Melodic jangle pop is hard to do well, but the Strawmen manage that feat time and again on their latest release, Saving Faded Dreams. This trio is comprised of accomplished musicians, and their combined skills make for a polished and enjoyable listen all around.
Borne out of past and present members of Christian rockers the 77s, the Strawmen are no strangers to making good music. Lead singer/lyricist/guitarist/songwriter Bill Harmon is an orthodox Christian and an electronic engineer who also finds the time to pursue his pop singer/songwriter dreams.
He’s enlisted his younger brother Mark (who currently plays bass for the 77s) to join him in the Strawmen. Rounding out the songwriting trio is David Leonhardt (former guitarist for the 77s), a talented keyboardist, lead guitarist, and hook-meister extraordinaire. Also joining them are the 77s’ Mike Roe (who helped produce the record and contributed back-up vocals and additional guitars), Scott Reams (on percussion) and Bruce Spencer (on drums).
The opening track, “Runaway”, gives you a good sense of what’s to come: impressive guitar-dominated music married to intelligent lyrics and Bill Harmon’s smooth vocal delivery surrounded by the occasional harmony. The Strawmen serve up the sound of confidence—as if they’ve had ten other records before this (in truth this CD was only preceded by various versions of a cassette-based first release entitled At Home). The song is a variant on advice from a friend. Rather than talk the person out of their intentions, there’s a sense of camaraderie and understanding of the necessity of having to run away at times, to discover that sometimes “you gotta cry alone.”
Harmon reminds me at times of a younger Nick Lowe, and many of the Leonhardt-penned tunes have that magical instant familiarity to them. One of my favorites, “It’s a Miracle”, is chock-full of pretty guitar sounds. The lyrics ply a fairly simple metaphor, noting how the sun “falls down and bounces back” miraculously, and links its to bouncing back from sorrow, experience, and hard times.
Mark Harmon’s songs are fairly catchy as well, as evidenced in “Cut It Loose”. Here, Bill’s lyrics tell the tale of another friendship/relationship affected over time: “I didn’t mean to take away the hunger in your eyes / I’m catching up on wasted years and I apologize / For all the hopelessness and fantasy that settled in my bones / You would think that after all these years / these ghosts would leave us alone.”
One of the minor quibbles I have with many of these songs is the way they have counterpoint lyrics as backup vocals in the choruses. The lines get sung at the same time and many of the backing lines get lost in the mix. This happens to a certain extent in the otherwise pleasant “Can’t Satisfy”, wherein life’s various and sundry challenges are better handled when flying and dancing. It’s all about the inner struggle and the search for satisfaction: “This arguing inside of me / why can’t I get along with what I see?”
Confusion and miscommunication are popular lyrical topics with Bill Harmon. In “Old News”, he conveys how unspoken words can be old news in relationships that never went right: “Bound for glory on a train from hell / jumped the track, didn’t land too well / How long has it been?” There’s a plea for more intimacy and waiting for a happy resolution in the ballad “Aggravation”.
In the title track, the Strawmen show a bit of their blues side. Starting with an acoustic verse intro, the song builds impressively into a powerful blues-tinged tour-de-force. Here the lyrics are about the imperfection of words (they “escape, do their damage and float away”), referred to as “the devil in my mouth.”
Another bluesy song (this one with a bit of a Latin flavor) is, appropriately enough, “Everything’s Turned Blue”. Here there are some fine instrumental performances, and lyrics that wax poetic: “One tree weeping like an altar / Dead center in the garden / All alone.”
One of the prettier tunes here, Leonhardt’s “The Reason Why”, treads the fine line of getting preachy in relating how knowing the reason why doesn’t necessarily make it right: “Too numb to cry, too tired to sleep and too mean to pray / Too lost to care, too scared to die and too late to say.”
Most CCM artists manage to keep their religious references cloaked in universals that make the songs enjoyable for all. This is the case with most of the Strawmen lyrical offerings—and certainly the music is fine all around (though the song “Innocent” does pull out the religious metaphors with a somewhat heavy hand).
There are two songs written entirely by Bill Harmon. “Find A Reason” is a wonderful song, chiming guitars and lyrics that again examine the difficulties of communication in a relationship, urging us to “find a reason, it’s alright that it’s all wrong.” Less successful is the closer, the folksy “Amputate”, which belabors a tale of an amputated heart in details that make it a little too harsh for my personal tastes.
One of the nicest surprises here is the Harmon brother collaboration “I Don’t Live There Anymore”. This jazzy track builds nicely into an infectious, haunting song and features some superb atmospheric bass work from Mark Harmon. Bill’s lyrics match the song’s tone well: “She still dances out in the rain / That streams from the eyes of God who always takes the longer view / Who sometimes blinks but never looks away.”
While this album has been around for almost a year, it’s only now branching out to a wider pop audience as those outside CCM circles are discovering its many charms. Saving Faded Dreams is an exceedingly pleasant collection of tracks, with accomplished music that recalls a number of jangle pop predecessors at times (à la the Byrds, REM, etc.), though influenced heavily by Nashville twang and infused with a mellow confident vibe. The lyrics are poignant and intelligent, yet rarely overbearing, suitably matched to the guitar-driven pop feel of the music.
If thoughtful, tuneful jangle pop is your thing, go to their site and give a listen. Trust me, these musicians know their stuff. As such, the pleasant sounds of Saving Faded Dreams just might surprise you.