Guster: Easy Wonderful


RIYL: Barenaked Ladies, Camper Van Beethoven, Ben Folds

In today’s one-and-done record industry climate, it’s something of a miracle that Guster has managed to survive for nearly two decades – they’ve never had a hit, they aren’t the kind of band that inspires much in the way of promotional dollars from labels, and they aren’t hip or edgy enough to create a buzz with the Pitchfork/NPR crowd. Yet they persist, and thank goodness for that – even though each new album feels like it could be the last.

By all accounts, making Easy Wonderful almost did them in for good, thanks to an aborted run of sessions with producer David Kahne that left the band questioning whether they had a future. It took a retreat to the Nashville studio of departing Guster member Joe Pisapia to refuel them – and produce their most layered, eclectic album to date.

Guster_09

For some longtime fans, the words “layered” and “eclectic” carry the sting of betrayal; Guster started out as an acoustic-based trio, and drummer Brian Rosenworcel – a.k.a. “Thundergod” – was famous for not playing with sticks. Starting with 1999’s Lost and Gone Forever, Guster has slowly moved away from the simplicity of its earlier sound, and each subsequent release (2003’s Keep It Together and 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun) has utilized an increasingly complex, anything-goes aesthetic with room for everything from banjos to whistling solos, typewriter percussion, and dance beats.

It isn’t as innocent a sound, but then, a lot of Guster’s songs deal with the loss of innocence – with regret, loneliness, and emotional distance, and a burning, childlike hope that persists in spite of it all. It’s a deeper artistic outlook than most, and it makes sense that the songs’ arrangements should reflect that. There’s a fine line between “grown-up pop” and “mid-tempo morass,” though, and Guster has occasionally erred on the wrong side; chunks of Keep It Together and especially Ganging Up on the Sun felt like the work of a band that was struggling to mature without losing its energy.

Happily, Easy Wonderful doesn’t really have that problem. The songs are still resolutely mid-tempo, and if you listen with it in the background, that’s where the album will stay – like most Guster releases, it isn’t grab-you-by-the-collar music. Even the most radio-ready stuff – whatever that means in 2010 – takes a few listens to really reveal itself. And some fans will doubtless be disappointed in this set’s lack of an epic Guster ballad along the lines of “Come Downstairs and Say Hello” or “Ruby Falls,” but these songs have a melodic urgency that seemed like it might be draining from their music. They aren’t exactly punchy, but they have an increased focus, and as densely woven as the arrangements can be, Easy Wonderful never feels busy – the fact that three of the tracks clock in under three minutes is a testament to the disciplined songwriting.

All in all, Easy Wonderful is Guster’s best, most emotionally resonant work since the wonderful Lost and Gone Forever. It has a problem, though, and it’s a major one: vocalist Ryan Miller hogs the spotlight here, leaving almost no room for Adam Gardner, whose harmonies (and occasional leads) were one of the best things about the band’s sound. Miller’s a fine singer, and his keening voice is perfect for the band’s earnest, hopeful music, but it just doesn’t feel like Guster without that vocal blend. The world already has one Hall & Oates, guys – if you hang in long enough for another album, make sure you share the mic more often. (Aware 2010)

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