[8 July 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It’s hard to tell what the real Henry Clay—the 19th-century Kentucky senator known as “the Great Compromiser”—has to do with the Henry Clay People. First off, the band is based in L.A. Second, and more importantly, listening to Somewhere on the Golden Coast, there isn’t a hint of compromise to be found anywhere on the record. These guys pull off a number of tough tasks on this album, and they manage to do them all at once. They’re both a beer-soaked rock band and a sweet, SoCal pop act. There’s both a youthful energy and a mature complexity to these songs, and while the lyrics are clever, the band always come across with a guileless, pretense-free vibe at every turn.
There’s also a timeliness to this record that works in its favor. People struggle to find work, musicians grapple with the digital world of commerce and, in general, people are hoping for a brighter day. But to corner the album as solely a recession record is to give it short shrift. Because while the topics tackled here are timely, for sure, frontman Joey Siara and the rest of the band sound, for all the world, like they come from a place where this is their everyday. It’s a place where stimulus packages, health care plans and tax cuts aren’t solutions to the problem but merely the latest changes in the program.
In a broader sense, this record is about a search for permanence, which may be an unsurprising theme from a bunch of 20-somethings. But they pull it off with both honesty and hope. This isn’t woe-is-me navel-gazing. This is a group of guys searching for the next thing. “We were working part time, all the time,” Siara belts out on “Working Part Time”, not only the best song here, but perhaps the best rock song of the year. It’s not only a quick burst of life right upfront in the record. The line introduces a number of sentiments that run through the record. It hits on the fear of unemployment we’re all stuck under, but also gives us the perspective that we’ll get on the rest of the record. These guys have busted their asses for a few bucks—admittedly, “We’d get drunk and call in sick, when we felt like it”—and they’re ready for something better.
There’s also that past tense Siara employs that is worth noting. Most of the lyrics here get delivered in past tense, but you get the impression that these are very much present concerns. That tense shift, rather than marking a distance between Siara and his hurdles, coats everything in a subtle optimism. It’s as if only talking about these things like they have passed is the first step to moving on.
The band’s sound, behind these tales of part-time jobs and scraping out a living with your music, braces that notion of moving forward, since they are nothing short of propulsive through the whole record. “Working Part Time” and other lean rockers like “Slow Burn”, another highlight, and “This Ain’t a Scene” mesh a bar band’s ragged urgency with just a hint of West Coast haze. They’ll sneak in a sliding guitar riff, or loosen up the percussion just enough to give the record a unique laid-back feel. These guys want something better, sure, but they’re not pressing. “We are damaged but we’re still good / though I’ve waited longer than I should,” Siara sings in the quiet opening to “A Temporary Fix”. While the song builds slowly, it never comes undone. Guitars echo out into space, and Siara’s vocals, usually at a youthful bark, keep their unassuming hush. The band keeps pressing on, shifting into the towering arena rock of “Saturday Night”.
Somewhere on the Golden Coast is, front to back, a pitch-perfect rock record. The songs are smart, the hooks are infectious, and each note is delivered with a confidence that’s stunning for such a young band. It would be enough if this album said something about our big worries today, and it does that. But the Henry Clay People are more interested in a timeless sound than a timely record, and they reach that lofty goal here.