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.

Review: Clear Eyes Fanzine – Season One, Episodes 1-6

I’ve never seen “Friday Night Lights”, movie or television series, but I constantly hear about how great of a series it is. The evidence is clearly mounting after the creation of Clear Eyes Fanzine, a side project from Dan Campbell of The Wonder Years and Ace Enders of The Early November. Season One, Episodes 1-6 is exactly what it sounds like. Both Ace and Dan provide three songs inspired by each episode. It’s a great concept that has created some of the most intense, provoking and emotionally wrenching songs either songwriter has ever written.

You can buy Season One, Episodes 1-6 on Bandcamp.

The main takeaway from SO, E1-6 is how much these songs sound like Campbell and Enders. The first three tracks, written by Campbell are basically tracks from Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties. The second half of the record is Enders prominently displaying his penchant for atmospheric minimalism that his I Can Make a Mess project has perfected. There aren’t any surprises, just damn good songs.

Campbell’s side of the record focuses on physical ailments and trauma. Whether that be physical exhaustion and determination from “On Tim Riggins as He Prepares for His Sophomore Year” (“I puked through my mask / And the smell never fucking leaves”), or brain trauma of CTE from “Coming Up for Air” (“I don’t talk about the headaches / I don’t talk about the nights when I forget where we are”), Campbell’s descriptions of the damage from playing football are brutal and unforgiving. It’s also some of his best work to date.

Enders, taking the back half, focuses much more on the emotional toll of the characters. His songs are ethereal and soft, feeding the energy of emotional drama. “Good Get Coach” begins with whispers and Enders harmonizing with himself before exploding with a chorus of, “Another rivalry begins, watching you watching him / I wish that I could let myself just let it all out”. Meanwhile, “The Fields” explores a back and forth conversation between characters. Enders sings, “I hate that they get applauded / It’s just a stupid game / In 15 years, that varsity jacket just won’t wear the same”, before the chorus kicks in with a differing viewpoint: “In the field, we fight for our tiny lives / It tore my father down, cuz nobody gets out”.

Clear Eyes Fanzine is fun, emotionally draining and comes from two songwriters who love “Friday Night Lights”. While each artist’s songs are incredible, the wasted opportunity for the two to share a song together is astounding. However, there’s always hope for the next few episodes. As a whole piece, the EP is an emotionally gripping exercise in writing.

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 HAS TOO MUCH TELEVISION!!! There is so much to watch, and not enough time to learn how to make wicker baskets.

 

Most Anticipated of 2019: #2 Aaron West Roars into 2019

We Don’t Have Each Other was one of the best albums of 2014, and one of the most unique albums of the last decade. With only a handful of songs released over the last four-and-a-half years to keep the story of Aaron West moving, a second album is long overdue. Fortunately, it’s looking to be coming sooner than later.

With a steady touring schedule and The Wonder Years in between album releases, it’s an ideal time for Aaron West to grab the spotlight. Also, the official Aaron West Twitter account claimed Dan Campbell to have been in the studio as recently as November 2018. With over four years since their last release, there is a plethora of story for Campbell to cover and room for the character of Aaron to grow.

If the band’s second album can even remotely come close to the intensity of the first album, it will already be a contender for album of the year.

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 could not be more excited for new music to tickle his ears in 2019.

Podcast: The Wonder Years Strike Again

On our latest podcast, Kiel Hauck and Kyle Schultz are joined by It’s All Dead writer Nadia Paiva to discuss the latest release from The Wonder Years. During the discussion, the trio debate the merits of Sister Cities and dialogue about where the album lands among the band’s best releases. They also share their favorite songs from the album and talk about the band’s knack for human stories and connecting with listeners. Listen in!

Subscribe to our podcast here.

What was your favorite song on Sister Cities? Share in the replies!

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Review: The Wonder Years – Sister Cities

One evening, I returned home from my mundane office job to find a postcard in my mailbox. I analyzed it and thought about it for an hour or two, employing the opinions of friends on what it could mean. It had a line drawing of a dog on the front and a simple message on the back: “I’m laying low / A stray dog in the street / You took me home / We’re sister cities”. I pulled back a post office label to find the logos for both Hopeless Records and Loneliest Place On Earth. The Wonder Years were back.

You can buy Sister Cities on Apple Music.

A day or two later, the band tweeted a link with an album title, release date, and single. Needless to say, their hype worked. I’ve been a huge fan of The Wonder Years for what seems like forever, and No Closer to Heaven came just when I needed it to when it released in 2014. Given my growing affection for the band, it was natural to highly anticipate what they’d do next.

Surprisingly, Sister Cities abandons much of what made The Wonder Years’ brand of pop punk so recognizable, while still managing to remain true to the band’s heart. The subtle changes are felt from the moment the album begins. The first track, “Raining in Kyoto”, is abrupt and not what I expected. I figured they’d put “Pyramids of Salt” (the second single) as the opener because of how they built up the energy. Instead, it’s track two.

In contrast to their previous releases, Sister Cities doesn’t seem to have a cohesive theme or sonic continuity. From what I understand, the album was written while the band was on tour and I think that’s the reason every track is a different experience, as well as lyrically alluding to visiting new places and seeing new things. Despite the missing aspect of “let’s get out of this town”, Sister Cities is still decidedly The Wonder Years.

I’m impressed with Dan Campbell’s vocal style on this album. I think his side project, Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, has really helped him tap into the softer, more melodic side of his vocals rather than just the rough punk sound so associated with their past work. Musically, it’s about what we’ve grown accustomed to hearing from The Wonder Years: powerful, guitar-based punk with strong drums and soaring vocals.

Two stand-out tracks for me come right in the middle of the album. “Flowers Where Your Face Should Be” and “Heaven’s Gate (Sad and Sober)” show both sides of the band. The former is an example of growth – a song about love through the hard times that is stylistically different from anything the band has done before. It reminds me the most of Aaron West. The latter track, however, is classic Wonder Years. It feels the most like their past and is almost a reassurance to listeners, implying, “Hey, we’re artists who’ve grown, but we’re still the band you fell in love with”.

It’s obvious that The Wonder Years have grown a lot as a band over the years, and I think it’s a combination of both life experience and band experience. With Sister Cities, specifically, it’s obvious that their travels impacted their writing and opened up a new direction to pursue. I’m always a fan of band growth, and that’s something The Wonder Years really deal well with. They never change so much that they lose fans, but they change enough to keep things fresh.

That’s what Sister Cities is. It’s new and exciting and covers ground that Soupy and the guys have never walked on before, but it still feels familiar, from the first track right through to the end.

Sister Cities closes with an outstanding final track. The band always manages to tie up their albums perfectly and “The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me” is no exception. Just the title alone is beautiful, but the final lines are what really got me: “When the sutures start to split / I trust the current to pull you back in / I miss everyone at once / But most of all, I miss the ocean”. The ocean holds a special place in my heart, and after the (seemingly) endless winter we’ve had, I’m ready to go sit in the sand and reflect on some things.

The Wonder Years have always known exactly how to voice dealing with loss and grief and I think that’s why so many people are drawn to the art they create. There’s not a person on earth who won’t experience these feelings, if they haven’t already. Where No Closer to Heaven dealt with anger and blame, Sister Cities focuses on sorrow, feelings of abandonment, and how we eventually find the strength to move along. We always remember the things we’ve lost, but there’s a point where we find a way out and get back to the ocean. I think I’m at that point, personally, and The Wonder Years have simply come up alongside me to help with the healing.

4.5/5

by Nadia Paiva

kiel_hauckNadia Paiva has been a music enthusiast since she can remember. Going to shows is her main pastime. The other is being upset when she can’t go to shows. This is her first official venture into writing about music. You can follow her on Twitter.

Review: The Wonder Years – Burst & Decay

For many people, myself included, it is hard to buck the idea that The Wonder Years are a positive band. After the release of The Upsides, there is always that part of me that will juxtapose anything they release with the immortal line of “I’m not sad anymore”. Even as the band has matured and their music drifted away from youthful optimism, I still see them as one of the most earnest bands out there. But their songs always felt grounded in the stories each album told. Burst & Decay, the band’s new acoustic EP, is an exercise in reinvigorating their material so much so that it’s hard not to see those same optimistic boys that set the scene aflame with positivity.

You can buy Burst & Decay on iTunes.

Burst & Decay is a delicate interpretation of songs throughout their catalog. Tempo changes, keyboards, and crooning vocals are the most prominent changes from the original punk rock. However, that is enough to revamp these songs entirely into their own message. The softer songs build to crescendos that the original songs lacked. When vocalist Dan Campbell shifts from a croon to all-out shouts, the message carries stronger and more prominently than the original songs were able to.

“There, There”, which reflects on one’s own faults, becomes a slow-built song of defiance. “Cardinals”, a song of regret over letting down a friend, becomes a moment of somber reflection and a loving war cry.

It’s not as though these songs are fundamentally different by any means. The melodic violin, soft drumming and acoustic strums of “Cardinals” sits alongside Dan Campbell’s whispery vocals in perfect meditation. There is a build throughout so that in the final verse, when Campbell explodes and shouts the lyrics, it fundamentally seems to change the tone of the original song. Instead of pleading for a chance to prove himself, Campbell is swearing an oath to the gods.

“Don’t Let Me Cave In”, a cornerstone track of Suburbia, I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, may be the most dramatically changed. In lieu of the raging guitars, the song is a ballad focusing on dreamlike keyboard melodies with minimalistic guitars. Originally, this song was frantic and desperate. Campbell seemed to search for an excuse for being in such hysterics. He pleaded for help. This softer version finds him saying the same words, but determination is behind him. He’s aware of his problems and thankful to have someone there to help see him through his demons.

Not every song takes a different tone to its predecessor. “Dismantling Summer” is arguably the most direct conversion to acoustics. “Coffee Eyes” is still an absolute jam. The drums rattle away and the guitars are crisp and hypnotic. Slightly more isolated, Campbell’s cracking voice as he shouts, “There’s always been a table for me there”, sounds so much better than it did on the original recording.

“You In January”, one of No Closer To Heaven’s stand-out tracks, tops off the EP. The light violin and plinking piano provide the romantic backing a song like this always asked for. It’s also in this song that the record’s title, Burst & Decay become prominent as Campbell sings to his love. “You In January” is the thesis of the album in a roundabout way. Where many of these songs centered on the idea of cracking slowly and trying to stop the damage, these versions have managed that task.

Burst & Decay is one of the few acoustic albums that make a true difference in a band’s sound. Much like The Starting Line’s Make Yourself At Home, this record is short, crisp and fundamentally different than the core sound of the band. Though it doesn’t carry the same weight or theme of a proper album, Burst & Decay does enough to differentiate itself from anything else The Wonder Years have done.

My one hope for this album was that perhaps the songs would be reimagined lyrically, much in the same way that “Logan Circle” and “Logan Circle: A New Hope” were. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case with Burst & Decay. But finding a new meaning and tone to the existing lyrics may be something more profound.

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 is probably playing euchre right now. Why? No reason other than he is a pretty cool cat. Myaaah!

Most Anticipated of 2017: #3 The Wonder Years Come Out Swinging…Again

the-wonder-years-band

It’s impossible not to be excited for a new release from The Wonder Years. The band has written some truly magical music unlike anything else in the genre. When they announced on Twitter just before the new year that they were getting busy writing a record, they accidentally bumped off a few contenders for this list (sorry, Saves the Day and Hellogoodbye).

Around this time seven years ago, The Wonder Years seemed to appear out of nowhere and take over the punk scene by storm. Since then, they’ve not only released music regularly, but they’ve managed to up their own ante each time, growing as into one of the strongest and most respected bands out there.

I don’t need to know what direction they’re going this time, nor do I care. Each experiment they’ve touched has paid off, and each theme becomes deeper and more structured. I just can’t wait to see what else they’ve come up with.

Additionally, it’s about time for a new Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties release. Last year’s Bittersweet EP was a fantastic taste of what’s to come and gave some insight into what has happened in West’s life since we last saw him on We Don’t Have Each Other. It’s been three years since that album, and if West’s acoustic tour last year was anything to go by, there is a frantic fan base waiting for the next real chapter.

It’s only been a year and a half since the release of No Closer to Heaven, and they’re already gearing up for their next record. The dedication and groundwork The Wonder Years team show toward their craft is why they’re so beloved. That they have enough inspiration to work so tirelessly is enough reason to anticipate anything they’re preparing for.

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.

Five Years Later: The Wonder Years – Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing

The-Wonder-Years-Band-photo

As weird as it is to talk about the pop punk “revival,” it’s impossible to ignore what The Wonder Years were able to accomplish in 2011. Coming off of one of the most unexpected debut breakthroughs in recent memory with The Upsides in 2010, the Pennsylvania punk act staked their claim in scene lore the following year with the release of Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing.

You can buy Suburbia I've Given You All and Now I'm Nothing on iTunes.

You can buy Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing on iTunes.

Five years later, the album still digs at uncomfortable memories and painful trials from my past. Part two of a trilogy of albums, the record deals with the fallout of young adulthood and broken promises related to societal expectations. It’s a millennial anthem if there ever was one – I tried, I failed, I don’t know where to go from here.

Fresh off of a painful divorce and hitting the reset button on nearly every aspect of life at the ripe old age of 27, I found myself mesmerized by Dan Campbell’s ability to connect deeply with my frustrations and fears. On Suburbia, Soupy became the voice of a generation of young adults looking for answers – unwilling to let the defeat of depression drag them away, but unable to find hope to cling to.

In the midst of Campbell’s confusion, I found common ground. “I spent this year as a ghost and I’m not sure what I’m looking for,” he cries on “Came Out Swinging” – a mirror image of my life experiences in 2010. On “Local Man Ruins Everything”, he relents, “I’m not a self-help book; I’m just a fucked up kid”, an admission that became my thesis in 2011.

Like many of you, Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing is a deeply personal album for me – one that got me through many late night drives; a coping mechanism at the end of lonely double shifts. To this day, I’ve yet to encounter an album that personally impacted my life and walked alongside me quite like this one did. It hurt to listen, but over time, it mended my soul in the most therapeutic of ways.

I was apparently not alone in my experience. Suburbia kick started a tidal wave of pop punk mania, reigniting a genre that had turned stale. The Wonder Years deserve all of the credit in the world for lighting that fire, but for all of the great music that has come in the past five years, none of it has touched my soul quite like Suburbia did.

For the past few years, I’ve been writing a book in my head and in notebooks that mirrors the chapters of Suburbia – a work of creative non-fiction that journeys through the most difficult part of my life with the album as the soundtrack. Maybe one day I’ll get around to writing it. If not, The Wonder Years still spoke every word of my experience to near perfection. For that, I can never thank them enough.

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.

Review: The Wonder Years – No Closer to Heaven

the-wonder-years-band

Pop punk is an inherently self-centered genre. Historically, the music has immersed itself in the most banal of subject matter, sometimes ironically, but most often earnestly. This sort of self-absorption is welcome in small doses, but as the years pass, it’s proper to yearn for something more.

The Wonder Years have served as the flagship band for a new, much more existentially reflective brand of pop punk that has risen to popularity in recent years. Their three-album arc of The Upsides (2010), Suburbia, I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing (2011) and The Greatest Generation (2013) told the story of coming to terms with self in early adulthood and finding one’s place in a world of confusion.

You can buy No Closer to Heaven on iTunes.

You can buy No Closer to Heaven on iTunes.

Those themes struck a chord with a substantial audience that shared in the experience, giving way to a new community of pop punk faithful. Nevertheless, ideas of hazy-eyed post-suburban reflection still live within a sheltered bubble that offers a convenient protection from greater trials and injustices that plague the world around us. Maybe that journey was necessary for us all to arrive at this point alongside the band.

No Closer to Heaven is the most challenging and important work that The Wonder Years have created. Yes, the band expands another step further in their progression towards gritty pop punk bliss, but the real story here is the band’s decision to turn away from the mirror and set their eyes upon the world around them.

The band’s sobering collective opening refrain of “We’re no saviors if we can’t save our brothers” sets the tone for a completely new path. Indeed, not only does the idea permeate the entirety of the record, the line itself is repeated at moments throughout. Who are our brothers? Vocalist Dan “Soupy” Campbell spins his personal experiences into nebulous stories that could apply to almost anyone, but at their most basic level, these are accounts of the fellow humans around us.

In surprising fashion, Campbell tackles subjects like class, violence and the need for social reform with as much grace as ever. These songs never feel disingenuous – instead it feels like a logical transition for someone ready to acknowledge the pain around them. On “I Don’t Like Who I Was Then”, Campbell belts a chorus of resolve, singing, “I think I’m growing into someone you could trust / I want to shoulder the weight until my back breaks / I want to run until my lungs give up”.

On a few tracks, Campbell becomes reflective on larger issues after pondering simple events – the death of a bird on “Cardinals” or a lift from a friend on “Thanks for the Ride”. At other times, he goes straight for the jugular without apology. No song captures this better than “Stained Glass Ceilings”, a powerful track with Jason Butler of letlive. about the societal evils that keep cycles of racial hate and violence alive.

“John Wayne with a god complex tells me to buy a gun / Like shooting a teenage kid is gonna solve any problems”, Campbell seethes before Butler adds, “It’s black or white and sometimes black and blue / It’s something we’re all born into”. These moments are a far cry from the confines of suburban existential crisis that have been the hallmark of The Wonder Years’ career. On “I Wanted So Badly to be Brave”, Campbell declares solidarity with a victimized friend: “You weren’t born my brother, but you’re gonna die that way”.

For all of the band’s newly focused determination, no song captures it as well as “Cigarettes & Saints”, a painful lament about a friend lost to drugs. By the time the song builds to it’s manic conclusion, capped with Soupy’s cry of, “We put our faith in you – you turned a profit”, the track has become much more than a critique of the pharmaceutical companies that play a role in such tragedies. It’s a raging anthem against corrupt systems of all kinds.

From a strictly sonic standpoint, No Closer to Heaven has The Wonder Years’ signature all over it, with a few new tricks thrown in for good measure. An ample soundtrack to the record’s theme, the band adds subtle touches to round out the songs. Delicate keyboards on “You in January” highlight a blissful track, while the sharp opening riff on “Palm Reader” adds an extra edge to the song.

There aren’t “fast songs” and “slow songs” on No Closer to Heaven as much is there is a constant movement, with each tempo change highlighting the song’s purpose. The Greatest Generation was chock full of instantly classic melodies that walked hand-in-hand with the weighty subject matter. The melodies on this record aren’t as instantly obvious, but with each listen, the notes make more and more sense within the context of the song. This is the sound of a maturing band.

On “A Song for Ernest Hemmingway”, Campbell contemplates the author’s experience of reading of his own death in the morning newspaper, singing, “I bet it was freeing to know / When you destroy everything worth chasing / There’s nowhere left to go”. If the devil in Soupy’s bloodstream still exists, he’s fighting like hell to not let its grasp shape his ability to take another step forward.

Campbell claims to not believe in heaven. He also admits to taking joy in imagining its existence as a place of peace for those that have none on this earth. No Closer to Heaven acknowledges how far we are from having that place of peace, but longs for its existence. Asking questions about how in the hell we get there is the only logical starting place. The Wonder Years are doing just that.

4.5/5

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.

Watch The Wonder Years’ New Music Video for “Cardinals”

the_wonder_years

After the announcement of their new album No Closer to Heaven, The Wonder Years have released the first single from the record in the form of a music video. “Cardinals” finds the band as aggressive sounding as ever on this explosive track. You can watch the video below:

If you like what you hear, you can preorder No Closer to Heaven, which is due out on September 4 via Hopeless Records. When you preorder, the band will donate to one of four different charities.

What are your thoughts on the new song? Share in the replies!

Posted by Kiel Hauck