You need only flip through the booklet to The Long Winters’ debut, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm, to realize that this is far from your normal pop release. Apart from the sumptuous design of the thick booklet, which is printed on very high quality paper and includes your usual lyrics, baby pictures, and photos of scenery, bandleader John Roderick opted to include several letters addressed to him, presumably from ex-lovers and friends. One of them begins “John: You are a world-class bullshitter. You say you’ve quit lying to your friends, so I’m left to wonder if I’m not your friend.” Another includes the vicious lines “What could I possibly feel for you when you made me choose between my survival or being affected by you. You pull me close, to dance with me or whisper in my ear — but have you noticed, John, that I haven’t danced with you for an eternity?” Ouch! Although one may question the motivation of anyone who chooses to air such personal missives in the booklet of their CD, there’s no question that these letters are a preparation for the harrowing emotional rollercoaster that is this disc.
As mentioned above, The Long Winters is the latest project of a guy called John Roderick, whose resume includes previous membership in smartypants one-hit-wonders Harvey Danger, as well as his own band of several years ago, Western State Hurricanes. After dropping out of music altogether and walking across Europe, Roderick is back, and has assembled the Long Winters out of the ashes of several Seattle bands. However, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm was recorded before a live band had actually been assembled, and thus is purely a studio creation, bearing little relation to the live band that Roderick is currently fronting. This is noteworthy, because live, the Winters come across as a power-pop funhouse somewhere between Squeeze at their most buoyant and Elvis Costello at his most acidic, with some hints of such latter-day power pop acts as the Posies thrown in there for good measure.
The Worst You Can Do Is Harm, however, is a much more subdued affair. Although a few tracks kick up a storm of squalling guitars and strange noises, much more typical of the album is the contemplative “Mimi” or the opening “Give Me a Moment”, an extremely downcast number with the chorus “Give me a moment, I’ve been away / And I’ve been out of my head.” The two unifying threads on Harm are Roderick’s strong, almost midwestern voice, (which bears a slight resemblance to Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz, minus the flagrant melodrama, thank god) which is equally effective as a full-throated yell or a quiet croon; and Chris Walla’s inventive production. Anyone familiar with Death Cab for Cutie’s second record, We Have the Facts and We’re Votin’ Yes will immediately recognize Walla’s fingerprints all over this record. Although the warm analog nature of the production sometimes lends a slightly claustrophobic feel to the proceedings, it only serves to add to the emotional heft of Roderick’s songs.
And what songs! Although it took a few listens to adjust to the record’s extreme melancholy (mainly because I was expecting a buoyant power-pop headnodder), it didn’t take long to appreciate this new direction. The aforementioned “Give Me a Moment” opens the record on an extremely downcast note, with some backwards guitar and a lo-fi drum loop that could have been lifted directly off a Death Cab B-side. Roderick’s creaky, worn-out voice enters the picture with the words “Living my summers out in a hotel / Finally found a moment to set a spell / Heard things at home were going astray / Won’t you give me a moment, I’ve been away.” The chorus only adds to the melancholy, and a two-minute long outro, which begins with a Crazy Horse-like guitar solo, and ends with the aforementioned drum loop and a tinkling piano, proves a deliciously disorienting way to end the song. “Carparts”, the record’s second song, shows us the much more accessible, power-pop side to Roderick’s muse. “I’m leaving you all of my carparts / I didn’t have the money or I would have gotten roses,” begins the song in a wonderfully confused fashion, with Roderick’s voice in full flower. “You put all your hope in my slim chance / I didn’t know I had,” sings Roderick in the chorus, and it’s one of the many times throughout the record that he seems to be apologizing for his own existence.
In fact, this disc seems very much like Roderick’s way of wiping his personal slate clean. Although not all of these songs are necessarily autobiographical, it’s more than obvious that a good percentage of them are. When songwriters take pages of their diary and turn them into song, the results are usually more than a little bit queasy - however, Roderick is a skilled enough songwriter to turn his personal traumas and heartbreaks into universally appealing subject matter. Whether it’s the subtle tale of drug abuse related in “Medicine Cabinet Pirate” (“There’s a chance that no one would know / There’s a chance that it wouldn’t show . . . You were waiting for my luck to run out”) to the paranoia of “Samaritan (“I need to get the hell out of here / I’m sure the cops are on their way / Please forget my face”), Roderick is never too obvious nor too melodramatic. Although his lyrics are, more often than not, relatively vague, like the best songwriters, he uses his vocal delivery to imply additional meaning that his words merely hint at. Musically, the songs range in tone from the folky shuffle of “Samaritan” to the intense emoting of “Scent of Lime” (“It never rains enough to cool my fever / All it does is rain” to the atmospheric indie-pop of Mimi, which once again could be compared to the mellower moments of a Death Cab For Cutie record. Elsewhere, Jim Roth’s pedal steel snakes a path through “Government Loans”, providing one of the more elegiac atmospheres on the record.
In the end, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm resolves itself as being quite comfortable with its identity as a difficult pop record. Roderick never comes across as too smart for his own good, and his lyrics, while quite witty at times, are also very plainspoken. Walla’s production can seem distracting at first, but this is only because the record truly takes multiple listens to appreciate and digest. While one’s first few listens might not provide too much headway into these complex gems,The Worst You Can Do Is Harm is one of those records that reveals a new twist every time you listen to it. Whether it’s the strong vocal hook of “Medicine Cabinet Pirate” (“I wanna be with you all the time”) to the beautiful delivery of the line “I had to get into you” on “Mimi”, there are dozens of perfect moments on this record that take awhile to uncover. They combine to make this one of the best pop records released thus far this year.