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.

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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)

Guster MySpace page

  

Dylan Connor: Breakaway Republic

A Latin teacher turned indie pop road dog, Dylan Connor sounds like a vocal cross between David Mead and Guster’s Ryan Miller, and fans of both acts should find something to love in Connor’s latest release, Breakaway Republic. Eleven tracks of tightly written pop-rock with a classic feel and a dash of postmodern humor, Republic isn’t going to win any awards for flashiness, but it’s still probably one of the sturdier collections you’re liable to hear from an unsigned singer/songwriter this year, and it’s to Connor’s extreme credit that he manages to avoid focusing on the tried-and-true boy/girl dynamic for at least part of the album, spreading his focus to less-trod subject matter like bomb shelters (“Blood Like Fire”) and mortality (“Had a Little Dream”). It’s to Republic’s extreme credit, too, because when Connor does focus on relationships, the results can be a little weak. Case in point: “I Want Everybody to Know,” which tells the story of the night Connor set aside front-row passes at one of his gigs for a girl, only to watch her making out with another guy, and makes all three of them seem pretty shallow and annoying. Still, on balance, Republic is an easy listen, and even at his worst, Connor displays a tighter grasp of songcraft than your average guitarslinger. A worthy diversion for fans of the genre. (self-released 2008)

Dylan Connor MySpace page

  

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