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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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.

Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties: You Only Know Half the Story…

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Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties is a unique entity in the music scene. There are thousands of bands that tell stories on their records, but few that follow those stories through until we have something of substance. Aaron West, the side project of The Wonder Years frontman Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell, is an emotional catastrophe. It tells a story about a broken man so earnestly that you would almost think that ‘Dan Campbell’ is the fake name of Aaron West, trying his best to hide amongst the living.

I knew that Aaron West was a passion project for Campbell, but until I saw his blistering set at the Subterranean in Chicago, I had no idea that listening to the record was only half of the story.

The Subterranean is a small venue by Chicago standards; hidden under the incredibly noisy Blue Line ‘L’ Train and tucked in the side of a building at a six-point intersection. It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, and with so much traffic and congestion, the area can get dirty very quickly. The dark rooms are just big enough to fill up smaller shows and create a sense that the room is bigger and fuller than it really is. The entire venue feels like a cheap secret, and it’s the exact kind of place that you would imagine Aaron West, a man broken, alone and clawing his way home, to hide out and play music for money.

Before the show, I found Campbell hanging out near his merch table, posing for photos and signing anything tossed in front of him, a fact I know because I tossed the Aaron West Vinyl in front of him. As he disappeared, I looked down at the signature, taken aback at the fact that Campbell had signed it “A. West”. It didn’t bother me, but it was the first inkling to Campbell’s commitment to the character, and that this concert would be far different than I had expected it.

The show was a smooth collective of rowdy up-and-coming punk, followed by the soulful intimate songs of Allison Weiss. Cold Collective, a mashup of musicians from previously well-known bands such as Transit and Defeater, led the charge. Their songs were that of short, sweet punk rock with a twinge of Nirvana’s edge to the guitar with a hard, crisp bassline. It seemed clear that their debut album had been out for less than a month by the people singing along, but for a band taking the stage at 6:30 (I know, right?), the crowd that showed up to see them was large, even by Subterranean standards.

Taking the stage next was Can’t Swim, a newer melodic band signed to Pure Noise Records. Their songs caught my attention, as the guitars swayed between a hefty crunch to various tempo changes that reminded me of a mix of a young Early November and Set Your Goals. Vocalist Chris Loporto’s voice ached with an edge not unlike Polar Bear Club’s Jimmy Stadt. Each song garnered a louder round of applause until they made their exit, taking the noise with them up the dark spiral staircase behind the stage.

After an hour of loud, aggressive punk rock, it seemed odd that Allison Weiss should take the stage next. An indie artist more than a staple to the pop punk scene, Allison stood alone on an empty stage with one electric guitar plugged into an amp. With the drum kit removed entirely, the stage suddenly looked enormous. For anyone else, it could have been a disaster to suddenly change the vibe of the room and be left alone without even a backing band to cover you.

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Allison Weiss

Weiss has slipped through my attention for several years; not because I didn’t want to listen to her, but I always had something else to do. It led to me knowing her name and what she did, but not enough to know any of her songs. However, after the first song, I knew that she was indisputably the most talented musician of the night.

Weiss tore down the room with beautiful songwriting, pure vocals and quick strums of the guitar. As someone unfamiliar with her albums, I already know that seeing her live is the way she is meant to be appreciated. Her witty banter with the audience between songs as she tuned the guitar only added to her charm, even as she covered (I believe) “Call It Off” by Tegan and Sara. “New Love” included an energetic chorus shouted by the audience and ended with a song for the LGBT community, “The Same”. For one person standing alone on stage, her show became louder inch by inch and she crooned into the melting mic, gaining at least one new rabid fan.

Headlining the night was Aaron West. As he took the stage, I no longer saw Dan Campbell – he had committed to the character of Aaron completely. The usual energetic and fierce Campbell that I have seen several times at The Wonder Years shows was replaced by a nervous-talking creep. He was wearing a different shirt than I had seen him in earlier, and possibly wearing a very, very realistic fake beard (I say that because I met him earlier in the night and would swear to the Jeezy Creezy his beard wasn’t that long, but I’m half-a-creep as well, so take that with some healthy skepticism). This was Aaron West, alone on stage with an acoustic guitar and a few bright lights, telling his story.

Aaron played his debut LP, We Don’t Have Each Other front-to-back, in order, with the addition of the newly released Bittersweet EP finishing off the set. Under other circumstances, I would be disappointed with an artist just playing their songs like this, as concerts are usually a means to play with the setlist and find which tracks mesh well together. But Aaron West is a different entity. He is a broken man desperate to tell his story to anyone willing to listen, and there is no other order than this one.

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Aaron West

West’s songs are deeply depressing affairs – the opening song, “Our Apartment”, a song about West losing his mind as he sits alone after his wife leaves him, wondering where she went, was sung from the rafters by the crowd. Half way through, I looked to my left to see a woman holding her husband’s hand, wiping away a stream of tears, a process she would repeat several times throughout the night.

Between songs, a twitchy, Aaron would explain the storyline, where he was geographically and what was going through his head before each song. It gave even more insight into a story that is already extraordinarily detailed.

Before my personal favorite, “St. Joe Keeps Us Safe”, West explained, “When I was in kindergarten, I went to a Catholic school, and they told us that there were 10 commandments. It always blew my mind that there was a specific amount, not nine, or 269, but 10. And one of them was (and I’m going to fuck this up), ‘Thou shalt worship no false idols.’ But my mom kept these small statues of saints throughout our house. One facing the doorway to make sure we had enough food, stuff like that. And she buried a statue of St. Joe in the backyard to keep us safe. She was so devout, and it blew my mind that she was blatantly ignoring one of the 10 rules that we were supposed to strictly follow.”

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Aaron West

Aaron West has been an obsession of mine ever since the debut LP came out two years ago. The intense lyricism, the strong storyline, and the mix between aggressive singing and whispered crooning, as though Campbell found himself nearly in tears recording the damn thing, have always been something powerful for me. But seeing him live, I realized I was only seeing half the show. The other part was the dedicated performance piece, showing someone who has already found their bottom time and time again as they tried to get home. The nervous voice between songs and the twitchy movements may be that of a broken man, but he also showed the resolve of someone determined to fix themselves.

That said, the entire evening wasn’t all doom and gloom: a couple got on stage for the man to propose to a girl (she said yes, btw), to which West said, “”Have you even listened to the record, man?” However, following the proposal, instead of jumping straight back into Aaron’s dire straits, he performed a cover of Rilo Kiley’s “More Adventurous”.

Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties is an event that should be seen if it’s even remotely near you. Dan Campbell has proven himself not only as a musician, but as a writer and performance artist that would make Gerard Way jealous. Once again, though, Aaron West finds himself at a crossroads: with just one LP and one EP, he can tell his story as it was intended up through where he is now, and it is perfect. But as someone clamoring for the next part of the story, he may soon have to pick and choose which parts to tell. Even so, I can’t wait to hear how it ends.

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 anxious for the next chapter of Aaron West, whenever that may be. Two years is a long wait 😦

 

Review: Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties – We Don’t Have Each Other

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Given how well respected Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell and the rest of The Wonder Years are within the scene, it’s only natural that the front man’s debut solo album, under the pseudonym Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, highlights what helped make the band so memorable in the first place – the incredibly real lyricism.

We Don’t Have Each Other is an intense lesson in storytelling, backed by a stripped down version of the punk song writing of TWY. While it’s by no means a groundbreaking solo album, it cements the fact that Campbell is the single most prolific writer in the scene. Taking on the persona of a fictional character, Aaron West, Campbell sings aloud a novel set to music that won’t drown out the story.

Aaron West relishes in the minimalist aspect of music; simple melodies are used as a basic tool to give traction to the lyrics. Though acoustically based, an assortment of other instruments help add some much needed layers to the songs to help them feel fleshed out. “Divorce and the American South”, includes a soft, short melody that strums nakedly for four and a half minutes, accompanied only by a muted trumpet in the last few seconds as Aaron mocks himself for how much he misses his wife, lamenting that she wouldn’t even attend his funeral in his own dreams.

The opening track, “Our Apartment” feels the most complete composition on the album, with the acoustic guitar accompanied by a banjo, drums, harmonica, violin and quite possibly a few other things across a bouncy southern-tinged melody. Light hints of country find their way into the album with the steel guitar (or whatever the hell that thing is) acting as a light rhythm. For anyone who has listened to I Can Make a Mess (especially the earlier albums), you can tell Ace Enders’ production by the sound of the electric guitar that accompanies some of the choruses, including “St. Joe Keeps Us Safe”.

The muted trumpet and electric guitar appear infrequently, and usually as background or bass to the acoustic melodies. But the minimal use only helps to amplify the chorus, such as the sax playing bass to the chorus of “You Ain’t No Saint”. Though they seem like they could be out of place, their minimal usage helps Aaron West feel intimate, personal and self-contained. Paired with the lyrics, the extra instrumentation almost manifests the dire feelings and situations that Aaron finds himself in.

The double edged sword for the stripped down acoustic theme is that songs can begin to feel stagnant after a while. On the other hand, anything more elaborate would distract from the lyrics.

We Don’t Have Each Other is an incredibly dense story. Campbell has written a masterpiece of tragedy about Aaron West, a twenty-something year old attempting to cope with a divorce from his wife Diane, brought about by the personal collapse he experienced due to the death of his dad and then the death of the couple’s (unborn?) baby. The whole saga follows Aaron through the darkest of his demons, as he reflects on what led to the divorce, how everything changed with his dad’s death and his new struggle with religion and faith.

Campbell has utterly outdone himself with his storytelling, making Aaron and the situations he finds himself in feel so utterly real it’s almost unbearable. From the outset, against the twang of a banjo of “Our Apartment”, Campbell sets up the disastrous divorce, singing, “I found enough of your hairpins to build you a monument, a statue of loneliness. Breathe it in, let it go. I caved a piece of the drywall in, replaying the argument”.

The struggle with religion comes up from time to time, from talking to God for the first time after the divorce in “Grapefruit” (“Hey, Holy Ghost, why’d you leave me? Where’d you go? I know we ain’t spoke in so long, but I’ve gotta know if I’m alone”) to feeling betrayed as he drives himself further into an alcoholic stupor in “Get Me Out of Here Alive” (“I’m starting to believe that there’s a God and he hates me. I’m starting to believe that my mom lied about grace and divinity”). Religion, along with the idea of driving South to Georgia, is part of the signature lyrical callback that we’ve grown to expect from Campbell through The Wonder Years’ entire discography.

What’s amazing is watching Aaron sink so damn deep, and then get violently pulled back to reality by the simplest things. While he questions feeling abandoned by God in “Grapefruit”, Aaron decides to start drinking. “Yeah, I’ll be the town drunk. I’ll be a burden to everyone”. However, in the darkest hours, he sees himself for what he is through the incredible lines of “The Thunderbird Inn”, where Campbell sings, “I drank my last paycheck dry, and outside a homeless man asks me for change and I, I look him straight in his eyes. He starts to apologize”, before screaming a strangled chorus of, “I didn’t know that I looked that pathetic”!

Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties is an exercise in craftsmanship. While the musical end of the album isn’t anything particularly original, it serves its purpose as a catchy catalyst. The real show here is the storyline. It’s profoundly dark, destructive and agonizingly uplifting. There may be other albums revolving around these themes, but nothing as straight forward or intense.

We Don’t Have Each Other is quite possibly the best written concept record out there, and cements Dan Campbell as the most prolific lyricist of his generation. I honestly cannot wait to hear the next chapter of Aaron West’s life (if there is one), and absolutely fear it at the same time, which is a testament as to how powerful his story really is.

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.