Durham, North Carolina’s Schooner has had a strange kind of success. Their excellent first album, 2007’s Hold On Too Tight, was a sweet pop gem, but then frontman Reid Johnson took time to re-evaluate his musical future and band members left or got jobs. The band, or some of them, returned for the well-received Duck Kee Sessions in 2010, which garnered the band SXSW shows and notice from outlets like Paste. But then the core changed, or rather Reid Johnson was the only original member left as recording for Neighborhood Veins began.
So each success has also had some sort of loss behind it like a shadow. To hear Neighborhood Veins, though, it’s hard not to feel like all those changes were – in one way or another – a blessing. This gauzy, blown-out, beautiful pop record is the crowning achievement for Schooner and singer-songwriter Reid Johnson. It’s the first national release from boutique label Potluck, and it’s tough to imagine a better soundtrack to that coming out party.
This is an album that seems to work in parts, or loosely formed suites. It’s an album that doesn’t ignore the past, doesn’t ignore the yesterdays good and bad that brought on today, but it also never falls into over-sentimentalizing loss and avoids the all-too-obvious trap of nostalgia. Instead, Johnson and company – the excellent core band with him is made up of Maria Albani, Joshua Carpenter, and Chris Badger – assess the past, mine it for lessons, and then work to leave it behind.
Opener “It Won’t Matter” is, from the echoed vocals to the big, fuzzy pop landscape it inhabits, a huge, haunted number. It may worry over how things could “haunt you in your sleep,” how a “ringing in your ear” can be its own ghost. But while Johnson belts out “it might matter for a while,” he later decides (and repeats often) “it won’t matter before too long.” The jangling chug of “Trap” and the overcast shuffle of “Floodlights and Ghosts” are as troubled as their titles imply. Johnson’s vocals are still buried in reverbs, surrounded on all sides by the crashing drums, the tight-wire guitars, the humming keys. But if “storms have blown” in these songs, they’ve also passed. The pain here is fresh but it is not present and these early songs feel like a stock-taking session, a chance to kick up the dust again just to see what’s there when it settles.
So it’s fitting that a song titled “Feel Better” – a maxed-out reworking of a song from Duck Kee Sessions – marks a shift in the song. Johnson’s vocals clear a bit and come to the forefront, and the band subs a serrated haze for a single sharp edge. You can hear the change in Johnson, the growing distance from that shadowed past, when he admits “I feel better now” and he seems to let go of “ghosts that still remain.” More important though is the refrain of just “I feel”. It doesn’t always have to be better, it just has to not be numb. It’s that feeling that lets the band open up into the soulful centerpiece of the record, the unabashedly sweet and clarion-clear “Still in Love”. It’s a tribute to love in the face of any tragedy the world can throw at you, the darks news it can lay at your doorstep. But it’s layered vocals, the group of singers backing up Johnson, implies this is no couple shutting itself away, this is a communal refrain.
If the opening of the record felt like a bleary-eyed morning after, this second shift in the record is all midday sunlight, the moment where you haven’t forgotten the night before but the day still holds promise. From there, after the culminating joy of “Ride With Me”, the album shifts into a bittersweet twilight, on the cautious optimism of songs like “Flames” and “Big Mistake”. These are songs driven by a front-porch acoustic shuffle – under the band’s unruly and perfect layers – but they also see ends as beginnings. “So what if I make a big mistake?” Johnson proclaims, now unafraid of what could go wrong, not licking wounds but rather internalizing the lessons scars leave behind. “Say My Name” threatens to repeat the cycle all over again when Johnson sings “say you’ve changed,” until he catches himself in a moment of romantic foolishness and, with every tuneful ounce of his voice he changes the demand to “Stay the same.”
Schooner of course has not stayed the same, or rather it doesn’t sound the same, and that is thanks not only to this core group but also to guest spots from a who’s-who of North Carolina artists from the Rosebuds’ Ivan Howard to Bowerbirds’ Phill Moore to Catherine Edgerton, John Harrison, Clarq Bloomquist and so on. Neighborhood Veins truly is a community effort, a group coming together to realize a vision, an expansive sound. In a time where musical communities seem digital, where music seems so removed from place and tradition that we have to invent absurd sub-genres like witch house and chillwave, this record is a refreshing reminder that music is still geographical, still built from the ground up in, yes, neighborhoods.
It’s fitting, then, that the final song here – a title track – is 12 minutes of expanding noise. Guitars strum and keys bleat and atmospherics swell. Vocals drift in and out. It all threatens to form into song, but never quite does. It’s indulgent, but the indulgence here – the same that makes all these other songs perfectly frayed at the edges, risky in their size and blurry shape – is a charm, a final giving from an album that gives all the way through. It’s a final expending of oxygen from Johnson and company. His rock-crooners voice has been spent and it’s this last burst of energy that sends those veins through the community, sure, but then out and away, towards us the listener. It’s up to us to hear these songs, to feel them thump and rattle in our chests as those veins make their way to us, and for us to pump the oxygen back in as we flip that record over one more time.
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