It’s all so complete and confident-sounding that it’s a bit of a surprise to discover that Daily’s biggest gig thus far was as a sideman, not a frontman. Five years after founding the Chicago punk band Not Rebecca, Daily joined the Smoking Popes as their new guitarist, a placement that took him into a more mainstream music world, without giving him much name recognition. After that band disbanded, he began a solo career, leading to his 1999 album Happily Deceiving Culture and now to The Burlington Northern, both on Thick Records.
The Burlington Northern is an accomplished piece of fuzzy pop/rock, from the emotionally churning opener “The Kids Are Not Alright”, a meditation on the recent news-making school shootings and the broader generational issues that come with them, to the enigmatic, rising rock ballad “Oh My”. The songs between don’t bear many flaws to these ears; they’re all pleasantly rocking and puzzingly poetic, and a few of them are outright jewels. One is “World of Yawns”, a Superchunk-ish rocker (as, truth be told, many of the more rocking songs here are) that reinforces the idea that life’s biggest pleasures are the simplest. It’s nothing innovative, just a sublimely energetic guitar-rock song, with lyrics that set an appropriate car travel scene and then slyly conjure up a feeling of loss and regret with the fewest of words.
Even if you’re like me, and a sticker proclaiming that a CD featured an ex-member of the Smoking Popes would make you quickly skip ahead, you’d be missing out if you overlooked The Burlington Northern. From its darkest, most melancholy moments (“I Am in a Time Machine” and “Your Walkman”) to the giddiest of pop minutes (like the gorgeous, relaxed summer ballad “On the Chin”), Tom Daily and friends are right on the mark, making me wonder what the anonymous side players in the latest yawn-inducing band of the moment are truly capable of when set out on their own.