Monday, February 28, 2011

The End of America – Steep Bay

“Today we ditched the city for a cabin in the woods.  Gonna write a record.”

With those words, the three friends of The End of America embarked on a journey of reflection, self-discovery, and finally redemption in a cabin in the Adirondacks.  And just as impressively, using nothing but acoustic guitars, a banjo, mandolin, and their voices, they managed to take me along with them.

Now, in truth, I’m probably going to over-analyze the heck out of this album, much the same way some bespectacled intellectual tries to find meaning in a drawing of a soup can hanging on a wall of a modern art museum.  I wasn’t in the head of Brendon, James or Trevor as they loaded up that threadbare canoe and paddled across Steep Bay to their cabin recluse.  I don’t know if they intentionally chose the order of the songs for the reasons that I hear.  I don’t know if they’ve ever felt a moment of existential angst in their lives.  But this is the way the album hit me, and that’s the most important phrase I can write in this whole review-- “Hit me.”  The album hit me.  And still does.

The End of America isn’t a political statement, it’s a literal one.  It’s what they did . . . journeyed to the end of America to find an answer.  With each song being written and recorded at that isolated cabin with the aide of a battery-powered recorder and two mics, the album has a loose, organic, incredibly warm feel to it.  Each song is a free-form meditative excursion into a moment of thought.  None of that takes away from the craft of songwriting and performing, in fact in only makes the beauty of the result that much more impressive. 

Starting with the mournful “Are You Lonely,” The End of America begins their quest with an existential question.  A deeper search for meaning amongst the chaos and impersonal nature of life.  I don’t know if the song is about a lost friend imagined in heaven, a disconnect with a lover, or a pleading to a higher power, but it starts the EP off with a meditative longing.  A search for something more meaningful than whatever they were finding in life.  Immediately, I’m hit by the lush gorgeousness of the harmony vocals.  The three cats blend their voices as effortlessly as Crosby, Stills and Nash, or Simon or Garfunkel.   Gentle acoustic guitar accompanies the thought as the voices linger and float off in search of an answer.  “Are you lonely up there?”

“Running” bursts out next.  Full of vitriol and sneer.  After the philosophical question posed in the opener, this is the theme statement for the EP.  Acoustic guitars strum with energy as the boys harmonize “I gotta get out/ Gotta find my way.  I’ve been running all my life.”  And later, “It’s freaking me out/ it’s a sideshow/ Ain’t no place that’s felt like home/ so I let it all go.”  I don't know about you, but I've sure felt that way before.  A longing to feel at home, a place where we belong.  But as is so often the case, the answer to that plea isn’t in a physical place so much as a mental/spiritual one.  And the rest of the EP explores their journey to find that place.

“These Things are Mine,” follows as the natural next step in that philosophical quest.  After running away and leaving it all behind, it’s time to take stock in what’s left.  What we really own.  What defines us.   Banjo jumps into the acoustic guitar fray adding a sense of lightness to the song that perfectly fits the frame of mind.  A sense of liberation comes from ditching it all.  Feeling no ties, nothing that binds.  Freedom.  Just the clothes on my back, my thoughts, my values.  I’ve been there, ditching it all to spend 6 months hitchhiking around the world.  In truth, there’s no better feeling.  But eventually, that euphoria wears off when we really begin to settle in with our thoughts and what we’re running away from.  That sense of melancholy rears it’s head near the end of “These Things are Mine,” when the joyful strumming evaporates, leaving behind the stark harmonies of the boys and a weighty guitar. "Home, lady, I’m leaving home.”  Both physically and metaphorically.  Now alone. 

“Oh Mousey,” is a brief meditative exploration of a mouse the guys encountered, which really serves as a space holder for their thoughts.  The liberation is gone, the weight is setting in.  Observing a mouse becomes a perfect way to reflect before the deeper meaning comes.  Which is what happens with “All, Nothing.”  Perhaps the most spiritually reflective song here, the boys have become to realize what’s important to them.  “I want to be the mountain freeze/ I want to breathe I want to teach/ I want to slip through life unseen/ I want to paint the scenes of dreams/ I want it all/I want nothing.”   The guitar picking is perfect here, somber, weighty, yet hopeful, hinting towards better days ahead. The baggage has been dumped, optimism remains. 

Normally, random sound effects thrust into the middle of an album annoy me, serving as nothing more than an ego statement by the artist rather actually fleshing out the songs, but the 32 seconds of “Diving Rock” seems perfect to me.  Following the liberating thoughts of “All, Nothing,” we hear the three friends leaping off the nearby rock into the Bay.  The splashing and cascading water sounds cathartic to me, like a spiritual cleansing.  A fresh baptism into the waters of healing.  The laughter that follows is a refreshing reaffirmation of the joys of life, the marvel of living, which leads perfectly into “Fiona Grace,” a song of wonder written about a precocious three-year old.   With gentle hand percussion and acoustic picking, they sing about the girl whose old soul somehow takes them back to a place deep inside themselves.  A place where they are capable of seeing and remembering deeper truths.

Which leads directly to “The Hardest Thing,” the heaviest song on the album and the moment of true philosophical discovery.  Just acoustic guitar and banjo, but heavy.  The moment when the real reason for the running away becomes painfully clear.   “Oh, how I wanted to keep this alive/ oh, how hard I tried/ Before it kills me first/ maybe it’s time to let it die.”  Is it a song about a toxic relationship?  A dying dream?  A shattered home?  It really doesn’t matter.  It’s a song about realization and release.  A glimpse into the blackened part of the soul that was driving the pain.  We’ve all been there, the midnight of our discontent.  We all know what it feels like to be driven to our knees by the pain of a situation and the terrible sadness that follows the sudden recognition . . . and the knowing you need to let go.

And with that, the album ends with another soundbite.  Banjo plucking languidly as rain falls.  And falls.  And somehow it all seems fitting.  No more false euphoria.  No more illusions.  Reality, stark and true.  Painful at times, but ultimately cleansing and life-affirming.  Thunder roars in the background as we all know it’s time for the boys to go back home.  They’ve discovered what they came there for.  Part of them has been lost, and they still have need to mourn that, but in the end, more has been gained.  Or rather, reclaimed.

A deeply organic, beautiful album.  And this whole thing was written and recorded in 7 days. 

Over-analyzing?  Again, probably.

But that’s the way the album hit me.  And really, how often does an album hit you?


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