When Backyard Tire Fire released Vagabonds & Hooligans last year, it was as unlikely an album of the year contender as you could expect: it was all Petty-affected backwoods pop-rock, all buoyed by singer Ed Anderson’s fantastic lyrics and his golden ear for a solid melody. Tracks like “The Wrong Hand” and (appropriately enough) “Tom Petty” were driving without being forceful, tasteful homages that never once buckled under their influences. It was one of those rare left-field zingers that catches you by surprise both by its immediacy and its ultimate staying power. Straight-up rock songs had no right to be that good.
Yet there is a problem inherent with Backyard Tire Fire: their powerful tunes just aren’t translating much beyond their dedicated Midwest fan base. Shortly following the release of Vagabonds & Hooligans, the guys put up the Sick of Debt EP on their MySpace as a free download: six new, raw, fantastic songs that served as a nice appetizer between releases. What it couldn’t have foreshadowed, though, was the remarkable left turn that Anderson and Co. have taken with The Places We Lived. Yes, they still rock, but six-string open-field wailing is no longer the BTF’s primary objective. Instead, Anderson has decided to reinvent himself as the premiere Pop Balladeer of America’s Heartland, and what’s shocking is just how well he wears that badge.
Opening with a careening ode to wild youth reflected, “The Places We Lived” serves as not only a fantastic pacesetter, but it also doubles over as a thematic signpost that colors the rest of the disc quite vividly. Anderson is now obsessed with the notion of what a “home” is, and who belongs in it. The unnamed characters that are the focus of “Welcome to the Factory” work out their menial and meaningless jobs because “there’s no place left to go”, as if relegating themselves to a life of labor simply because there are no other options, their jobs serving as their new home, all over a wry rock riff that Don Was would’ve killed for. The sunshine-licked melodies that dot the album highlight “Shoulda Shut It” simply serve as a joyous backdrop for the narrator’s sudden lack of faith in every aspect of the human condition (“Hey forgiveness / I’m in the business of regret”, the song opens, before segueing into the line “Hey religion / I could use a reason to believe / Ten years in a coma / And I’m still trying to relieve”).
Anderson’s characters are always fundamentally flawed in some way or another, but they greet their vices with indifference, knowing that there will always be a tomorrow, always another day to start over again. The lonely girl of “Time With You” cannot stop thinking of her lover, and even as he leaves her hometown, she fantasizes and obsesses over spending time with him in a way that only true lovers can, a plight of unrequited feelings that goes unanswered in the growing distance between them. We can all sympathize because we have all been in that scenario, and even if we have never pissed off farmers by driving through cornfields like the characters of the title track do, we can still relate to their bewilderment upon going into an old house in which they lived and not recognizing any aspect of it, as if their childhoods had been erased without their permission.
Needless to say, there are heavy issues being presented throughout The Places We Lived, ranging from heartbroken loneliness to wanting to leave one’s hometown just because they’re sick of where they live (as the character of “Everybody’s Down” sorely wants to do). Though these problems are all presented via BTF’s newfound pop epiphanies (they love that new synth they bought), Anderson’s ambitions still manage to get the hold of him, particularly bringing down the album’s latter half during half-baked tracks like “One Wrong Turn” and “Legal Crime”. Yet when he reaches the string-filled closer on “Home Again”, it feels that Anderson has found his thematic focus again, and he delivers a beautiful coda to a surprisingly potent disc.
For long-standing fans of the band, The Places We Lived could easily come off as being too poppy, less obvious, and just too damn joyous than the BTF of the past (though even those teeth-gnashers will still eat up the fiery, blazing rock number “How in the Hell Did You Get Back Here?”), but for everyone else, it’s the perfect primer for a group that truly is one of rock’s best kept secrets. Though the group keeps evolving, their passion remains the same, and perhaps that’s why The Places We Lived actually rivals Vagabonds & Hooligans as their best album. Neither disc is without its own set of flaws, but the band doesn’t seem to care much: they’re going to keep on rolling like they’re the best band in America. Who knows—at the rate they’re going, they might as well be.