Pop music ain't easy, but damn can Guster make it look effortless.
Guster is a band in a great place. They're popular, but not overly so. They have legions of fans, but can still walk out on the street and pass off as regular people. They don't get Grammys, but get acclaim enough. They're a cult band with a passive cult. When Guster released Ganging Up On the Sun at the start of the summer, it debuted at #25 on the album charts -- a great feat for any band, but deliciously typical for Guster.
What's the appeal? They're hardly pop apologists -- they make no bones about writing blatantly catchy pop songs. Sometimes they rock out, other times they just snag a melody that will remain in your head for weeks (like their immortal classic "Fa Fa"). Hardcore fans claim that they change from album-to-album, much in the same way that Collective Soul fans claim their favorite band does the same. The truth is, neither band does -- they just deviate slightly from the same formula. In 2006, Guster have chosen to go just a wee-bit melancholy, crafting an above-average pop album and a typically average Guster album -- and there's nothing wrong with that.
Sun opens with "Lightning Rod" -- a meditative guitar opener that's downbeat but not sad. Ryan Miller's soft background vocal coos perfectly contrast his stark lyrics:
Stead on this high rise like every lightning rod,
And all these clouds are boiling over,
Swimming in adrenaline, the sky is caving in,
But I will remain an honest soldier.
This fine opener sets the stage for an LP of simple -- but not explosive -- moments. The problem? After awhile, it blends together. "The Captain" is a perfectly fine pop ditty with a bit of an Old 97's vibe thrown in, but following the generic "One Man Wrecking Machine", the differentiation is negligible. Same goes for the nice mid-tempo rocker "C'mon", which happens to follow the 7-minute epic "Ruby Falls" -- a song that, in all of its musical ambition (horn sections at the end and all), doesn't seem to go anywhere. (Even more of a downer is how "Ruby" is drummer Brian Rosenworcel's solo lyrical turn, and though this isn't exactly a huge lyrical homerun, his time to shine feels diminished by the unimaginative production that surrounds Miller's everyman singing style.)
With these qualms aside, however, there are some truly fantastic moments for the band, some of which rank with their best. Most notable -- and the undeniable album highlight -- is the bouncy piano rocker "Manifest Destiny". Finding beauty in simplicity, the band doesn't overwhelm itself musically like "Ruby Falls", instead relying on only a couple of chords, and simple-but-fun lyrics like "You and I could quit the scene, / Built a town and then secede, / Like an Adam and an Eve". Also worth noting is the excellent "Satellite", an acoustic-driven love ballad that kicks with enough energy and propulsion that it could easily make a dent on the rock charts if so released as a single. Pop music ain't easy, but damn can Guster make it look effortless.
Is Ganging Up On the Sun going to turn out to be the band's masterpiece (or at least as lasting as Lost and Gone Forever)? Doubtful -- but Guster were never an album band. One has to look at their discography as a whole to get perspective on why they're as revered as they are. No single song defines them, nor one single album, video, or moment. They're just a good band. This is just a good album -- and at the end of the day, sometimes that's all you need.