How Davey von Bohlen got his groove back.
I gave up on Davey von Bohlen right around the Promise Ring's third album, Very Emergency. After two albums of pop perfection, lead singer and songwriter von Bohlen found himself at a crossroads. The band's breakout success saddled them as the leaders of the "emo" movement, a situation only exacerbated by the posthumous idolization of von Bohlen's previous band, Cap'n Jazz, whose output was captured in a much acclaimed discography. The backlash came just as quickly, with the hardcore scene from which the band was borne shunning their bright-eyed pop while the mainstream indie rock world refused to take them seriously. Very Emergency and the critically maligned swan song, Wood/Water were the band's and von Bohlen's attempt to be taken seriously as songwriters, but they left behind the very things that made their name in the first place: bright shiny hooks and an uncontrived sense of fun. Their fans, myself included, were not so much disappointed by the change in direction as uninspired by it.
After the Promise Ring broke up, I didn't think I would hear anything from von Bohlen worth investigating again. When he teamed up with ex-Dismemberment Plan bassist Eric Axelson and started Maritime I was briefly intrigued, only to be put off by the lifeless pop that marked their debut album, Glass Floor. However, when the buzz preceding the band's sophomore effort, We, The Vehicles, was largely positive, I was cautiously optimistic. I braced myself upon first spinning the band's new disc, and my initial reaction was a sigh of relief -- it wasn't terrible. But as each song came and went, my heart started to beat a bit faster and not only was We, The Vehicles not terrible, it was pretty damn good.
The problem that marred von Bohlen's post-Nothing Feels Good output was an overriding self-seriousness coupled with a palpable need to prove himself. I'm not sure what has changed his mind, but with We, The Vehicles von Bohlen seems to have shrugged off expectations and is having fun again. From the opening, glittering riffs of "Calm", and the gentle coo of von Bohlen's slightly aged voice, he has become as relaxed as he is assured in his abilities. The results of this new outlook are some of the best pop songs von Bohlen has written in years. The NPR-approved "Tearing up the Oxygen" is all glassy eyes and breathy voices, shimmering guitars and floating keyboard bloops, grounded by von Bohlen's natural maturity. However, it's "Parade of Punk Rock T-Shirts" that will have the kids loading up their iPods. It's a ridiculously catchy faux-ska rave up anchored by drummer Dan Didier's insanely syncopated percussion, but again it's von Bohlen's gently earnest vocals that ratchets the song into something both memorable and substantial. What von Bohlen seems to have finally figured out is how to turn down the energy, while keeping the songwriting sharp. There is none of the explosive major chord fury of his early material here, but the subtly shifting, delicately turning pop that is in its place is just as satisfying and lively. Songs like "German Engineering" and album closing "Proteins and Poison" are beautiful examples of what Maritime does best: crafting spacious, gently persuasive pop songs.
It's a strange thing watching the musicians who wrote the songs that fueled your youth grow up. Oftentimes, what you related to in their music goes missing as both musician and audience develop into their adult selves. I'm not the same person I was when 30 Degrees Everywhere came out and neither is von Bohlen. But now, 10 years later, I'm glad that we've found each other again.