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Music

Connections: Midnight Run

After the taut Into Sixes, the more fractured Midnight Run risks upsetting the formula the band has established, and yet that risk pays off at every turn.


Connections

Midnight Run

US Release: 2016-07-22
Label: Anyway
UK Release: 2016-07-22
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Columbus Ohio's Connections has spent its young life as a band cranking out albums, singles, EPs, and odds and sods with a remarkable consistency. The band's brand of crunchy power pop is so uniformly catchy and energetic, you'd be forgiven for thinking that, at first blush, that consistency means all their records sound the same. In fact, the band has been refining their sound, clearing out a bit of lo-fi hiss here, adding a layer of rock muscle there. By the time the band got to Into Sixes, its third full-length, Connections was writing its tightest songs ever, a perfect melding of infectious, basement-show zeal and bittersweet desperation.

So where could the band go from there? The answer comes in Midnight Run, the band's newest best album. Rather than melding the energetic with the bittersweet, Midnight Run fractures things a bit, pitting emotions against each other, establishing these excellent inner tensions in the songs that add an immediate emotional impact and a new complexity that makes these songs fascinating to return to. Connections stretched out a bit on last year's Five Imaginary Boys EP, trying on acoustic sketches and thornier tones. It's hard not to think of those great experiments when hearing Midnight Run, an album that risks upsetting the formula the band has established and yet, in taking that risk, offers some pretty serious rewards.

The shift is clear right from the start. Opener "Raise Awareness" has all the elements you'd expect from Connections: lean guitar riffs, Kevin Elliott's baying vocals, a rumbling yet melodic low-end under all that fuzz. But the song never breaks open, never sprints along on blistering drums. It's a catchy song, but it's also crowded with guitars. And yet, without the drums, it feels like something is missing. Elliott sings about "the fall of 84" -- likely a reference to his old band, Nash 84 -- and while there's hoping in the fact that his new band has a "new record", the song is hardly just song meta-introduction to Midnight Run. Instead, it's a mix of hope and worry, of uncertainty. The way he hangs on the word "again", as if the past was an anchor dragging it down, would seem like a heavy start if Elliott's voice wasn't capable of pulling that word to the surface every time.

The band spends the record cranking out flawless rock and roll, but also playing with our expectations every now and again. If there's a garage sensibility to Connections up to now, then "Month 2 Month" blows that wide open. The song, as catchy as anything the band's ever written, ends with Dave Capaldi's guitar solo reaching past garage doors with its sights on arena rafters. But it's not just a singular virtuoso performance. The solo wouldn't work if the rest of the band wasn't locked in, loud as ever, behind Capaldi. Bassist Philip Kim and drummer Mike O'Shaughnessy give all of these songs an impressive weight and subtle rhythmic sways and shifts, but in this song -- along with Andy Hampel's guitar -- the band sounds full of teeth-gritting determination. They also sound fearless, ready to fill any space, no matter the size, with these songs. This song is not the only surprise on the record, either. "Keepers" ends with a thick layer of arpeggiated keys, transforming a taut rocker into something epic. "Gross Lake" packs a subtler but no less impressive surprise, bringing the minor-chord jangle that sometimes sits on the edges of the band's sound front and center to brilliant effect.

Not all of the new shifts and lasting moments on Midnight Run are structural changes, though. This album brings desperation to the forefront and, after three full albums of sprinting, full-throated resolve, some of the most striking moments on this record are ones of near exhaustion. "All in All" tops this list, a slow-building mood piece in the middle of the record that doesn't lose the band's charm but does slow things down. As Elliott sings about "another hill that we can't climb", the deliberate rhythm and the ringing guitars make you feel the uphill trudge, the rubber-legged fatigue of it all. The song hardly signals giving up -- Elliott still ends up shouting to the ceiling with whatever energy he can muster -- but it takes a cold, hard look at how all this resilience, weathering cracked relationships and bands or band members long gone and the sometimes exhausting everyday, can take its toll in a way you can't ignore anymore.

So while it's hard to tell if Midnight Run is about running away or running free, it's certainly not about giving up. For every quiet or tired moment, there's a burst of energy to punch back. The unabashed romance of "Lisa" ("the girl was heaven sent") is both sweet and oddly angular, presenting optimism almost as an act of defiance. In other places, the path forward starts with a wish. "If we could only settle down / I could leave my weapons out," Elliott sings in "Weapons" and, despite the odd double meaning of the second line, you can feel Connections both wishing for stability and acknowledging that stability is a fragile concept, always capable of slipping into fleeting.

Without all these complications of emotion and texture, Midnight Run would still be an album of 15 super-catchy power-pop songs. But it's these added complications, and the band's dedication to shifting while still sounding like itself, that makes this record not just excellent but lasting. After tightening everything up on Into Sixes, Connections have busted their sound up into newly shaped parts. Midnight Run lets the seams show, and in seeing how the pieces fit together, in seeing the tense give and take between resilience and exhaustion, there's a ripple effect back through the band's catalog. We can hear different hidden gems and subtle textures every time we revisit these songs, but the album may also clue us in to surprises hidden in the band's other work as well. Midnight Run is not just a great album; it's an argument for a complexity that's always been there under Connections' consistency.

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