The unofficial headquarters of Golden Sound Records is the basement of a house on Rockhill Road, near Rockhurst University. Ross Brown and Jerad Tomasino, two of the three young men who run the local record label, live at the house; Mat Shoare, the third, recently moved out. The basement is split into two sides, though the sides basically mirror each other: drum kit, amps, guitar cases, beer bottles, cords, microphones.
"That's where Everyday/Everynight practices," Brown says, seated cross-legged on a patch of carpet beside his black-and-white Rickenbacker and pointing across the room. Everyday/Everynight is Tomasino's band. It takes a certain amount of focus to keep up with the various projects roiling around under the Golden Sound umbrella. In addition to putting out other people's music, all three guys lead their own bands: Shoare, the Empty Spaces; Tomasino, Everyday/Everynight; and Brown, the Fullbloods. They also tend to play in one another's bands, and they all have released solo albums. The most recent of these, Brown's Small Victories, arrived last week. It is the most interesting thing the label has put out to date.
Brown is the studio rat of the label, and he engineers, mixes and masters most Golden Sound releases down in this grimy basement. In person, Brown wears his dark hair slicked and parted, greaser style, and he speaks softly and sometimes haltingly. He's quietly funny, but you also get the sense that he's holding back stranger thoughts. This suspicion is confirmed upon listening to the music he makes.
Brown grew up on the rural western edge of Olathe and started playing music in middle school — trumpet, then euphonium, then guitar, then drums. He was home-schooled from his sophomore year on (he started at De Soto High School), which gave him time to start writing and recording music. In 2007, when he was 18 and still living at home, he recorded an album, Ross Brown's Human Condition, on which he played all the instruments. "Don't ... listen too closely to this," he told me, as he handed me the album the other day.
The songs on Human Condition are amateurish, lacking in focus and generally forgettable. But they're also remarkably ambitious for a teenager. In addition to David Bazan and American Analog Set, Brown cites Art Blakey and bossa nova as early influences. "I think there's some songs on that record that are these kind of cringeworthy attempts at mimicking those styles and trying to fit them into simple rock songs," Brown says. The lyrics also reveal a sharper-than-average 18-year-old. I don't know what I've got the leverage if I need to talk some trash/I've got the floor plans, I just don't have the cash means, but it sounds smarter than what was going on inside my brain in high school.
A year after Human Condition, Brown enrolled at BRC Audio Productions, a two-year training school for audio engineering, where he met Tomasino. "They do a pretty awesome job of balancing music education — theory, arrangements, stuff like that — with the technical side of things," Brown says. He soon formed a band, Fullbloods, with some BRC guys: Bill Pollock, Glenn Shipps and Alex Chapman.
"I had written a bunch of songs and wanted to make a concept album out of them, which is an absurd thing to do, and I would discourage anyone from attempting it," Brown says. "And I wanted to play with people, so I wrote the parts and had those guys come in and play the parts, and we started playing some shows."
The Perpetual Machine sprawls across genres, but the songwriting has matured. The surf-rock guitars, Western twang and more traditional pop leanings add up to something like an indie-rock version of Chris Isaak. (Brown's hairstyle might add to this impression.) There are also moments of beauty, like the ballad "Alaska," a five-minute triumph of lovesick loneliness.
Now we have Small Victories, a brightly detailed, adventurous solo album on which Brown played all the instruments. This begs the question of why a band member who writes all the songs needs to make a solo album.
"That's a good question," Brown says. "I think Fullbloods is — I can't play the instruments like the guys in Fullbloods, so I think we try to play to their strengths. There's a groovy rock-and-roll thing to it. It's really groovereliant. And the lyrics tend to be more vague and metaphorical. I probably have more reservations with the lyrics with Fullbloods because I'm representing a full band. With this new solo album, the lyrics are maybe goofier. I was listening to a lot of Randy Newman and Warren Zevon at the time, guys who have really thick sarcasm and heavy satire in their lyrics."
That much is apparent. The lyrics on Small Victories are clever and playful and a little unhinged — some of the best I've heard locally this year. The album opens on "Dishes" with a drum crash and Brown shouting through a distorted microphone: wooo! then ha! Then yeah! Then he rambles about how he's the director and actor and cinematographer and producer and writer and makeup artist. Then he says something about screaming at dirty dishes. It's wide-eyed and demented, like a mad scientist cooking up crazy schemes in isolation.
"The album was made in about four weeks, and it's a lot of me just coming straight home from work" — Brown is employed as a Web developer four days a week — "and fleshing out ideas by myself down here in the basement," he says. "A lot of the stuff, definitely 'Dishes,' I just improvised and rambled off. Then I'd listen to it later and be like, 'Yeah, that's pretty stupid, but I'm going to keep it on there anyway.' "
"Superomance" is less a song than a line of questioning set to a cyclical riff:
What happens to your soul when you die?
How long can you safely store pulled pork in your refrigerator before it goes bad?
How often do you use mathematics?
How would you change the way our government operates?
What do you think about the starving children of India?
What do you think I think about the starving children of India.
And so on. Brown lists Richard Swift as a producer he admires, and there are echoes of Swift's weirdo pop layers throughout, such as on "Lion's Den," with its funky keyboard riff and sunny orchestral glitches. Interestingly, the standout cut, "Small Victories," is the most straightforward, a concise bit of melodic verse-chorus-verse alt-pop à la Matthew Sweet. Small victories tell the truth/If you can't land a passenger plane, pack a parachute / Small victories turn me on/If you can't be a steward of peace, better drop the bomb, Brown sings.
"I was kind of in a rut, to the point where I was celebrating little things way too much," Brown says of the title track. "Like, 'Oh, I spent less than $8 on lunch today.' Or, 'Oh, I was able to get that girl to smile at me.' And I started thinking about the idea of small victories in a larger sense, like with relationships and life and whatever, things like that. And then I guess the album kind of spilled out from there."