The Story So Far - Songs Of EP (2014)

The Story So Far are no amateurs to the art of acoustic music. From the slowed-down, beloved version of “680 South,” to Kevin Geyer’s solo project with Parker Cannon’s voice trailing in the background and to last year’s split with Stick to Your Guns – the point is that these guys can do it. They have done it extremely well, too, considering how difficult it can be to go from the band’s usually fast and raw tempo to producing something softer, but with just as much sentiment. Yet – for the first time – on Songs Of, the band approaches acoustic music in a way that just does not deliver quite nearly as well as it did before.

When What You Don’t See was released last year, “The Glass” was one of the songs that stood out because it highlighted perfectly what The Story So Far is known for – which is being fast, raw and angry. This version sounds completely different, but not in an “it is better acoustic” sense. All the rawness from the full length is gone, and not simply because it is slower. Just because a song is slower does not mean that the emotion from the original has to be left behind; if anything, acoustic songs – because of their slowed-down, melancholy nature – tend to amplify the emotion of a song. However, everything that made “The Glass” such a stand out song is left out here particularly because it is slower. To match the slower sound, Cannon sings monotonously compared to the way he usually enunciates highly, thereby also stripping all the emotion that made the original so impressive. Even the slight change of leaving “the f**k” out of the “How does that change anything?” line demonstrates how the anger that was so heightened in the original version is completely unsaturated here.

“Navy Blue” fits more authentically as a trademark The Story So Far acoustic song because Cannon resumes how he regularly sings. It helps redeem the monotony from the previous song and provokes far more emotive along with the touch of the violin/viola in parts of the background. Though “Navy Blue” is not the most memorable of the band’s acoustic works, the repetition of “I hope this makes you sad” is definitely the stickiest line of the EP.

“All Wrong” is another acoustic version off What You Don’t See, but it is only a 37-second clip and gratefully so because it mirrors the first song; had it been made full length, it likely would have followed the same slow, monotonous approach of “The Glass.” However, because the song is shorter, it works better and it sounds like a nostalgic and leftover demo that segues quite nicely into the next song.

“Bad Luck” is the last acoustic-turned song from What You Don’t See, and it’s the best on this EP. It starts off a little faster then slows down before getting faster again, and Cannon’s voice picks up as well by hitting his usual high notes. There is still something missing to make it good enough, though, and it is not because an acoustic song has to necessarily live up to its original. The point is that it has to survive at least on its own and, though this song possesses more range than the other other two reworked songs, it still barely does it.

Lastly, “Waiting in Vain” does not succeed in the way that the band’s previous cover of Pinback’s “Loro” killed it. That probably has to do more with the fact that Bob Marley was incomparably, well, Bob Marley. The guitar solo in this version makes this track worthwhile at least.

The What You Don’t See acoustics miss home by at least half a mile and “Navy Blue” does not possess that it quality that made “Clairvoyant” so repeatable; nonetheless, one thing that could be foreshadowed based off this EP is that The Story So Far may be at that point in its career where the members are truly ready to experiment with what they work on next for the band. Though Songs Of may not have exceeded any expectations, it is far more interesting to see a band growing, changing and figuring out what works for it rather than always producing the same thing for the sake of comfort and pleasing masses.

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Basement - Further Sky EP (2014)

Basement has been showing an extensive amount of progression with each and every release under its belt, as every single member of this band seems to become noticeably better at what they do as time goes on. After going on hiatus for nearly two years, the band is back with an EP entitled Further Sky. Although the band’s prior record, Colourmeinkindness, did not receive a touring cycle, it is definitely nice to get some new tunes from these UK alt. rockers. Further Sky consists of two brand new tracks and a Suede cover, and it was recorded in North London's Livingston Studio – which has housed bands such as The Clash, Bjork, Placebo, R.E.M. and Muse. Despite the fact that Further Sky is a three-song EP, it carries the hype of a full-length record.

“Summer’s Colour” opens the EP up with riffs that most Basement fans will be familiar with. Although the track doesn’t stray too far from the Colourmeinkindness style, it definitely feels much bigger. The track also feels a bit more experimental than the band’s prior work. Aside from the incredible instrumental aspect, “Summer’s Colour” is also driven by some soaring vocals – and a chorus you will find yourself humming for the next couple weeks. The second track is the other original, “Jet.” This song is a lot more upbeat than “Summer’s Colour” – or, for that matter, almost any other Basement song. It’s a very attention-grabbing track that displays some new areas explored by the band; with upbeat verses and a mesmerizing chorus, “Jet” is unlike any prior Basement work. After hearing these two songs, it’s like the band never even took a break. It’s pretty incredible that a band can take a hiatus for more than a year then come back to pick up right where it left off. It just proves further, no pun intended, that Basement is the admirable band the fans make it out to be.

“Animal Nitrate,” which was originally released by a band called Suede on its self-titled record in 1993, is the cover song of the EP. If you are not familiar with the original band (or song), I would suggest checking it out before listening to the cover. Basement definitely had drawn influences from Suede on Colourmeinkindness, but the band made this cover its own. “Animal Nitrate” was an incredible song to begin with, so it was very relieving to discover that Basement did not take away from that whatsoever. You can tell the band had a lot of fun with this cover. It feels like a nice homage to Suede, as well as a great representation of what Basement’s sound is.

Overall, some people may find Further Sky to be a huge tease. In my opinion, Basement has put out its best material with every new release and just keeps getting better. Some people may be a little upset that the EP is so short, but you have to keep in mind that Colourmeinkindness never really received a proper touring cycle. Basement probably could have just went into these 2014 tours with the 2011 record, but the guys were kind enough to give us three more wonderful tracks. I believe these two original songs, and even the cover, represent where this band is currently; sonically, Basement is better than ever. This EP is another step in the right direction for Basement, and this release is only going to help this band grow even more. Further Sky may be a short release, but it feels monstrous – and it represents a bigger, better Basement.

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To the Wind - Block Out the Sun & Sleep (2014)

It seems hardcore in the more traditional sense is finally making a bit of a comeback in the scene these days, as bands like The Ghost Inside, Terror, Hundredth and now Seattle’s own To the Wind are making some waves. I’m not personally sure how necessary it was, since it had been less than ten years since the genre had been trumped by post-hardcore, metalcore and the like. With 2014, To the Wind has come back with its sophomore release, Block Out the Sun & Sleep, an effort promising to make you happy that the genre is on the rise again.

The first two tracks on the album, “Vacant Home” and “Trapped,” do an excellent job to show off the instrumental prowess this band possesses. Creative and catchy guitar riffs and solid drumming – and consistently powerful screaming from vocalist Tanner Murphy – all really bring these songs home as hits. It’s when the third track, “Hands of the Clock,” hit that I really became intrigued because Murphy’s vocals make a very pleasant transition to the slower verses used, and the gang vocals in the background turn this pace-changer into a game-changing anthem for the band.

Once “21” starts, we’re back to that faster pace introduced in the first two tracks, and I started to notice the first chugging breakdown on the record. It really pleased me to hear such a popular songwriting escape used so sparingly, and the rest of the record wouldn't disappoint in that regard, with such breakdown usage kept to pleasant single digits. To the Wind has done a fantastic job pairing the heavy and jarring with more emotional, heartfelt anthems on this record – which makes the record as a whole more listenable, instead of the usual 11 tracks of one style with one interlude thrown in. That being said, after “Alone in Life”, which gives a very Hundredth-ish feel, the title track is a soft-clean interlude, providing that moment to breathe and relax whilst crooning guitars please the eardrums, preparing you for the incoming second half of the record.

The next track is “Skin Deep,” which is a fast-paced circle pit song with soaring lead guitar and a very catchy chorus. Murphy, too, does an excellent job of staying tasteful with his screaming, not overly drowning out the instruments, but complementing them. With “Through My Eyes,” the band created a track most modern hardcore kids will love; though a shorter track overall, it’s a heavy burst of gritty chugging and lyrical angst right in your face. “Iron Rain” really didn’t change up from that same heavy formula except for a few faster melodic parts, though that little change still keeps you interested.

The second last track, “One and the Same,” proves to be a callback to the beginning of the record, cutting the heavy for all more melodic and speed, though also displaying some cleaner vocals that sound excellent during the chorus. If there was one complaint throughout the record it points out, though, it’d be that the song length on most of the record is too short to really drive home each song’s meaning; most of the tracks clock in at three minutes or less and end much sooner than feels necessary.

With a heavy end to the record in “Growing Numb,” I’m more than pleasantly surprised with what To the Wind has brought to the table with Block Out the Sun & Sleep. It’s jam-packed with variety, and each member of the band provides an honest effort into creating an authentic hardcore piece, though short as it is. In a way, that could be a good thing because it left me starting the album all over again, eager to hear more; in that case, I’d consider it a huge success.

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Real Friends - Maybe This Place is the Same... (2014)

Real Friends is one of the biggest bands of the current pop punk scene even though the discography consists of nothing but a plethora of EPs and a one-off single. After signing to Fearless Records in late-2013, though, the band announced that its next release would be something that fans have been waiting for: a full-length record! Maybe This Place is the Same and We're Just Changing has an official release date of July 22, though there was a bootleg vinyl release that hit the shelves of some record stores one week in advance.

The record opens with a soundclip of someone setting down keys and walking on hardwood flooring followed by a very calming guitar part. Then vocalist Dan Lambton states, "Maybe this place is the same and we're just changing" in a fairly soft manner. "Maybe This Place is the Same..." isn't anything but an introductory track – but it is a solid one. "I Don't Love You Anymore" is the first actual song, and I was very pleased by the end of the first chorus because the music seems much more inspired and real than what we last heard from the band on Put Yourself Back Together, which I thought was a lackadaisical release aside from two or three songs.

Real Friends wastes no time in "Cover You Up," as it's full of energy and passion from the very first second. The chorus, though it passes by a bit too fast, contains a very relateable lyric ("I only miss you late at night when I can't sleep and get way too honest / I've lost you, so I've got nothing to lose") that is, for the most part, presented aggressively by Lambton. Even more vocal aggression is displayed after the first chorus and after Joe Taylor (Knuckle Puck), who is sure to gain a few new fans of his own, belts out his guest vocal part.

The following two songs, "Old Book" and "Summer," show a bit more of the dynamic sound that Real Friends was going for on Maybe This Place is the Same and We're Just Changing; "Old Book" is more on the emo side of the scale while "Summer" is a catchy pop punk song. Even for Real Friends, though, the lyrics in "Summer" seem extremely clich̩ Рespecially during the mediocre chorus ("I miss you like the summer / Right now I think I need you here, but I don't really need you / I'll get through the winter without you"). Thankfully, the final chorus has much more oomph to it and brings "Summer" to a close on a positive note.

"Loose Ends," which was the first single the band released after signing to a label, is a very high-energy song that is home to my personal favourite chorus, both lyrically and musically. It also features Chris Roetter (Like Moths to Flames), who brings his harsh vocals along with him. "Short Song" acts as an interlude without removing any of the band members to chill things out. It actually does the complete opposite of a typical interlude, as it absolutely explodes after a drum roll near the 50-second mark.

"Sixteen" and "To My Old Self" are two of the slowest, softest songs on the record, and they prove that Real Friends has grown to be more than just a pop punk band. "To My Old Self," in particular, is extremely unique. Emo-influenced, and almost twinkly, guitars drive the main portion of the song while the drumming is fairly laid back. That being said, like in "Short Song," a drum roll near the end of "To My Old Self" sets things up for a big finish – and Real Friends certainly delivers again.

Sandwiched between the two aforementioned tracks is "Spread Me All Over Illinois." The chorus is another huge one, and the instrumentation on this track is definitely different for Real Friends – making "Spread Me All Over Illinois" one of the strongest songs on the record. Similarly, "I Think I'm Moving Forward" is a bit more aggressive than the majority of Maybe This Place is the Same and We're Just Changing, and it reminded me of "Dirty Water" and "Alexander Supertramp" from the three-song EP that Real Friends released in late-2012. The other half of the title track, "And We're Just Changing...," is the final song. Unlike the intro, "And We're Just Changing..." is a song that has all the parts: an intro, verses, a chorus, a bridge and an outro. The title track lyric make a return and the record ends in a very similar way that it began.

Undeniably one of the silliest bands offstage (and even sometimes onstage), Real Friends is anything but that on its debut full length. Yes, sometimes the lyrics are very clich̩, but that also means they're probably relateable. This is also the band's most dynamic release to date, as there are a few soft songs and there are several fast and aggressive songs Рand there are even a handful of songs that lay somewhere in the middle. That being said, Maybe This Place is the Same and We're Just Changing has something for everyone, and old fans should be thrilled to have a Real Friends release that takes longer to listen to than heating up a pizza.

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Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties - We Don't... (2014)

Dan “Soupy” Campbell's concept album, We Don't Have Each Other, under the pseudonym Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties is something I'd been expecting for a while now. With the success of his prominent pop punk band, The Wonder Years, Soupy has begun to receive notice as a poignant, insightful songwriter. It was only a matter of time before he came out with a solo project to showcase his lyrical talent through a different approach. That approach turned out to be the creation of a fictional character, Aaron West, with We Don't Have Each Other as the recounting of Aaron's separation from his wife, the loss of his baby daughter and father, and his subsequent journey across America to find and heal himself.

The album opens with “Our Apartment,” which I personally think is the best song of the release. “Our Apartment” sets the mood of the album (sad as hell) and lays out the main conflict of the story (Aaron's wife, Dianne, has left him). The acoustic guitar, horns and banjo drive home the borderline Americana tone of the album: it's a simple story about a simple man with realistic, yet devastating, problems. Soupy's voice is characteristically melancholy – and suited to the subject. The second track, “Grapefruit,” is a little slower, and even more yearning than its predecessor. The chorus is hooky and vague enough to be relatable; it's a welcome follow to the crippling specificity of the verses, which outline the loss of Aaron and Dianne's baby.

I found “St. Joe Keeps Us Safe,” the third track on the album, to be actually difficult to listen to; the melody is grating and the song is bland, relying on a buildup near the end that comes across as melodramatic. The next song, “Divorce and the American South,” is a solid antidote to “St. Joe Keeps Us Safe.” Where “St. Joe Keeps Us Safe” is overblown, “Divorce and the American South” is understated. It makes you feel Aaron's pain with accessible, aching lines like, “Hey Dianne / I know I fucked up / It's just when we lost the baby, I kind of shut off.” “Divorce and the American South” is the last truly stellar song on the album.

We Don't Have Each Other is surely a fantastic album lyrically. Every song has at least one or two exceptionally poetic lines, but ultimately, the story doesn't go anywhere. We're left hanging at the end of “Carolina Coast,” the last song, with Aaron's self actualization unresolved. I would be content with an unresolved plot (after all, life doesn't always resolve) if “Carolina Coast” wasn't essentially the same song as the three that came before it. After “Divorce and the American South,” we get no new information about Aaron's predicament. “The Thunderbird Inn,” “Get Me Out of Here Alive” and “You Ain't No Saint” are all about Aaron's feelings of loss and loneliness. We see that he is unmoored, desperate and fleeing from his past, but these images come without any new revelations in the story. We Don't Have Each Other lays it all out on the table in the first five songs, and then leaves the last four floundering for subject material.

Of course, there are times when I want to listen to nine songs about loss and loneliness, regardless of their contribution to any particular story. Yet, even for this, the last four songs on We Don't Have Each Other fall short because, not only do they come across as one long song lyrically, but also musically. The soft, downplayed vocals on “Grapefruit” and “Divorce and the American South” are traded in for Soupy's signature voice-cracking, passionate vocal buildups; there is an impassioned buildup on every song past “Divorce and the American South” except for “Get Me Out of Here Alive.” While this vocal style is perfect for The Wonder Years, it sounds out of place on We Don't Have Each Other. The unique instrumentation and subtle harmonies that characterized “Our Apartment” are largely absent from the rest of the album, besides the odd harmonica here and there.

When I first sat down to listen to We Don't Have Each Other, I was excited; The Wonder Years are one of my favourite bands and I've always been a fan of Soupy's lyrics. By the time the album was over, however, I was disappointed. While there are three songs on We Don't Have Each Other that deliver really, really well, the rest of the album is unremarkable. The lyrics excel, but the music suffers. The project isn't distinct enough from Soupy's body of work with The Wonder Years and gives the listener the impression that the songwriter can only really write one type of song. I don't necessarily think that's true, but the lack of melodic diversity certainly makes it appear that way. When all is said and done, We Don't Have Each Other comes off more like a collection of The Greatest Generation B-sides than anything else.

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