Friday, July 13, 2007

Days of Transition

Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with thinking inside the box. I know that might sound strange coming from me, but I’m being honest—maintaining form is long as you’re good at it. I’m telling you this in advance because I’m about to give a really positive review to the new album from Pat McGee Band, These Days (The Virginia Sessions), and These Days does absolutely nothing crazy, experimental, or outside the box.

For those of you who have come to like PMB over the years, this should come as no surprise. Pat wears his influences—Allman Brothers, Eagles, maybe a little U2—on his sleeve. His songs and albums have predictable, short titles (most words to a Pat McGee album: 3, from his pre-PMB debut album, From the Wood; percentage of PMB songs with 3 words or less: 79%—38 of 48—by my count). His songs cling tightly to the verse/chorus/bridge/solo format, almost always in a generic key. The proprietor of the other First Name Last Name Band from Virginia—Dave something or other—takes an almost jazz approach to song structure; some songs have no chorus, some no rhyme, many no bridge, etc. Hell, he’s almost invented his own chords at times. But that doesn’t do for Pat McGee and his band. And that’s okay. I like them as much as I do Dave something or other.

Blues musicians follow strict formats, but plenty have been able to distinguish themselves above others. Hell, Bob Dylan and the Beatles did the same—the fact that they reinvented pop music within set structures makes their achievement all the more impressive. The Beatles stretched the format of the pop song to its limits in every direction, but almost every song followed that verse/chorus/bridge format...and for that matter, they rarely stretched beyond 3 minutes. Dylan changed formats often, but whichever one he settled upon, he stuck almost religiously to it. In his first three albums, he mastered the folk song, raised its expectations, and blew it up. In his career, he’s adopted everything from gospel to the type of almost old-timey music of his 2006 album, Modern Times chorus-less music—he even created an entire album, John Wesley Harding, without choruses. But within each individual album, he rarely strays from the format and theme, and he’s obviously done so with devastating results.

I’m not sure why I felt the need to go into all of that, but I did. I usually praise the work of some bands who experiment with structure and genre, but I don’t want that to sound like I dislike the generic structure. Maybe I also felt the need to justify my positive review because I’ve long since established that I’m a PMB homer. I know them, I like them, I consider them friends of mine. But a) I am capable of being critical of their work, and b) I wouldn’t have grown to like them in the first place if their music wasn’t strong. The appreciation of their music came before the appreciation of the guys who make the music. That said, I will always—consciously or subconsciously—give them the benefit of the doubt when unsure. That’s a given, and I can’t do anything to change that.

To me, there’s less margin for error when your ideas don’t stray from the norm—you can quickly sound tired and bored. PMB almost ran into this issue at times during their 2004 album, Save Me. But that is not an issue on These Days. The October 2006 death of Chris Williams cast a pall on the album as a whole, probably even more than was conscious choice. Some of the songs on These Days were written before last October, but even songs with generic ‘lost love’ topics sound like they could almost be sung to/about Chris, and that (intentionally or unintentionally) makes These Days the most poignant album in the life of PMB.

Another theme that emerges through parts of These Days is change. After moving from a major label (Warner Bros) to a minor, fledgling label (Kirtland), PMB is going it alone these days. This isn’t necessarily a scary thing—back in the late-1990s, PMB positioned themselves as the premier unsigned band in the country. You get the feeling that they are now back in their comfort zone. During their time with Warner Brothers, they seemed to be tinkering with their sound, and their results were decent but mixed. 2000’s Shine was a bit overproduced (though it did produce a decent radio success in “Rebecca”), and the songwriting on 2004’s Save Me seemed a bit too catered to radio—i.e. just about every song was a love song, not the best development for a band whose best songs (in my opinion) are about other topics like conforming and being yourself (“Identity”), personal vindication and reformation (“Pride”), and, well, having passion (“Passion”...duh). With no pressure or expectations, PMB is able to just write, play, and sing.

As has been the case with each of the last three PMB albums, I wish I would have been put in charge of track ordering the album. Whereas “Set Me Free” should have been, without a doubt, the opener on Save Me, “Maybe It’s Time” would have been the perfect opener for These Days. Here’s how it begins:

There’s nothing like waking up lonely
The weight of the world on your mind
You lay there and listen to your heartbeat
And you try to stop wanting someone else’s life
And you think about a change

Looking so hard for the reasons
You swear that you’ll figure it out
And find something else to believe in
And you don’t know why everything is closing in
And you talk about a change
Maybe it’s time
Knowing all that’s happened in PMB World in the last year, no more relevant words have ever been sung, and it should be the first thing you hear on the album. As it is, “Guess We Were” is a capable, if not overwhelming opener, followed by the lovely “I Don’t Think I’m Listening.” The first time I listened to “Listening”, when it was released on their Myspace page a while back, I was relatively underwhelmed; however, the second time I heard it, I got it. Jonathan Williams lays down a strong “Running On Empty”-style keyboard lick, and this song turns into the most indicative-of-PMB song on the album. The chorus of “I can’t sleep without the thought of you here/Waking me up/I won’t make it through today without it/Breaking me up/I try to tell myself/I’m not myself at all these days/But I don’t think I’m listening” has exactly the kind of double meaning I mentioned earlier. This might have, at one time, been a generic rock chorus, but with the thought of Chris Williams in the back of your head, it feels matter that the positive vibe of the music is telling you otherwise.

A solid rocker, “Elizabeth,” follows. This is another song that isn’t going to blow you away, but it will make you smile. I mentioned in a previous PMB post that their music is really hard to dislike. You might not love it, but it’s hard to find anything to truly dislike about it. This is the epitome of that concept. Plus the repetition of the word “Elizabeth” in the chorus annoys my wife, so, you know...bonus points to them for that.

The songs that follow are a step above filler, but they’re not totally standout tracks. One tradition with each PMB album is an “I miss you” the past, songs like “Haven’t Seen for a While,” “I Know,” and “Never Around” fit the bill. In this album, it’s “Come Back Home.” The thought of the song might be formulaic, but this one carries the same Chris Williams weight as others.

After another decent song, “All Over You,” comes the highlight of the album, “Maybe It’s Time.” Like “Don’t Give Up” on Save Me, the song comes across in two different ways depending on how much you actually know about the band. If you hear the song with no background information whatsoever, it serves as some sort of motivational tool, an encouragement to someone looking for/needing change in their life. If you know the story of the band, you get a lump in your throat from the (potentially) autobiographical nature of the song. Either way, it’s the best song on These Days. The momentum of this song carries the listener through the next two solid-not-spectacular songs, “Hand That Holds You” and “You Want It All.”

These Days closes with “End of October.” One of Pat McGee’s strength has always been touching on the emotions tied to death in a poignant, but not cheesy, way. On 1997’s Revel, the touchstone was “Elegy for Amy,” a tribute to an early hardcore PMB fan who had recently died. Shine, meanwhile, closed with the title track, a dedication to a friend who had recently died during. Both songs strike deep nerves but aren’t too painful to listen to—unlike a song like The Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work”, which makes you want to sit in a dark room and wallow, songs like “Amy” and “Shine” maintain some semblance of hope and inspiration. Knowing this, I had no doubt that Pat would nail the inevitable Chris Williams tribute, and he did exactly that. “End of October” is a simple melody with a bit more instrumentation than “Amy” (which is just piano and bass) or “Shine” (acoustic guitar, slide guitar), and the lyrics, as expected, are just about perfect:
Richmond, Virginia, never seemed colder
Tryin’ to keep from breaking down
How did we get through the end of October?
Picking the pieces up somehow
It seems so strange
I could hear you singing, “Don’t cry,
After all these years, there’s a song you can hear in the twilight,
Keep a picture of me in your mind,
You’ve got so many reasons to smile”
Upon recording These Days, PMB decided on something interesting. Being that they’re no longer tied to a label and a label’s expectations, they enacted a plan to release two albums in 2007—one in mid-summer (These Days) and one later in the fall/winter. (See? They might not think outside the box during songwriting, but they indeed do so in other ways.) If These Days is any indication, then their next release will showcase a band that is once again becoming comfortable in its own skin, setting its own expectations, and growing. They probably won’t become the giant musical force that I (with my very biased, naïve eyes) hoped they would become about seven years ago, they are not trying to. What they are doing is showing that it’s possible to retread your tires when your time with a major label is finished.

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