To hear a fan say it, you'd have thought somebody killed his brother: "They sold out." That sentence, and its many variations, has been a part of punk rock since the Sex Pistols signed with EMI. Granted, that move worked out OK--it wasn't called The Great Rock & Roll Swindle for nothing--but something about the more-punk-than-thou mentality just dared people to be the first punk on the block to write off a band as being over the hill, going soft, selling out. It's even easier to do when a band breaks up and its members move onto something else; just ask Ian MacKaye about the early days of Fugazi, when the shadow of Minor Threat clouded the vision of the single-minded hardcore kids.
Carry over the punk-rock posturing and add in the dandelion-wine nostalgia that defines the style of music known as emo, and you have a lot of finger-pointing and wistful pining for the good old days. It's something the new, softer Promise Ring faces, something the members of Braid have had to face since they regrouped as Hey Mercedes. And it's a frustration Chris Simpson and Jeremy Gomez, former members of Austin cult favorites Mineral, have dealt with ever since they formed the Gloria Record going on five years ago.
"It was funny," Simpson says. "A few months ago in Chapel Hill, these two guys in their early-to-mid-30s came up to me and said they enjoyed the show, and they kept asking questions about Mineral. Then this one guy who hadn't really said anything until then looks at me and says, 'Hey, do you really like playing this mellower music more than what you did in Mineral?'"
Nah, he obviously hates it; clearly, they only toned down the guitars for a run at the pop charts. That's why the Gloria Record has now been around almost twice as long as Mineral's entire life span. That's why it's taken the Gloria Record this long to put out its first album after a couple of EPs. That's why Start Here was financed entirely out of their own pockets and a play now/pay later arrangement with producer Mike Mogis. Yeah, he hates it.
In fact, it took a lot of determination, confidence and miles on the road to get where the Gloria Record is today: proud owners of one of the best albums of the still-young year. For a while, there was even doubt as to whether it was ever going to be finished.
Midway through the recording process, Simpson came home to a message on his answering machine from the Arena Rock Recording Co., a small-to-midsize indie whose name is about as tongue in cheek as the Chapel Hill fan's comment was patronizing. The modest Brooklyn label, home of Superdrag and Luna's recent live album, among others, had heard the Gloria Record's A Lull in Traffic EP and wanted to know what the band was up to. A short correspondence and a listen to the half-finished tapes that became Start Here and Arena Rock was convinced, inking them to a deal.
It couldn't have come at a better time for the debt-ridden band, which was in the middle of a long recording process involving a series of road trips to Lincoln, Nebraska, to record in the studio of Mogis, who the group had worked with on its first two EPs. Creative doldrums had set in, and their ongoing jokes of having an EP-only career were beginning to sound uncomfortably close to the truth.
A little faith from Arena Rock, not to mention the comforting thought of some financial backing down the road, got the train back on the tracks, and Simpson, Gomez, keyboard player Ben Houtman, guitarist Brian Hubbard and drummer Brian Malone buckled down once again with Mogis, Nebraska's red-hot resident producer. Mogis' Midas touch is evident on recent efforts by Desaparecidos and the Faint, and going back a couple of years, Bright Eyes and Lullaby for the Working Class. Desaparecidos' fine Read Music/Speak Spanish, in particular, casts light on Mogis' ability to integrate jagged rock and throbbing synths into a happy coexistence. The Gloria Record's patient rock undertow and atmospheric keywork are an entirely different beast, but there couldn't have been a better foreman to oversee Start Here, startling in its depth of sound and integration of several elements into a cohesive whole.
"When we started sitting down to write, everyone came in with a couple of ideas, and we worked around that," Simpson says. "It wasn't always me coming in with a chord progression on the guitar. I think that's what makes it a more diverse record. All the songs are built around different instruments. In fact, in a lot of instances, we ended up taking the rhythm guitar completely out."
It only takes a couple of listens to feel the mood, built around Houtman's honey-soaked synth work and Simpson's drawn-out syllabic vocal style. But Start Here doesn't hit home immediately the way A Lull in Traffic did with its forward chord progressions and Simpson's straight-up, rainy-day mantras. A few listens down the road, Start Here's subtleties come out of the woodwork, whether it's Houtman's back-masked Kid A-style cutups on "Ascension Dream," Gomez's slow-starting bass line on "The Immovable Motorist" or the sparkling vibes accompanying Simpson's falsetto march out of the clouds on "The Overpass."
Funny to say "secret weapon" about a singer who's a signature part of the band, but Simpson's vocals are often de-emphasized, sneaking in memorable phrases at opportune times, like a talented actor cutting into a long, delicate scene and taking it to another level. The soft-spoken, thoughtful Simpson comes across as more of a listener than a talker, so the role suits him perfectly. His first-person narratives might seem overly simplistic delivered at anything but his deliciously languorous pace, which emphasizes his knack for turning a nonsensical phrase into something much more.
"City swallows trees/And I am responsible/'Cause I am indifferent to these things," he posits with conviction on "Cinema Air," the album's most immediate song. "I Was Born in Omaha" is Simpson's other primary platform on Start Here. The acoustic confessional, another example of Simpson's delivery elevating the lyrics, takes a deep plunge three minutes in, diving into a pool of endless soloing and a dramatic vocal epilogue, lasting nearly till the seven-minute mark.
Houtman's diverse arsenal accounts for a large part of the album's smorgasbord of sound, but on the thumping "Good Morning, Providence," Malone's drums get a mad cut-and-paste treatment and clash with Simpson's vocals at every turn, defying conventional wisdom. "There were drums everywhere," Simpson says about the song's construction. "There were real drum tracks that had been recorded live, there were all these cut-up drum tracks that we did on the verses and choruses. Probably 20 or 30 tracks that didn't even end up getting used."
Despite being stacked to the rafters with subtle and unusual shading, the Gloria Record successfully kept Start Here very much within certain parameters. There are no purposefully oblique passages on Start Here, something they were certainly aware of, being a band that draws inspiration from Radiohead's excursions into experimental pop, but probably not their explorations into the beyond.
Start Here is one for the fans, the sound of A Lull in Traffic allowed to breathe, grow and fully germinate into something singularly unique to the Gloria Record. Backward-looking Mineral fans need not apply.
"It's not very exciting to keep making music unless you do it differently or progress somehow," Simpson says, "or even just challenge yourself to keep it interesting."
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