[26 September 2001]
Okay, right off the bat, let’s acknowledge the Paul McCartney influence here. Matt Nichols of KEXP radio in Seattle said of Rewriting the Wrongs that “At times, the record seriously sounds like the best Wings album never recorded”. And he’s right. If there’s ever been an album that wore its Beatles influences proudly on its sleeve (and we all know there have been many), then this is it.
It’s in everything from the blues-rock of “Personal Demons” to the “Daytripper”-esque riff hooks of “Malkamus”. Robb Benson, the primary music writer and lead vocalist for Dear John Letters obviously loves Paul McCartney. Although you’d never mistake his undeniably Northwest American voice for that of the most wealthy musician ever, his vocal style, as well as the compositions on this disc, revel in playing with the Walrus’s paintbox, in shades that incorporate both the Beatles and Wings. If Paul really is dead, then Benson is doing a fair job of channeling him.
But Benson is a devotee who is aware of a few other musical touchstones of the past as well. When he and producer/bassist Johnny Sangster put their voices to harmony on tunes like “The Untitled Song”, there are as many hints of Simon and Garfunkle as there are of Lennon and McCartney. The clanging guitar intro on “Love Junkie” nods to the pre- and post-punk eras as well, and the great fusion of three styles on the track, moving from pogo-ing garage guitar and tense lines into a power pop chorus and then into a retro ‘60s bridge, shows that Dear John Letters is aware of its contemporary place as inheritors of the past as a pallet to work with rather than be directed by.
And, of course, Dear John Letters exists within the realms of the Seattle musical scene. Benson’s pedigree harkens back to his old band, The Nevada Bachelors, and his own work as a solo artist. Both Benson’s solo EP and Rewriting the Wrongs are co-produced by Sangster, who joined the band to play lead guitar, bass, keys, and various other instruments, and who has also produced the Makers and the Posies, a band that certainly shares Benson’s affinity for classic pop sounds. In fact, the live debut of Dear John Letters came opening for the Posies in their native Seattle. And while the sweet guitar pop and different spelling of “Malkamus” might not suggest Stephen Malkmus of Pavement fame, it seems like too strange a coincidence to ignore.
What sets Dear John Letters apart from the vast majority of other bands that rely on the Beatles or McCartney or just some revival style for inspiration is that it pulls off the whole thing with so much flair. Everything from the low-fi, garage production aesthetic to the skill with which Benson merges the sounds of his heroes into a sort of timeless sonic soup speaks to the fact that Dear John Letters is not merely imitating or playing with retro irony, but is in fact playing their true passion. Any of these things could be faked, but usually it’s pretty obvious to spot the poseurs. Benson and company seem, in contrast, unabashedly sincere, a trait that in this day and age works as much for their retro feel as the sounds the band create.
Some of this must surely be the result of the collaborative nature of the band. While Benson is more or less singularly responsible for the musical compositions, the lyrics are the work of Michelle Price, who doesn’t play an instrument but is given lead credit on the sleeve for “Poetry & Lyrics”. Drummer Cassady Laton is responsible for all the rhythm arrangements as well. It’s frustrating that neither the insert nor the band’s website give lyric sheets for the songs, because Price’s poetry seems worthy of reading, but allowing someone with Benson’s musical proclivities to set music to the words and then interpret how they should be sung results in some powerful songs. Although they come from different musical and emotive places, the same feeling of sung poetry that John S. Hall evoked with King Missile can be discerned here.
If there’s a weakness to Rewriting the Wrongs, it’s the few tracks that came from early in the album’s sessions when Benson was going it solo. Although “The Untitled Song” may be one of the best tracks on the album, the song is built on its harmonies as well as its melodies rather than sounding like a one-man show. But for whatever reason, the final two tracks, “Rocks and Monsters” and “North” just sound pasted together. Even though there’s certainly a low-fi feeling to the whole album, these two songs lack the depth and rich sound that the rest of the band brings to the tunes.
On the whole, Dear John Letters is a band that deserves some real recognition. In Rewriting the Wrongs the band has managed to accomplish something that very few of their peers have pulled off. Somehow they’ve balanced a contemporary indie aesthetic, an outsider musical genre, and the sounds of one of the most famous musicians of the 20th century into a contemporary album that stands on its own and makes Dear John Letters an act that seems fresh and vital instead of derivative.