Night Moves' Pennied Days is a small town rock record with big studio ambition.
When my older sister got married in 2005, the song for her first dance was Bryan Adams' 1991 hit, “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)”. Growing up in New Jersey in the ‘90s, I had heard it a million times, which was, for me, half a million too many. But for two adults who had met as teenagers, there was a romantic, comforting nostalgia to a song like that, which could be found on every diner's flip-through jukebox, heard on every corporate radio station, and was likely playing when something very romantic happened between them. The backdrop of Night Moves of Minneapolis' Pennied Days is comprised of those songs -- the ones by Tom Petty, Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen -- and yes, [Bob] Seger, whose album Night Moves the band is named after. It's a small town rock record that says, “love me, hate me, I’ll be playing at your sister’s wedding.”
The band uses a range of classic quotes to get their vision across. Take ”Leave Your Light On”, easily the best song on the record, which begins as an overt quote of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon opener, “Unknown Legend”, but then goes on to introduce parts B, C, and D which make the early quote feel like the sound of the engine turning over before it got in gear. The same is true of the Fleetwood Mac's “Dreams”-eque chorus on “Kind Luck”. Just like Bob Seger, the divisive godfather of “heartland rock”, Night Moves wears their taste for earnest classics, as well as their ambition, on their sleeve.
Album opener “Carl Sagan” is equal parts quaint and strange. The refrain, “oh you’ve been around, slowly turning”, which was likely written, as its title suggests, about celestial bodies, could just as easily be describing a character in a small town routine, slowly turning from one haunt to another. Most of the other songs are about the same old subjects -- love, learning, luck -- and yet manage to convince, through the force of singer John Pelant's conviction, that they’re worth another visit. If he isn’t belting, he’s selling a Springsteen croon or a whispy, Stevie Nicks-y gravel. In all cases, it sounds like it means something to him.
The record's substance and originality is maintained through a giant production effort from John Agnello, the wizened master behind so many of the most heartfelt rock records of the past five years, like Phosphorescent's Muchacho, Hop Along's Painted Shut, and Kurt Vile’s Waiting on a Pretty Daze. On Pennied Days, Agnello throws every trick at the wall to buoy the ambition and talents of band. The rhythm guitars have a detuned warble on nearly every track, which nails the “disintegration tapes” feeling of a shrinking, nostalgic past, but also cleverly creates a sense of unease that forces the listener to take refuge in the melody. The overall sound, especially on the the riff-centric songs, like “Border to Border”, and “Hiding in the Melody”, is enormous.
Beyond the production, Pennied Days remains an impressive collection of compositions. Even the songs that feel the most cut-and-pasted together have strong central hooks and memorable refrains. Each tone, chord change, and piano sprinkle sounds obsessively devised, without feeling overwrought. Usually buried beneath a stack of reverb, the lyrics do occasionally feel color-by-numbers, but nevertheless do paint the picture. All told, assuming modern diners don't ditch the jukebox altogether, these guys are well worth your 50 cents.