Not so long ago there was a band called the Anniversary. Their earnest heartbroken lyrics and power pop sound got them lumped into a genre called “emo”. As I recall, that meant “emotional”. The Anniversary was good at what it did. As the band grew from teenagers to young adults they showed signs of an underlying complexity that many wouldn’t give them credit for. The last album they made before breaking up, Your Majesty, was more psychedelic in sound and spirit than “emo.” Josh Berwanger and Justin Roelofs, who began writing songs for the Anniversary when he was 17 years old, were clearly starting to hear different sounds in their heads. So it was a bit of a surprise that upon the break-up of the Anniversary, Berwanger, unlike Roelofs, didn’t go the solo album route. Instead he recruited former bandmates James David and Christian Jankowski, along with Casey Priestwood from Hot Rod Circuit, Heidi Gluck of Some Girls and the Pieces, and New York bluesman T.K. Webb to form the Only Children. The crew headed to Colorado with producer Marc Benning, and set about putting their first album to tape. The results leave the sound of the Anniversary far behind.
According to Berwanger, the writing process for Change of Living brought him in touch with his long neglected musical influences. He cites Neil Young, John Fahey, and Lightnin’ Hopkins as his musical forebearers. I would add to that list the Allman Brothers, Little Feat, the Marshall Tucker Band, and the Black Crowes, as Berwanger has clearly gotten in touch with his inner Southern rocker. It seems a country-rock muse has touched Berwanger. Unfortunately, simply chasing influences without tempering them with originality can have negative results. That’s the difference between being an imitator and being an innovator: adding something lasting to the legacy of American music versus regurgitating it.
Berwanger writes good songs. He reaches deep into the back catalog of just about every great Southern rock band our country has produced, finds a dusty gem of a riff, cleans it off and writes different lyrics. The Only Children do an excellent job of aping their influences, but why listen to Change of Living when you can just as easily hear better versions of this music in its original form?
The Allman Brothers Band and Little Feat brought elements of jazz to the rock and roll table, producing a distinguished sound that set them apart from the myriad other bands south of the Mason-Dixon line. The Flying Burrito Brothers and Buffalo Springfield set themselves apart from the glossy country rock of southern California by incorporating Beach Boys-like harmonies. On the more modern tip, you can hear My Morning Jacket’s Southern rock influences all over And It Still Moves, but there’s an originality of intent on that record, coupled with a strong indie-rock ethos, that creates something special. The Drive-By Truckers also wear their influences on their sleeves. I imagine Berwanger and Patterson Hood would share a lot of common ground during a conversation about influences. But simply sharing influences doesn’t put Change of Living on par with Decoration Day or Southern Rock Opera. The Drive-by Truckers digested their Southern rock influences, soaked up the vibe of playing the music live, and returned the favor by adding pieces of themselves to the canon. The same thing can be said for Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne or Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac. It may seem unfair to hold the Only Children’s Change of Living to the standard set by albums that originally defined or updated a genre, but it is a standard they seem eager to embrace. They just hug those influences so tight you can’t hear anything else.
The most difficult thing about Change of Living is listening to Berwanger sing, in an affected southern drawl, lyrics that seem at best unconvincing. The album opener “Sky Begins to Storm” is a fine song. It opens with a slow acoustic strum chased by a languid piano. Berwanger sings, “I went down to New York City with an ice cold switch blade in my hand” and follows that with the sage advice given by the ever-present “old man” not to “think twice, boy, if you’re going to kill a man”. The song blossoms into a tale of lost love; a galloping drum beat and smooth slide guitar complement Berwanger as he engages in a duet with Gluck that goes along these lines:
Berwanger: “I drove down to South Carolina where my woman said she’d gone.”
Gluck: “Honey, it’s over, I’m leaving.”
Berwanger and Gluck: “You’ve been cheatin’, drinkin’, far too damn long.”
I looked but there’s neither tongue nor cheek involved. I can’t say for sure, but I’m pretty certain that Berwanger hasn’t pulled a switchblade on anyone recently or chased a love down south. It’s not that a songwriter has to do these things in order to sing about them, but they need to sound convincing if they’re going to.
The album’s title song “Change of Living” opens with a snaking guitar riff that would make Skynyrd proud before opening up into a decent bar room rave up that has a bridge dosed in My Morning Jacket reverb. Every song on the album is packed with heartbreak and tears. On “Jesus Came Too Late” we get both the line, “You were a soldier in this life, born to kill and born to die”, and “her heart was broken and her lips were red, so she took off with another man”. Again, the song is a serviceable echo of all the good qualities of Southern rock: harmonica, slide guitar, a lilting harmony carried by an acoustic guitar. But while it may be excusable to imitate better bands, it’s dishonest to take their hard-earned lyrical territory and claim it as your own. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but at some point it becomes robbery.
While there were criticisms leveled at the Anniversary (and all “emo” bands for that matter), you can’t argue that they lacked a heartfelt connection to their music. Perhaps it was the youthfulness of the Anniversary that did it, but you heard honesty in what they played, no matter how awkwardly it may have been delivered. Berwanger and company would do well to remember that.