A lot of people found it curious that DC-based indie-poppers Aden elected to name their last two records after Steely Dan songs (“Black Cow” and “Hey 19”). These people, with all due respect, had probably never seen Aden play live, when the resemblance between the two bands came out loud and clear. It’s not that Aden suddenly transformed from a pleasant, verging on twee pop band into some sort of jazz-pop fusion powerhouse in a live setting, it’s just that when you could actually see the acrobatics that guitarists Jeff Gramm and Kevin Barker performed in the service of their modest little pop songs, it all suddenly became much more impressive. In my book, Steely Dan, love ‘em or hate ‘em, were the absolute masters of making staggering musicianship fit within the confines of a four-minute pop song. Take a song like “Bodhissatva”, for instance: while widely tagged as one of the Dan’s most instrumentally impressive, difficult tunes, it’s equally possible to simply lay back and let its groove wash over you, completely ignoring the calisthenics that each individual musician performs throughout the duration of the song.
Thusly, when I saw Aden play live, it all clicked in for me. While I had previously been content to let their little nuggets of indie-pop wash over me, digesting the lyrical content and little else, upon seeing them live, I was suddenly confronted by a staggering display of instrumental prowess that I was completely unprepared for. These boys could play! Sure, their songs are short, pleasant and to the point, but each little two-minute slice is comprised of so many ideas and complicated licks that it’s a wonder that they all hold together as well as they do.
On record, Aden have yet to live up to their first ‘Dan inspired record, 1998’s Black Cow. On that recording, the band breezed through 12 songs of brokenhearted melancholy in just over a half an hour. Singer/songwriter Gramm made it very easy to sing along with his moping: despite the fact that nearly every song was about losing the girl, pining for the girl, or being unhappy with the girl, you never caught yourself wishing that he would get over it, already.
By the time 2000’s Hey 19 was released, Gramm must have found himself a steady, because on that record, not one of the songs revisited the former’s theme of downtrodden romantic angst, preferring instead to dwell on such diverse topics as horse racing and country bars. Unfortunately, it wasn’t nearly as consistent as its predecessor, and while there are still more than a handful of great tunes on it, as a package, it wasn’t nearly as convincing.
Which brings us, finally, to Aden’s new record, titled Topsiders. A quick All Music Guide search revealed no Steely Dan songs with that title (the only thing that came up, in fact, was a song from one of Mike Watt’s solo records - which does not imply that the boys are suddenly turning into the Minutemen, however interesting a proposition that might be), so evidently the band has managed to get over that fixation. However, it has been replaced with another, altogether more curious fixation.
On Aden’s website (hot-licks.org, if you’re curious), guitarist Kevin Barker states the following: “somebody really needs to call me on my merciless ripping-off of Richard Lloyd so I can move on to getting a ‘B-bender’ Telecaster and ripping off Clarence White (cf. the Byrds’ country albums, e.g. “Nashville West” off of “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde”) instead”. On Topsiders, Barker’s plan has come to fruition, and practically every track is littered with his twangy B-bender playing. For those not in the know, a B-bender is a special apparatus that can be installed in an electric guitar (usually a Fender Telecaster) which enables the player to bend notes an entire step simply by pushing down on the neck of the guitar. It was developed originally for guitarist Clarence White, and, as Barker indicated above, was featured prominently on many recordings by the Byrds. In practice, what a B-Bender does is make a regular guitar sound a lot like a pedal steel - twangy, countrified and liquid.
Barker’s B-bender usage naturally implies that this is going to be a twangier, more countrified version of Aden than we’ve come to expect. For the most part, it is. In addition to a sampling of the band’s meticulously crafted two-to-three minute pop gems (“Racking Up Mistakes”, “Pop Song”), there are several more twangy, acoustic numbers that more closely resemble guitarist Kevin Barker’s side project, Currituck County (“River’s Rising”, “Intertwining Hands”, the latter of which actually is a Currituck County song). These songs are highlights: unfortunately, the rest of the album isn’t nearly as sharply focused. Several songs, “Mango Tree” in particular, suffer mightily from limp, spineless arrangements. Somewhere along the line, Gramm seems to have picked up an annoying, warbly vibrato, which rears its head more often than it should . Other songs like “Rapt Attention” and “Radenator” are neither notably good nor particularly bad; they’re just there. These songs are pleasant pieces of fluff - while it’s obvious that they took quite a bit of musical skill to create, they simply lack strong enough hooks to effectively deliver their messages. Then there’s “Boggle Champs”, which is a completely incongruous rock tune—replete with thick, chunky distortion and harmonized guitar licks, it seems to have wandered in from another comic strip.
While there’s nothing on Topsiders that’s outright bad (except perhaps “Mango Tree”, but maybe that’s just me), it is, all in all, a frustrating record. There are three or four excellent tunes that show what Aden are capable of, and seven or eight that make you wish that they achieved these heights more consistently. Aden is still a great band, and individually, the members possess incredible talents (don’t get me started on drummer Matt Datesman). I’m sure that they still put on a great live show, and that many of these songs would be suitably energized and re-interpreted in that setting. Ever since I saw them play almost two years ago, I’ve been waiting to see if Aden could recapture the brokenhearted glory that they stumbled upon with Black Cow, or replicate the energy of their live performance on a record. While Topsiders certainly has it’s moments, it doesn’t quite provide the thrill I’m looking for from these guys. Better luck next time.