Fourteen meditations on forgiveness and turning over a new leaf.
Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Anger is a rather lengthy title for a rock album. The designation, rather, seems more in line with a worship service sermon or a psychologist’s aphorism, where the affected audience members are encouraged to make daily changes to their lifestyles. For River City Extension front man and lyricist, Joe Michelini, the phrase, which is paraphrased from Ephesians 4:26 but was heard repeatedly from his mother while growing up, made perfect sense as a heading for his group’s latest album. See, Michelini has apparently spent much of the past decade acting like somewhat of an ass, a trait that surely alienated many of those around him. Rather than continuing along that same path, Michelini made the effort to change:
For the most part, these songs represent a darker period in my life when I really didn’t like myself. I was still young and still learning, and a lot of people were probably hurt by the person I was at the time. And as I grew up and started to make some changes in my life, I was inspired to write about these situations.
So, it is that the genesis of this album was formed. But what kind of songwriter is Michelini? Is he a cheeky troubadour able to poke fun at his past indiscretions? Or is he a maudlin balladeer filled with earnest declarations of repentance? He is not referencing a new type of writing inspiration here, as countless others across the popular music canon have invoked prior imprudence as subject matter, so his approach to the songs do matter, if the listening audience is to take his words seriously. In press releases accompanying the album’s release, Michelini plays hard on his musical references, citing heavyweights Townes, My Morning Jacket, St. Vincent, Feist, and Conor Oberst as influences on his creative processes. While these odes are noble and show refined tastes, they are still no substitute for the real, genuine voice that must come from within, a personally unique persona that pays homage to your heroes, but comes through authentic and true. It’s here that this album’s 14 tracks come up a bit hollow, for it appears that though, Michelini has a lot he wants to say, he spends nearly an hour saying very little.
Michelini’s aims for Townes territory but ends up sounding a bit more like, say, Adam Duritz, wearing his heart on his sleeve and pouring forth melodrama where restraint would be better. Dramatic flair is all over this album. "Since when did I write poetry / Since words didn’t mean a thing to me / Since bein’ down meant singin’ more / Since I became so insecure," he declaratively states on "Slander". "I never meant to cause you pain / And none of this was for my gain / You can doubt me all the same / It’s what I deserve, it’s what I have earned,: he sings in the slowly, pulsating mid-album track, "The Fall and the Need to be Free". And then towards the end of the album in "There & Back Again": "I preach forgiveness / Like it’s what I deserve / I need a symptom / Like I need a cure." Okay, we get it, you were kind of a mess. And, while we never get specifics about the things he did to become so repentant, we sure do get a lot of detail about how he’s feeling and how he wants to redeem himself. Michelini claims there are also songs about love on this album, but with all the hand-wringing over past mistakes, it becomes fairly easy to tune out the cheers. Curiously, he also seems to have a thing about geography, as Glastonbury, Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Oregon, and an unnamed Southern town all appear in song titles. Shout outs to the band’s native New Jersey, however are sadly absent.
While most of this review has centered on Michelini as a lyricist, it’s important to note that he is actually fronting an eight-member ensemble, not simply using River City Extension as a nom de plume. The songs are gussied up with various instruments that range from tuba, tenor sax, and trumpet; to pedal steel, violin, and banjo and use boy/girl harmonies to jazz up certain verses and choruses. The music flourishes and whirls around the lyrics, giving the songs a healthy and earthy dose of rhythm that they otherwise would lack. The soundscape makes the album better and more interesting to listen to, but borrows too liberally from its influences. There are traces of Belle and Sebastian twee, Avett Bros/Mumford and Sons neo-folk, Love Language sun-pop and Jack Johnson mellowness scattered throughout the album. It’s fair to say that Brian Deck, the veteran indie-rock producer manning the boards for this album, should have helped the band find a slightly more unique voice. And I’m not sure whose album was actually completed first, but this band sure sounds a lot like The Head and the Heart, the decorated Seattle outfit that has parlayed the aforementioned Avett/Mumford vibe to great success and acclaim.
Michelini seems dedicated to the craft of songwriting and he has assembled a talented group of musicians to better illustrate his musings. Here, though, both the lyrics and the sound are too singularly focused. It would serve River City Extension well to venture a bit more outside the box on their next album and add other perspectives and viewpoints. Otherwise, there proclamations run the risk of falling on deaf ears.