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Keep It Together

(Reprise; US: 24 Jun 2003; UK: Available as import)

A couple of things are immediately plain about Guster: they’re nice guys, they appreciate their fans, and they repay their fans’ loyalty with everything from garage sales back home to incredibly fun shows on the road. If ever you wanted a group of guys to succeed, it’s Guster.

For the most part, though, it’s been a hit-or-miss affair getting all the elements right on record. Their debut, Parachute was a good start. Recorded while the band were still fresh-faced juniors in college, it finds them with the basic elements—the dual acoustic guitars of Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner, and the bongo/congo/hand percussion work of Brian Rosenworcel—firmly in place, although it pales in comparison to their later work. 1997’s Goldfly bore the surprise hit “Airport Song” and found the band trading in strong melodies and strong dynamics, while 1997’s Lost and Gone Forever seemed to paddle in place (despite the high-dollar production of Steve Lillywhite). Each album seemed to add a handful of strong songs to the set list, but there wasn’t a definitive Guster album that you could push onto friends to try and infect them with your own enthusiasm (Goldfly probably comes closest).

Keep It Together doesn’t change that, but it’s probably the best synthesis so far of Guster’s strong melodic quirks and their willingness to nudge at the boundaries of their own sound. The most obvious tweak is the seemingly heretical addition of bass and a standard drum kit (Guster seemed to take special steps around the time of Lost and Gone Forever to assure fans that Lillywhite’s tenure didn’t spell the end of Rosenworcel’s unique percussion). But you know what, it doesn’t kill the songs—but it doesn’t add much either. The rhythms are too straightforward, used more as basic backing tracks. Rosenworcel’s traditional percussion still runs rampant all over Keep It Together, and the album’s better for it each time.

As for the songs themselves, they all fit pretty neatly into the Guster mold; any surprises come in the form of flourishes, intros, or quirky playfulness. “Jesus on the Radio” features some twangy banjo, the title track leads in with jazzy chord work, and “Red Oyster Cult” (one of the disc’s highlights) is a neat combination of ‘60s-style rock and post-punk aggression. “Long Way Down” eases into a nice, ambling pace with glimmers of piano, strings, and even horns—the band’s increased production values definitely pay off here and in the other flashes of “full band” sound. Overall, the effect is that of a more mellow record than Guster’s made so far. Elements of past records’ smile-happy-folk-pop are still around, but Keep It Together is the sound of a band slowly getting a grip on their considerable abilities, while at the same time knowing what to do with their increased access to good production.

On about a third of the album, the gloss makes the songs less memorable; they’re fine while you’re listening to them, but they don’t linger. It’s hard to say if the band’s old stripped down feel would save these songs; in a few cases, they’d probably come across as generic either way. Other parts of the album, though, like “Come Downstairs and Say Hello”, “Red Oyster Cult”, and “Long Way Down”, are immediately memorable. These songs, where the band finds a balance between its homegrown sound and its ambition to stretch songs to their logical limits, are where Keep It Together really succeeds. It’s not often you can say that a Guster song rewards many repeated listens, but you get the feel that several of the new cuts feature a lot of nooks and crannies worth exploring. Guster still haven’t made the “perfect” Guster record, but they’re moving ahead in a logical fashion and giving us something subtly new each time. The jury’s still out on the drum kit, though.

Andrew Gilstrap is a freelance writer living in South Carolina, where he's able to endure the few weeks each year that it's actually freezing (swearing a vow that if he ever moves, it'll be even farther south). Aging into a fine curmudgeon whose idea of heaven is 40 tree-covered acres away from the world, he increasingly wishes he were part of a pair of twins, just so he could try being the kinda evil one on for size. Musically, he's always scouring records for that one moment that makes him feel like he's never heard music before, but he long ago realized he needs to keep his copies of John Prine, Crowded House, the Replacements, Kate Bush, and Tom Waits within easy reach.

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