The Only Children are impossible to miss, even when its members mingle in a sizable crowd like the one that gathered for the band's first-ever show at the Hurricane on September 14. Its members don sensationally garish thrift-store threads, with pedal-steel player Casey Prestwood setting the sartorial standard with a jacket that spells out "Spacey Casey" in rhinestones. The group overlooked no detail in establishing an Age of Aquarius atmosphere; it even attached a few blooms and buds to its microphone stands for added flower power.
"Whatever's lying around when we wake up, we just put it on and play," says Josh Berwanger, implying that the Only Children spend countless nights sleeping in dumpsters behind Salvation Army stores.
Fans of local music would recognize Berwanger, bassist James David and drummer Christian Jankowski as authentic rockers regardless of what they wore. All three Children are orphaned members of the now-defunct Anniversary, a Lawrence outfit that rivaled its Vagrant Records labelmates the Get Up Kids in international acclaim. Moving from hyper-twee, keyboard-driven juvenilia to symphonic, psychedelic pop in a three-release cycle, the Anniversary packed venues locally, nationally and overseas.
After a sloppy split with its label, the Anniversary drifted into dire demo experimentation. In an April 2003 interview with the Pitch, Berwanger described how the band was dabbling in hip-hop and reggae, a revelation many of its fans took as a terrifying threat. Instead of releasing this Rasta rap record, the Anniversary called it quits last December.
Berwanger immediately started work on a solo project. After recruiting David and Jankowski, he enlisted former Lawrence native T.K. Webb (now a New York-based guitarist); Heidi-Lynne Gluck, of Juliana Hatfield's band Some Girls, on piano, accordion and vocals; and Prestwood, from Hot Rod Circuit, on pedal-steel.
"He's a pedal-steel freak, a complete obsessive," Berwanger says. "When he starts talking to other pedal-steel players, they get scared and walk away."
Prestwood's mania translates into virtuosity. His twangy tones give the Only Children's songs a crisp, country-blues bite. Like former Anniversary keyboardist Adrianne Verhoeven (now with the Architects), Gluck merges her airy voice with Berwanger's in a variety of harmony arrangements. However, Gluck's piano contributions, which range from spunky honky-tonk accents to moody melodies, differ from her predecessor's space-age and symphonic strategies.
The Only Children's debut disc, Change of Living, bears absolutely no resemblance to the Anniversary's inaugural effort, Designing a Nervous Breakdown, which Berwanger dismisses as the confessions of a teenage drama scene. Even a year before its breakup, the group almost never played tracks from Breakdown live.
"We were just sick of it," Berwanger says. "I'm not ashamed of it, but I can't listen to it anymore."
Change of Living shares an era with the Anniversary's swan song, Your Majesty, but it lands on the other end of the Beatles-versus-Stones debate. That's especially true on "Sky Begins to Storm," which resembles the Stones' classic "Dear Doctor," with Gluck playing the female parts instead of a helium-huffing Keith Richards in vocal drag.
Change is relatively rugged, with gritty blues riffs, a propulsive pulse and dark lyrics about religion, murder and lost love. The hard-stomping songs become raucous jams in concert, with harmonica spurts, call-and-response vocals and spitfire solos all riding the rhythms well past their album expiration times. The album's most subtle moments, all finger-picked acoustic ambience and vulnerable vocals, create an intimacy that the Anniversary's electronic enhancements and orchestral overtures never allowed.
As a result, some cynical scribes have already labeled Berwanger a gate crasher at the singer-songwriter garden party. "Looks like someone passed this guy a copy of [Rust Never Sleeps/Tea for the Tillerman/Beggars Banquet]" has become a popular Only Children review template.
"That drives me insane," Berwanger says. "I've been listening to that shit since I was 10 years old. I just wasn't a songwriter back then [in the Anniversary's early days]. I knew a couple chords, but I didn't understand vocal melodies and patterns. It wouldn't have made any sense for us to do this record then."
It's obvious that Berwanger and his bandmates had no financial motive for their artistic evolution. Although the type of tunes on Breakdown remain commercially viable, Change of Living plays to the smaller, more mature audience that embraces raw, rustic rock. And whereas the Anniversary always drew well and traveled in style, the Only Children have been playing to single-digit crowds while touring in a self-converted school bus.
"This is the hardest anyone has ever toured as far as living and breathing the road," says Berwanger, who has a penchant for overstatement. "The Anniversary had everything handed to them. It's so tough to find a band that feels like a family, to find people that can keep their cool.
"It was like that at one point," Berwanger says of the Anniversary, but he refuses to delve deeper. However, the Only Children remain tethered to the Anniversary, personnel changes and music dissimilarities notwithstanding. Only Children promotional materials and concert fliers emphasize the phrase "former members of the Anniversary."
"It's fine for now, but if it's still there five years from now, then there's a problem," Berwanger says. "This band is so good that it's going to be gone by next tour. "
Given his track record, Berwanger might revise the group's musical direction by the next tour anyway -- though hopefully not toward that hip-hop-reggae hybrid, the Grandview Triangle of musical intersections. But regardless of what they sound like, Berwanger's bands will always be easy to spot. Just look for ornately anachronistic outfits, the ones that are so outrageously ugly that cognitive dissonance colors them cool.