[4 October 2006]
As the New York Times has now noted in three separate features this spring, underground culture, particularly underground rock culture, is in the process of being taken over by bearish men with bushy beards. First there was there was Will Oldham with his umpteen band-names—Palace Music, Bonnie “Prince” Billy—all standing for the same kind of introspective, sometimes humorous, stripped-down folk. Then Sam Beam, a.k.a. Iron and Wine, another pioneer of that particularly low-key brand of strum-and-hum music now regrettably being called sadcore. And now there’s John Roderick, the singer-songwriter behind Seattle indie rock outfit, the Long Winters, who in his publicity shots looks like nothing so much as a poli-sci prof at some liberal arts college in small-town New England. Perusing the lyrics sheet of his most recent release, Putting the Days to Bed, you might easily form an idea of the kind of music contained on the album—languid but complicated guitar arrangements, low-key, double-tracked vocals, all showcasing the literary talents and emotional dysfunctions of yet another minor-chord-loving book-nerd.
But you’d be wrong. Unlike like other hairy purveyors of literate, introspective lyrics, the Long Winters is unabashedly a pop band. The words may exhibit a grasp of metaphor and image that would leave plenty of other indie rockers crying behind their black-rimmed glasses, but the power-chords and broad, Steven Page-esque vocals railroad (or, depending on your perspective, elevate) those subtleties to a bit of baroque ornamentation on a well-built piece of pop machinery. That’s no accident, as lead singer Roderick has made clear in numerous interviews that he’s wary of music that serves as a mere tool of self-reflection for the artist. He claims it’s important part of his music that it “do work” in other peoples’ lives. “There are songs out there that make people happy, simple as that, and there are songs that help people to be alright even though they’re sad. I could easily write sad-bastard music all day, featuring one lonely guitar and a glockenspiel, but I choose to make rock music because it’s fun and life-affirming and there are plenty of young, bearded guys in denim jackets to fill the sad music void.”
It’s true, though, that he gets some publicity mileage out of his wise-woodcutter image, and maybe with reason. At 35, he’s had a good deal more life experience than other artists starting out on the power-pop circuit. He spent years playing in bands that never quite broke (including Western State Hurricanes, which fell apart after coming up just short of a deal with Sub Pop), before forming the Long Winters in 2001. He’s worked all the shitty jobs that starving artists are supposed to work—dishwasher, bank teller, professional slacker. He’s even gone down the academic route a little ways, doing a stint as a student instructor University of Washington before deciding to walk (literally) across Europe (it took him five months, and he even got university credit for his efforts by sending regular updates on his progress to a professor). Roderick says he feels nothing but grateful for the quirks of fate that kept his music on the sidelines all those years—he believes his early obscurity helped keep him safe until he reached an age where he could actually deal with success. “I have no doubt that if I had had access to money, or the justification that fame gives young men to behave badly, I would have dusted myself off at an early age. Some guys just aren’t meant to live through their early 20s, but for the grace of god, or stupid luck, or whatever, I made it despite all evidence that I [shouldn’t have]”.
These days, though, he’s a lot more sanguine about the potential effects of fame on his life. “Being a rock star doesn’t feel like it holds the same dangers [now]”, he says. “Unless you count frequent flier miles or accidents on the road. My days of snorting coke off a hooker’s ass are long over.”
That’s good, because with three previous Barsuk Records (Death Cab For Cutie, They Might Be Giants) releases under their belt, 2002’s The Worst You Can Do is Harm, 2003’s When I Pretend to Fall and 2005’s EP Ultimatum, and with props coming in from both the indie rock touchstones (diw, Magnet, Filter, Paste) and the, um, adult-world press (New York Times, NPR) it looks like the Long Winters are poised for popular success.
And they probably even deserve it. Putting the Days to Bed is a well-crafted, radio-friendly album that still manages, at times, to be more than that. The tunes, though catchy, don’t stand out—think boppier Hootie and the Blowfish riffs topped with Barenaked Ladies vocals—but the lyrics do. Roderick is in many ways at his best at his most banal and prosaic (even if he bristles at the latter word, protesting: “I never settle for a sentiment that seems to me banal or commonplace, and if a particular phrase sounds like a well-worn cliché, it’s usually an attempt to make a comment on a character’s dull personality”). The extended metaphors that must give a great deal of pleasure to him as author, are apt to strike a more dispassionate ear as awkward and self-indulgent. For example: “If I hold you now will I be holding a snowball / When the season changes and I’m craving the sun?” But when he doesn’t try too hard, when he sticks to the simplest, most prosaic of sentiments, he stands with the best of lyricists (Springsteen, that is, not Dylan) in laying bare the grief in ordinary conversation: “You never told me your secrets / So I guess they stay safe with me”—or the resonances in the most mundane metaphors: “You keep scratching the paint / But the room is still there / And the wood is still there”.
Besides, Roderick’s strength as a lyricist, whether or not he wants to admit it, is really more narrative than poetic. The weakest songs, lyrically, on Putting the Days to Bed, are those where he substitutes poetic shorthand for flesh-and-blood detail. In “Teaspoon”, what seems to be a drugs/murder ballad falls flat when it provides too little backstory for the listener to feel much more than confusion towards the characters, opting instead for overwrought metaphors: “Two can just bleed into one / Where only one does the bleeding”. The strongest are tracks like “Hindsight”, or “Seven”, where the poetry is in all in the context, in the simple, stark things that people say to each other when the worst has already happened.
The Barsuk Records press release describes Putting the Days to Bed as “songs that make you feel like you’ve been talking to someone really interesting in the airport for the last hour”. Unlike most press releases, this one actually hits the nail on the head, though maybe not quite in the way the publicist intended. Picking up a Long Winters album is a lot like falling into conversation with an unusually loquacious stranger in the terminal—a hit and miss affair, often pleasant, sometimes awkward, and peppered with one-liners that are funny, occasionally profound in their funniness, occasionally embarrassing in their attempts at profundity. Roderick must strive to be the kind of stranger that you want to exchange email addresses with at the end of the hour’s talk, not the kind that has you surreptitiously glancing at your watch, wondering when your plane will be called.