustic guitar work and percussion, which is where the real magic happens in the song. The band's greatest strength is their reliance on melody, but it is may well be their only major weakness as well, as when the melody doesn't soar the song can come away uninspired, despite the fact that there are a lot of interesting parts that, if put more upfront, could carry the song.

As an album, maybe the only thing left seriously wanting on this effort is a truly catchy song like Coney Island from the band's debut effort, Only Way To Be Alone. That isn't to say that the album is devoid of spectacularly great songs, because it's not. Those songs just aren't catchy in the same sense. I feel the album could have benefited from one song with a more identifiably catchy "big" hook. Even if that's not their thing. It's a minor squabble and on another album I may not have mentioned it at all, but I almost felt like I had to pick something out that keeps this from being an absolutely perfect record and that's about all I could find.

As to those aforementioned standout tracks, I'd label That's Some Dream, My Own Sinking Ship, I Should Go, Here Are The Problems and Get Some as the standouts, in roughly that order.

The album begins with "Good", an instrumental piece that takes it's name from the first part of the band's name, which in turn takes it's name from putting together the three band members last names (GOODwin, arnOLD, schWARtz). In this short little piece you get a sense of their compositional ethos. This is VERY heavy counterpoint and syncopation. Then they throw some pretty vocal harmonies on top. Even though this isn't a particularly noteworthy piece, in and of itself, it is notable in what a departure it is from the band's previous effort, Only Way to Be Alone. There the first track was perhaps the albums' strongest track, Coney Island. I believe this is one of many indicators of a shift in the band's confidence. On their debut, the band was a bit unsure of themselves and their abilities at times, or at least with how they would be received. So they felt they needed to start the album with their best material, because they weren't sure that a potential listener would get to track two if track one wasn't stellar. Here the band seems confident in their music and craft to the point of saying "wait for it, because we know you will, because it's that good."

This segues right into one of the better tracks on the album, Here Are the Problems, so they didn't make you wait that long. The song features a very heavy drum beat and a lot of pauses. The verses are sang in three part harmony at times and at times with an underlying vocal "ah" line. The structure is verse, prechorus, verse, prechorus, bridge, prechorus, chorus, instrumental verse outro. The chorus isn't repeated and only stands out as the chorus by way of its soaring faux key shift. It's not repeated and you have to wait until the end, and even then a brief pause before it hits, but when it does, its near magical, despite being a pretty simple melody. The trick here is in the payoff and the song's structure, if the chorus had come in earlier, or been repeated, it perhaps wouldn't stand out as much. Lyrically, the overall very sad lyrics are contrasted starkly by the very upbeat major tonality. If the lyrics are just read on their own you would come away with a feeling of a relationship that has fallen apart. However, the music leads you to believe that the subject still feels that there is hope that these are only problems to be worked through, not the death knell of the relationship, like the lyrics on their own account indicate. Which one is the true account? Is the relationship doomed or is there a sliver of hope? The listener is left with a sort of delicious ambiguity.

The next song, My Own Sinking Ship, seems to answer this ambiguity. This is perhaps the most single-esque song on the album. It's somewhat telling that the band has the song that is most like a single be a response to another song. It seems to indicate they view themslves as an "album oriented band" that may have a few singles, but are mostly about the whole picture the album paints. The song seems to be an answer to the previous, in that the two lovers seem to be in the process of reconciling. Problems still obviously exist, and there is an underying tone of sadness in parts. However, the chorus is one of resolution in the relationship and forgiveness of the transgressor. The chorus says "oh it's the last time we'll fall in love / it's the last try to break apart / you are not to blame." Ambiguity still exists though, because the author could just as easily be saying "this is the last time I'll go through this, if it doesn't work this time, we're done." The song also has one of the most simple, yet new and refreshing takes on a love lyric I've heard in "Can't remember your last smile / I think I made it happen though / Then I took you off to work once more / But I just want you, I just want you / I just want you here." Such a simple lyric, but I can't recall another that sums up this exact sentiment in such a starkly beautiful way. Musically the song mirrors this ambiguity, with sad sounding verses and sweet sounding choruses. In the first song the ambiguity was accomplished with music that conflicted with the lyrical content. Here the ambiguity is achieved by having the music match the lyrical content, but having two competing sentiments in both.

Next, on Making My Life, apparently our star crossed lovers have again fallen apart and again we have our author begging for a reconciliation. This song stands out in a number of ways. It's the first song that is completely unambiguous, the couple has broken apart and the author desperately wants his love back, though he seems to probably realize it won't happen. Musically, it has a substantially stronger driving African type polyrhythm with a lot of rolling guitar riffs that underlie the melody. It makes good, though not particularly notable, use of the band's trademarked vocal harmonies. The track is good, not great. The chorus is kind of catchy, but not quite catchy enough. The parts are pretty, but not quite pretty enough. The rhythm is interesting, but not quite interesting enough. That isn't to say that I find fault with the song, not every song can be, or perhaps even should be, a standout. For filler, it's excellent and it helps push along the narrative that the album opens with.

Next up with Old, we get another short instrumental type break song. It's kind of a weird delta blues influenced guitar riff, mixed with African polyrythms and Poppy vocal harmonies saying "we're fine" on top. It serves to set up the resolution to the narrative portion of the album with the next song...

On That's Some Dream, we have our author finally fully getting the picture that he needs to move on. Musically, the song is one of the more conventional songs on the album, yet stands out with a great sing along chorus. The song maintains both musical and lyrical ambiguity, because the song quickly alternates major and minor chords throughout the verses and the lyrics can be taken two opposite ways. They can be taken to be that the author realizes that he will eventually be okay and that's a dream he can look forward to, or they can be taken as being totally for the benefit of others, and that the author is actually completely 100% broken and that being okay is "some dream." Lyrically, it reminds me very much of Pearl Jam's Alive, where I think fans will often just hear the chorus and take them in a very happy way, whereas the actual meaning is much different. On the last chorus, one of the harmonies jumps to an even higher harmony, to great payoff effect.

Sneaky Louise is kind of a simple, in some ways silly little song about a transgressing daughter/sister, sang from the point of view of the brother. The song features a really pretty, big chorus melody with great harmonies and counterpoint background vocals at the end. It's not a very serious song, yet its very fun, despite its rather dire actual lyrical content.

Get Some is perhaps the only proper rock song on the album, with a heavy backbeat that drives the song throughout, which sits in stark contrast to Tim Arnold's normal drumming style. Additionally, two complementary acoustic guitars playing more riffs than straight rhythm, panned hard right and left, drive the verses. At 1:32, a very rhythmic, very technically difficult guitar riff just explodes. It's not a solo per se, because its too directly related to the rhythmic structure of the song, but its fantastic, without sounding show off-y. Lyrically, the song is also a departure from the typical formula thus far, in that these lyrics don't seem to be firmly about anything in particular, just there to create a feeling. The feeling they seem to be trying to convey is "get some", which although that's the album title, the actual words don't appear in the song at all. It's great to see a songwriter (or songwriters) be able to write in the two predominant styles of our time, the storytelling style and the purely emotive style. This portends well to the band's future.

While I'm away goes into fun poppy mode, with a really interesting melody. Rhythmically it has almost a four on the floor, disco, driving feel at times, but with a lot of stops and percussive flourishes to keep things interesting. The band again slips effortlessly from counterpoint to direct harmonies. The band tends to approach harmonies with an eye towards moving the voices to follow the chord changes and suggest harmonic ideas that wouldn't be there without the vocals. This is much more complex than most bands who sing in harmony, those bands seem to think in terms of "lead, high and higher harmony", here Good Old War think in terms of how the voices play over the chord changes and shifting them around for different effect, that takes a lot of talent to pull off as effortlessly as these guys do. Lyrically the song is of the "I'm on the road away from you and I miss you and you're awesome and I'll be home to see you soon" vein that is really overdone in music. It's inevitable that this type of song is overdone, as it is perhaps the defining aspect of the touring musician, they can't help but write this type of song. As Chris Robinson said in Wiser Time "ask me "why another road song?" / funny, but I bet you never left home." At least we can forgive this lyrical retread here a bit easier, when it's done with this much skill.

Woody's Hood Boogie Woogie is a fun, silly little boogie song. That is, rhythmically it uses a boogie rhythm, as Good Old War's tour of all the different ways you can syncopate a beat continues. There's not a whole lot to the song, it's fun but relatively unremarkable, outside of some exceedingly fine percussion work and a few very subtly great guitar parts. Lyrically, the song seems to be about someone hearing of a tragedy (losing his lover and his child in the same day) and the realizations it brings on the otherwise unaffected author. The author seems to realize that we need to live lives our way, because we'll all get burned some day. Nothing particularly revelatory here, but its still a solid little song.

My Name's Sorrow is a hauntingly beautiful song. Lyrically the theme is analogizing proverbs, music and the seasons to three aspects of life, bad things happening, feeling out of place and constant change, respectively. Instrumentally, its one of the more simple songs, but yet still very good in that regard. The haunting nature comes from the interplay between the vocal melody and the acoustic guitar. There is a very subtle, almost difficult to hear accordion in the background to help ground the harmonic structure. It's the only song on the album that makes no use of vocal harmony at any point.

World Watching is a solid track, but is perhaps the weakest track on the album. It has a pretty melody, but not much else to help carry it. It has some of the most straightforward guitar playing and percussion on the album and the harmonies are good, but not good enough to carry it to the heights of the rest of the album. That isn't to say its bad by any means, just that it's filler, but filler of the highest quality.

To finish off the album, there is a two track suite, comprised of I Should Go and Thinking of You. While these are technically two separate tracks, they are typically played together when the band plays live and stand together musically to the point of sounding like different parts of the same song. I Should Go is an extraordinarily beautiful song, sung in harmony over the entirety of the song. The vocal melody is laid over a riffy rhythm guitar type figure and syncopated percussion and a bass drum that hits the 1 of every bar only. Thinking of you is more or less a textbook example of counterpoint vocal to end the song, even though, again, its technically listed as a separate track.

War is the final piece and is a gentle acoustic guitar track that puts a nice little bow on things.

On a whole, this album presents a step forward for the band, without losing their way. The opening suite of songs that detail an expansive relationship narrative is far grander than anything they have attempted in the past lyrically. Musically they exhibit an understanding of musical structure that is unparalleled in the indie pop world. They're a much more musically confident band in their abilities. The fact that they self produced this gem is mind boggling. They're a band with the ability to do just about whatever they like, but yet maintain a clear vision of what it is they want to accomplish. There could be a better single type song on the album, but the album stands up well without an obvious single anyway.

I really look forward to their next album, which, by the way, they just announced they have began work on via their Facebook page today. In my estimation this is the best pop band going today, and you'd be well advised to get on the train.


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