Review: Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties – Routine Maintenance

At its core, Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties is a story about rebirth. Singer and songwriter Dan Campbell’s debut album, We Don’t Have Each Other begins with Aaron breaking down completely after the death of his father, dealing with a miscarriage, and losing his wife. As that album closes, Aaron gives the first glimpse of healing – he is determined to return to his wife in New York. That hope to fix things is what drives the sequel album, Routine Maintenance. Although Campbell could have continued breaking Aaron down, Routine Maintenance vividly explores how Aaron finds meaning in life again and why family is worth fighting for.

You can buy or stream Routine Maintenance on Apple Music.

Dan Campbell, the singer for pop punk wunderkind group The Wonder Years, has built a career off of writing intense, relatable lyrics and stories. Aaron West, his first fictional creation, is a fully formed person. Like its predecessor, Routine Maintenance is essentially a novel set to music. Aaron hitchhikes to Los Angeles (“Bury Me Anywhere Else”), and forms a successful band (“Runnin’ Toward The Light”) in explicit detail. The anxiety of being in a divorce lawyer’s office is especially rich (“Just Sign the Papers”).

However, this Aaron is hopeful. We’ve already seen him broken and homeless. Routine Maintenance shows how Aaron becomes a dependable person again in incremental steps. The tragedies he faces aren’t those within him anymore and he discovers how to step up to meet them.

Much like the previous album and EP, Routine Maintenance relishes in Americana. Comparisons to Bruce Springsteen are impossible not to mention, especially with the bluesy harmonica (“Rosa & Reseda”) and killer saxophone (“Bury Me Anywhere Else”). This album expands the folk rock sound of previous releases with deeper horn sections, slide guitar and a mesmerizing banjo. Ace Enders’ style of production oozes throughout, similar to West’s debut.

Campbell’s vocals are on full display at their best. Although there’s no difference here to how he sings in The Wonder Years, Campbell flexes to express the story. “Just Sign the Papers” shows this perfectly, with an emotional and tortured build up. While the verses mourn his marriage, the choruses burst with shouts of why he loved her. The bridge though, is magical. The first time he whispers, “C-come on, just sign the papers / Don’t make me stay in the room / I don’t want this to be the way I remember you”, he softly croons. As they both sign the divorce papers, Campbell shouts with cracking vocals. The weight of Aaron’s anxiety is part of what makes these albums so real and special.

Routine Maintenance is an album that will give back whatever the listener puts in. New listeners may be lost or have trouble relating to the character. But anyone who has followed Aaron West over the last few years will be familiar with many of the characters and their expanded personalities. Dan Campbell’s live shows, where he takes on West’s persona, greatly amplify how the character builds his music career during the story. Routine Maintenance is fine on its own, but it’s so very much a different beast as a sequel. Wherever Campbell decides to take Aaron after this album, at least there is hope to be found.

4.5/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and heavily relates to Jasper from The Simpsons.

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Review: Brian Fallon – Painkillers

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I watched Brian Fallon play “A Wonderful Life” on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah the other night, and although Trevor’s questions after the song seemed shallow and awkward, Fallon’s performance was anything but. Painkillers, his first solo album, can seem at times slightly off-putting considering how fleshed out The Gaslight Anthem can be. But seeing Brian standing at the mic, the fire in his eyes as he sang, with three other guitarists behind him, it became immediately clear that Painkillers is a work of passion and deeper than what appears on the surface.

You can buy Painkillers on iTunes.

You can buy Painkillers on iTunes.

By “off-putting,” I don’t mean any harm, but rather that on first listen, it sounds like Brian Fallon played it safe: simple beats, xylophone melodies, Americana-esque guitar ballads that tip-toe the line between folk and indie rock. Essentially, The Gaslight Anthem stripped of the heavy guitar.

But Painkillers is an intricately woven fabric. With the essential pop songs, such as “A Wonderful Life”, the songs are created in a fashion that helps the music tell the story with a touch of country-infused pop. The central melody for “Painkillers” is a simple guitar riff that repeats throughout the song as though you’re staring up at the ceiling and watching the room spin in circles as Fallon sings, “And we wanted love like it was a drug / All we wanted was a little relief, and every heart in between / They were painkillers to me”, hiding the chorus of backing vocals and intricate slashes of the guitar.

Similarly, “Smoke” is essentially centered on the crisp beat light taps of the drum, and a swell of hand claps that diminish the guitar and punctuated piano as though lost in a foggy room. The slides of the electric guitar over the hand claps has a wonderful country-esque touch that seems to lift the fog as Fallon sings soberly, “And the black clouds came and darkened all our insides / There were newspaper clippings with horrible headlines / Of doom and despair and your name and my name said / ‘Who will save you from the truth of the matter, that your love, though like gold, is gone?’”

Not everything sounds like an experimental indie song though. “Steve McQueen” is a heartfelt acoustic ballad, with the gentle tap of the snare and egg shaker almost louder than the guitars and somber piano, as Fallon reminisces of faltered dreams. “Open All Night” is a bluesy country song that finds the conclusion of a loose story woven throughout the album of returning to the lights of large cities and the realization that the girl he’s been chasing is gone, for the better of both of them. “And I will never know the town where you finally settled down / With the top back on a Cadillac and your sunglasses on/  And you can’t make me whole, I have to find that on my own”.

“Rosemary”, one of the album’s true highlights and one of the best songs Fallon has ever written, is a rampaging rock song with sweet xylophone spread across the bridges. It is a back and forth story of a couple essentially discovering that they’re falling apart, and lead character Rosemary finding her self worth through the experience amidst garage rock shouts of “Hey! Hey! Hey!”

What Brian Fallon has done with Painkillers is pull off the best aspects of what was accomplished with The Gaslight Anthem and strip it down to a minimum. The guitars are quiet, the beats simple and the lull of the shaker takes precedence over flashy guitar solos. But what it makes room for is emotional storytelling. Anyone used to Gaslight’s rock might need a little coaxing into the softer tone of the album, but the passion on this album is something that couldn’t have been done any other way: Springsteen inspiration blasting at full force.

4.5/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and saw Brian Fallon live for the first time outside of The Gaslight Anthem. He sold out the House of Blues without even having a record out. The man is a talent.

Review: The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt

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The Gaslight Anthem have always felt a little out of place in the scene that they find themselves in. They’re a little too influenced by Americana and just a tad too little punk to really fit nicely where you want them to compared with their peers. But that difference is what guarantees their talent; each and every record is very much worthy of your attention.

Get Hurt is another example of their ever growing talent at song writing. Instead of infusing their music with energy just to stay on par with past records, Get Hurt steps down and paces itself to ensure that you’re paying attention.

With exception to the first track, Get Hurt sounds like a Gaslight album. It sounds like an electric folk record, with just a taste of punk. This is at once the heaviest and softest album of the band’s career. The mixture of sounds can be unsettling at first. The guitars are savagely fuzzy and rough, in the same vein as Weezer’s Maladroit, and not nearly as neat and trim as anything from American Slang or The ’59 Sound. But the hard guitars are cut to size with soft tracks held together with the soft thump of the pedal drum and soft strumming every few songs.

While breaking the energy isn’t anything new for The Gaslight Anthem, the focus has never been this heavy on it. Often times, it sounds like a loving mixture of Brand New’s more somber moments and The Get Up Kids circa On a Wire, held tight with Brian Fallon’s scratchy vocals. While the off and on bouts of energy can seem neurotic at times, the switches keep the songs from sounding too similar and gives each its own chance to ignite at any second.

The greatest asset to the sound of Get Hurt is drummer Benny Horowitz’ steady beat throughout the album. He never seems to go crazy at any point, instead maintaining the restraint that is key to the style of the record. Even as the guitars lose their energy, the drums stay strong, dampening just enough to set the pace.

Alex Levine’s bass lines ride the beat wonderfully, playfully bouncing throughout the album. Alex Rosamilia and Brian Fallon’s guitar work are the biggest differences in sound, as they are constantly shifting from the deep crackle of distorted power chords to the jangling pop of acoustic folk. The way that they test and toy with genres is endearing.

Title track “Get Hurt” is as soft as a song can be as it opens with almost a minute of just soft drumming and the guilded bounce of the bass propping Fallon’s voice before breaking out into a chorus equal parts subdued Brand New and Jimmy Eat World. “Helter Skelter” finds a more traditional sounding Gaslight song in the loud rock and hypnotizing guitar notes overpowering chords and bass lines as Fallon shouts back. “Selected Poems” starts off quiet against the click of Horowitz’s drum sticks before breaking into a frenzied chorus reminiscent of Weezer (especially the addicting guitar solo).

Lyrically, Fallon sounds similar to past Gaslight albums; a healthy mix of storytelling, regret and lost love. That not a dig by any means. As a lyricist, Fallon is able to tap into a manner of storytelling that feels authentic and classic without coming off as generic or boring. One of the best examples is in “1,000 Years”, as Fallon sings, “’Don’t look back,’ I heard a voice. In velvet I couldn’t see. The pictures were black and white, and the details were in between. I heard about a woman once who did everything ever asked of her. She died last week and her last words were, ‘It wasn’t worth it’”.

There are few happy endings to these songs if any, but that should be expected with an album titled Get Hurt. But instead of a depressed theme, the album abounds in the maturity and understanding of pain that accompanies growing up. Though the record is steeped in regret, it’s not bitter, such as during “Red Violins” when he sings, “Twenty pounds of curses came to visit me tonight. Salt for all the cuts, blankets for the cold, prayers to keep the devil far away from those I love. And there were red violins playing in my dreams. One for me, and two for me, and one at Jesus’ feet. And one I only reach to for sympathy”.

Get Hurt is in many ways a concept album exploring pain and regret, and in others the reconciliation and understanding of it. Though I can’t truthfully say that any of the songs have become my new all-time favorites from the band, there are significant staples to their discography that will be necessary for live shows. Regardless, Get Hurt is a powerful record of sublime skill.

4/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and yells at the rain on occasion. He also wants to play you in FIFA.

Review: Twin Forks – Twin Forks

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With the slew of folk rock acts that have seemingly burst from the woodwork directly into the mainstream in recent years, it’s fair to assume that there would be certain amount of bands pandering to the newfound demographic. How then, would one go about determining what’s genuine? Perhaps it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

An established songwriter jumping on the folk rock bandwagon may appear odd to some, but for many of us that have grown up with Chris Carrabba, Twin Forks makes sense.

The Americana/folk rock band was formed in 2011 by Carrabba, who has become a living emo legend due to his time in Further Seems Forever and Dashboard Confessional. If the shift to Twin Forks seems stark and curious, one listen to the band’s debut self-titled LP should bring a bit of clarity.

Previously, Carrabba had made a career out of heart-on-his-sleeve, emotion-filled cuts that dug deep at the sting of lost love. The early Dashboard albums felt so in the moment, mostly because so many of us were experiencing them in the midst of similar pain.

The appearance of Twin Forks is about much more than a fresh stylistic change, it’s about growing up. Now in his late 30s, Carrabba seems to be taking this opportunity to show his growth – not only as a musician, but as a person.

Twin Forks is about love, viewed through the eyes of a wiser, yet still learning adult. Opener “Can’t Be Broken” exhibits not only the fresh upbeat folk sound of the band, but brings Carrabba’s storytelling abilities to the forefront.

Throughout the course of the album, he’ll reflect on past love and the excitement of new love with a patient eye. There’s no rush and the album flows smoothly in both lyric and tone. The tracks themselves provide the appropriate soundtrack to each story, shifting from toe tapping twang to stripped down strumming with relative ease.

Truth be told, there’s some familiarity to be found here as well. Songs like “Cross My Mind” and “Danger” wouldn’t feel too out of place on Dashboard’s 2009 outing Alter the Ending. Meanwhile, “Plans” features one of the more emotional melodies that Carrabba has written in years and “Back to You” finds his recognizable strained vocals fitting right in to their new background.

Backup vocals, courtesy of Suzie Zeldin (The Narrative), are a welcome addition to the mix, providing a wonderful harmony on tracks like “Kiss Me Darling”. Likewise, her mandolin pushes several of the songs over the top by capturing jubilant and thoughtful moments.

If there’s any gripe to be found, it’s that Twin Forks sometimes seems to be constricted by its chosen genre. “Scraping Up the Pieces” feels a bit forced and formulaic while “Come On” uses its upbeat tempo to guise a rather boring track. However, where these tracks lack in depth they certainly make up for in charm.

At first glance, Twin Forks appears as an awkward flight from known territory for Carrabba, but it’s clear that he knows what he’s doing. Some detractors have pointed out a lack of his once-appealing painful songwriting in his more recent work. This is a good thing.

Those old Dashboard songs will always serve to remind us of our youth, but with age comes experience and perspective. Twin Forks offers these qualities in abundance and meshes them with a sound that feels mature and honest to the subjects at hand. In doing so, Carrabba has shown us that there’s more than one way to wear your heart on your sleeve.

4/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.