Fourth of July
(High Dive Records)
The last few years have seen a mild exodus of longtime Lawrence musicians and acts. Some have landed in San Francisco, some Brooklyn, some just across the state line here in Kansas City. Not Fourth of July. For coming up on a decade, the group (now a quartet of brothers: Brendan and Patrick Hangauer, Brian and Brendan Costello) has lived in the thick of Lawrence's scene, writing and performing clever odes to Free State, college parties and broken hearts (and the trappings of living in a place with an abundance of those things). More than any other current group, Fourth of July has woven itself into the tapestry of the town; it is hard to imagine Lawrence without Fourth of July.
If you've been tracking the group since its 2007 debut, Fourth of July on the Plains, nothing on Empty Moon, its third LP, will surprise you too terribly. It's a bit more raw than previous albums, but the general aesthetic is intact. Front and center in the mix is Brendan Hangauer's droll baritone. The band rattles and clangs, a folk-rock outfit careening around at peak buzz; occasionally, there is a trumpet solo. And then there are those smartass lyrics. Empty Moon contains some of the life-in-a-college-town themes we're accustomed to from the group. But they're accompanied by a creeping weariness: Hangauer is getting older.
"Eskimo Brothers" captures his feelings on the topic most succinctly. It has a semicrass, novelty title (when two guys have hooked up with the same girl, they are said to be "Eskimo brothers") and an upbeat hook, but darkness sneaks in: Yeah I know I should probably move/There's just so many things I'm used to/Like wakin' up, goin' to work and goin' out, and wakin' up by myself/I think I just want to be alone right now. And later: And the stars remind me I'm in the middle of nowhere. Or on opener "Empty Moon": This town's not so charming when you never leave. Or on "Drinking Binge": I've been told getting old doesn't happen slowly/And I can feel it in my bones, getting old and lonely.
Historically, an angry kind of lovesickness is present on Fourth of July albums. We don't get the full story, but we gather that Hangauer is singing about a woman who moved to New York and France and possibly other European cities, and that he is not altogether pleased with the way that particular cracker crumbled. There are a few of those types of songs on Empty Moon, but they're the least compelling for those of us familiar with the band. "Berlin," for example, is a strong track that showcases Hangauer's flair for cutting remarks: Say you've met someone else, you're so proud of yourself/Your head to the side and you're rolling your eyes/Talking like someone I don't recognize. But Hangauer has mowed over this patch of grass enough times already. Can't we move past this old, failed relationship?
I prefer songs like the slow-gaited "Colorado," in which we get a little beauty without the snarls (plus a gorgeous pedal-steel guest spot from Jeff Jackson). Ditto the last few minutes of "The Cost," which builds to an expected, satisfying coda: Some things just seem right/Like the snow melting outside, Hangauer sings, a little hoarse. On these and a handful of other tracks — basically Side A of Empty Moon — there's a new nakedness, a kind of soul that we've not seen before from Fourth of July. More smart than clever, and honest, but not too harsh about it. If Fourth of July writes songs like these for the next 40 years, I'll keep driving to the Replay to listen.
(The Record Machine)
In 2010, Soft Reeds frontman Ben Grimes told The Pitch that the origin of his band's name was a sort of mash-up of the Soft Boys and Lou Reed. "I always go back to '77 Berlin," Grimes said. "Brian Eno, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop." You can hear those influences on Soft Reeds' glammy debut, Soft Reeds Are Bastards. They're less pronounced on the recently released follow-up, Blank City. A more appropriate name for the band at this point might be something like "Talking Gang of Four." Or maybe just "Talking Headz"?
It is not a development about which I am complaining. On Blank City, Grimes and his band do well by David Byrne and company, locking into groove after groove, all staccato bass, scraping guitars and nervy drums. Atop it all is Grimes' quavering, occasionally too-affected wail. "Moving in Time" is probably the Byrniest of the bunch. In addition to just sounding like the title of a Talking Heads song, it apes the bass-driven chord change in the "Psycho Killer" chorus. With its short, stuttering bass line, "Supper and Knives" comes on like "Crosseyed and Painless." (Bassist Beckie Trost does a pretty great Tina Weymouth impression.) You could seriously plug "Supper and Knives" into a Remain in Light playlist and nobody would blink an eye. That's meant to be a compliment.
As an album, Blank City is smartly constructed — Grimes has good ideas about where to put each song. It eases in with "17," more or less an instrumental track that goes on for a couple of minutes, with Grimes' vocals humming in the distance. Fade-out closer "A Hysterical Woman" executes a bit of mystery, grabbing at some world-music touchstones and hinting at strange new directions. What you'd name a version of Soft Reeds' playing a bunch of songs like "A Hysterical Woman," I don't know — but, more, please.
Cowboy Indian Bear
Live Old, Die Young
(The Record Machine)
If Cowboy Indian Bear isn't the hardest-working band in the area, then it's at least in contention. The three-year wait for the Lawrence quartet's new album, Live Old, Die Young, is not owing to idleness; the members have been touring their asses off, grinding it out at rock clubs up and down the United States. The nice thing about that level of commitment is that a band can really dial into its sound and refine it, and it's clear from Cowboy Indian Bear's recent live shows that the group has done just that. With Live Old, Die Young, Cowboy Indian Bear has tastefully translated its aesthetic to a recording.
There are some hazards to taking your band really seriously. One is that your music can start to sound a little too, you know, serious. Live Old, Die Young is chockablock with adventurous song structures; confident songwriting; and progressive, textured production. It's powerful — 13 tracks of epic, layered art rock. But it's not exactly exploding with joy. There's not a lot in the way of hooks, and the pace is generally unhurried. It's in many ways a beautiful record, but it asks you to commit to it a little. If you don't, the first two tracks, both of which clock in at around six minutes, might seem to drag on for about a hundred years.
If you're primed for some sober, sweeping indie rock, though, Live Old, Die Young delivers it in spades. Opener "Washing" kicks off with some militant percussion; Beau Bruns' busy, gently dissonant drumming is a recurring motif. Second track "Does Anybody See You Out?" is a standout, an engaging balance of melody and momentum with Cowboy Indian Bear's artier ambitions. Elsewhere, the echoes of popular indie-rock acts from the past decade are detectable: Radiohead's dizzy mood pieces, the cold soar of Broken Social Scene, the grandeur of Arcade Fire. "I Want a Stranger's Heart" has some tones I associate with Cass McCombs. "Seventeen" — another highlight — features a Bon Iver–like falsetto. And yet despite these clear influences, Live Old, Die Young sounds like nothing other than Cowboy Indian Bear. I can't think of very many bands from around these parts that have carved out such a distinct identity.