There’s taking a break and then there’s breaking away completely. Once the frontman for a highly touted Seattle band called the Western State Hurricanes, John Roderick decided he needed a break from music when his band imploded amidst a surfeit of hype before releasing a single song. That break took him on an unusual journey worthy of epic poem or an old U2 song: covering the span of Europe by himself on foot over five months. When he returned, he put in time as a touring keyboardist with Harvey Danger (they of one-hit “Flagpole Sitta” fame) before he finally found what he was looking for in a new musical project called the Long Winters.
When I Pretend to Fall is the Long Winters‘ second album, after 2002’s The Worst You Can Do Is Harm. Harm was basically a John Roderick solo project that was later fleshed out when he needed a band for touring. That touring band, featuring backing vocalist (and Harvey Danger bandmate) Sean Nelson, bassist Eric Corson, drummer Michael Schilling, and keyboardist Ken Stringfellow (of Pacific Northwest power pop gods the Posies) is now more or less a full-time gig. On When I Pretend to Fall, Roderick still writes all the songs, but the musical arrangements seem to really benefit from the increased participation and collaboration, with subtle horns, strings, and saxophone all showing up at well-timed points in the guitar-, rhythm section- and keyboard-focused mix. The album features a host of high profile guests, including R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, the Minus 5’s Scott McCaughey, and American Analog Set’s Sean Ripple, with production help from Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, so it’s obvious that a lot of very talented people are on board with Roderick’s vision. As one might expect from such a well-seasoned cast of characters, When I Pretend To Fall is a mature and nuanced work, full of well-crafted songs and superior musicianship.
Roderick writes strange pop songs without easy resolutions; the phrases go on beyond where they seem they should stop, the verse is sometimes blank when it seems it should rhyme, the hooks aren’t always easy to hold onto, and the lyrics are often opaque rather than confessional or anecdotal. The album traverses a number of styles, but alt-country twinges and soulful alt-rock cadences are dominant. Songs like “Shapes”, “Cinnamon”, with its mandolin counter-lines and its lyrics more spoken than sung, and “Bride and Bridle”, which includes some subdued female harmonies and a harmonica, exhibit these penchants in stirring and beautiful ways.
One of the few straight-ahead pop songs featuring an instantly recognizable scenario is also one of the most instantly embraceable. “Stupid” is a tale of continuing to pursue the dream girl against all reason and better judgment for fear of missing out on a shot at something real. The chorus — “Stupid, you could call it that / Stupid, but you have no idea / How stupid I would feel / If 15 years from now I see her / And she says why didn’t it happen between us, stupid?” — captures just the right degree of angst for the situation.
Unfortunately, this winner is followed by one of the few missteps on the album. “Prom Night at Hater High”, a rave-up masquerading under a bad pop-punk song title, just doesn’t hit my ear right: the exuberance seems a little forced, the lyrics a tad too unbelievably bitter for someone quite a few years away from his own prom. Luckily, the next track, “New Girl”, is a really fun rocker and continues the momentum of the album, as does “The Sound of Coming Down”, a leisurely paced number with a droning guitar line.
There are quiet gems on When I Pretend to Fall as well. Two numbers, “Blanket Hog” and “Nora”, recall the starker moments of R.E.M. Roderick’s voice sounds eerily like Michael Stipe’s, all longing and long phrases. “Blanket Hog” extends into an orchestral interlude featuring strings and piano that’s surprisingly well done. “It’ll Be a Breeze” is simplicity itself, just some strums on an acoustic guitar, and Roderick’s plaintive vocals. The heartbreaking lyrics and tender refrain of “It’ll be a breeze / Is it your kisses I’m feeling?” is just plain pretty.
When I Pretend to Fall is truly a fine achievement, from a band from whom more great things should surely come. With or without another break for frontman John Roderick.