An Album That Changed My Life: The Power of Failing by Mineral

I wrote this piece up for a forum I frequent, and I figured I’d post it here as well.

I was sixteen years old and browsing one of the old B-Sides R Us blogs when I came across a post with a link to Mineral’s first album, The Power of Failing, accompanied with a challenge: “If you can listen to this and feel nothing, then you don’t have a heart.” It was rare in those days to see a full-length album on the B-sides blog, so with no other context or background on the band, I dove in.

To this day, it remains one of my most memorable first listens. It’s an imperfect record in so many ways, but the songwriting and the passion shone through the messy production and rough musicianship to a degree that I’ve yet to hear replicated. The guitar tones aren’t what any producer would pick out today, but Scott McCarver’s parts stand out nonetheless, from the tension of the feedback solo on “Slower” to the cathartic release of the pre-chorus riff in “Parking Lot.” Chris Simpson is not a technically proficient singer – his voice cracks and strains in ways that make trained vocalists cringe – but he puts every fiber of his being into every word he sings. And the lyrics were exactly what I needed to hear at the time. Simpson writes about perennially relatable topics like overcoming loss and personal failure, and his lyrics are steeped in Christian themes and imagery that made the songs hit even harder for me. I was in tears by the end.

The Power of Failing also challenged how I shared the music I loved with other people. My friends ignored it because it wasn’t on the radio. My brother wouldn’t listen to it because of the production. I had to beg people to drop any preconceptions they had about emo or whatever and just close their eyes and listen. I would print out the lyrics and include them when I burned the CD for someone. I’m not sure any of my friends ever really got Mineral the way I did, but I recently heard Frank Turner tell a story about doing almost the exact same thing, so I know I’m not alone.

From there, the floodgates opened. I couldn’t get enough of this “midwest emo” sound, and within months my iPod was full of The Get Up Kids, Texas Is the Reason, the Promise Ring, and many others that I still count among my favorite bands.

It wasn’t until their reunion tour in 2014 that I finally got the chance to see Mineral. I truly thought it would never happen, and I could do little more than stand against the stage and stare at the four people whose words and music had affected me so deeply over the past seven years. I cried again during “Five, Eight, and Ten” and “Parking Lot” and especially “Unfinished,” and I’ll never forget it.

My Favorite Chords: Looking Back On The Weakerthans

It was anything but love at first sight.

Discovering the Weakerthans was a long, slow journey that started with a mix CD in 2008. “Aside” was one of twenty or so songs that Molly put together for me, probably because my ribs really do show through my t-shirts and I am actually terrified of knives. I liked it well enough, but it took almost two years for me to dig any deeper.

In January of 2010, The Wonder Years released The Upsides. This is a monumental album in my life for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the Weakerthans reference in the second verse of “Everything I Own Fits In This Backpack.” It’s a quick line (“Nothing made me feel further away than Left and Leaving through a blown car stereo”) in a fast song, but it piqued my interest, so I downloaded the album.

I did not enjoy it. I already knew and liked “Aside,” and I think “Watermark” was an early favorite, but the rest of the album was not at all what I was expecting. It was too slow, too methodical to have been a major influence on the urgency and anxiety of The Upsides. Even so, I kept coming back, like I knew there was something I was missing. Slowly, almost one song at a time, Left and Leaving revealed itself. I’d catch a lyric or a guitar line, and an entire song would make sense and become a necessary part of the album’s journey.

The rest of the discography worked its way into my life in much the same way. Nothing was immediate, but the songs started attaching themselves inextricably to moments and places and people. I think that’s a product of the way John K. Samson writes. His songs aren’t grand proclamations. They are quiet, vulnerable moments in the lives of people on the fringes of society. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Reunion Tour, the band’s last record and of my personal favorite albums. Each song addresses a different facet of Canadian life, and each subject is lost and broken in their own way. The songs tend to capture them at their lowest moments, but together they form a picture of a nation “proud and strange and so hopelessly hopeful.”

It was apt that the Weakerthans confirmed their breakup this week through a simple, passive tweet from drummer Jason Tait that simply said, “Word is getting out that the Weakerthans are done.” The band had little fanfare in life and even less in death, and while I think they deserved much more, in a way it’s okay. It allows their four albums to stand alone as monuments at the crossroads of punk and poetry. If you find yourself there, I hope you listen.

“Although It Wasn’t Changing the World, It Was the World To Me”

To all the friends I saw at the Wonder Years show yesterday (and of course the ones didn’t see as well), thank you for making it one of the most fun nights of my life. Thank you for caring and buying a ticket and stage diving and singing along.

Last night felt like a triumph. The Wonder Years have been my favorite band for at least three years, and they’ve been an inspiration and a force in my life for even longer. I’ve laughed and cried to them, and their records have been the perfect soundtrack to my highest and lowest points. They are the band I want to share with every single person I meet because I realize that some people might not have ever felt like I have while listening to “New Years With Carl Weathers” in a freezing cold Toyota Camry or yelling the words to “Woke Up Older” when it mirrors your life all to closely or being moved to tears by the emotion in a live performance of “The Devil In My Bloodstream.” Everyone deserves to feel that deep, visceral connection with an album. It’s what music is all about. To see so many of my friends, some of whom I introduced to The Wonder Years and many more of whom I met through their shows or because we were both fans, experiencing that connection in the moment last night was truly incredible.

But that isn’t the only reason last night felt like a victory. It wasn’t just who was there, it was where we were. Since attending my first local shows during my freshman year of high school, I’ve worked as hard as I could at building the music community in Bloomington-Normal. At first, that meant inviting all of my friends to every show I went to, but then I started a band (and then another and another and…), and then I started putting on my own shows. With every step of that journey I wanted to grow the scene meant so much to me, and the fact that a few pop punk bands can sell over eight hundred tickets in the middle of Illinois is vindicating in some small way and proof that our scene can still be the powerful, important place of community and self-discovery that it was for me.

I’ve never been more proud of where I’m from

The Gaslight Anthem, Pianos Become the Teeth, and the Art of Reinvention

There was a lot of talk about reinvention in the buildup to the Gaslight Anthem’s new album, Get Hurt. Brian Fallon called it the New Jersey band’s “weird album,” comparing it to stylistic left turns like U2’s Achtung, Baby, and freely admitting that it might alienate longtime fans.

Then they premiered the first single, and it was immediately recognizable as a Gaslight Anthem song. In fact, the raucous, energetic “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” is the closest thing to their beloved debut album, Sink Or Swim, that they have released in years, and I loved it. I wasn’t going to complain that one of my favorite bands had a great new single, but part of me wondered if the band had really branched out as much as Fallon claimed.

Get Hurt does have its fair share of fresh ideas. The opener, “Stay Vicious,” is the grungiest entry in The Gaslight Anthem’s catalog and probably the most off-putting moment for old fans, while the title track and “Underneath the Ground” explore the softer sides of their sound without slipping into the well-trod territory of acoustic ballads.

By and large, however, the songs on Get Hurt are not that much different from those on Handwritten and American Slang. “1000 Years,” “Selected Poems,” and “Dark Places” are likely to become fan favorites simply because they show, once again, that The Gaslight Anthem are one of the best rock and roll bands making music today.

As a result, the strongest criticism that can be leveled at Get Hurt is that it fails to accomplish the reinvention on which Fallon seemed so intent during the production process. Sure, there is less Springsteen influence and more Rolling Stones and Pearl Jam, but the shift is nothing compared to Fallon’s foray into “nighttime music” with his side project, The Horrible Crowes, in 2011. I wasn’t expecting a dance record, and more great Gaslight Anthem songs are never a bad thing, but I can’t help but think Get Hurt is a bit of a missed opportunity for a well-established band to try something different.

That feeling came into sharper focus this week with the announcement of Keep You, the new full-length from Pianos Become the Teeth. Over the course of two albums and numerous split releases, the Maryland group has come to be defined by dense, hard-hitting instrumentation and, above all, vocalist Kyle Durfey’s ragged, tortured scream and emotionally ravaging lyrics.

All of these elements were perfected on 2011’s The Lack Long After, which found Durfey examining death and loss so closely that the album can be hard to listen to without tearing up a little bit, even when you know what’s coming. It’s the sort of work that defines a band, that sticks with them for the rest of their career. It’s the one against which all of their future releases will be measured.

The easiest way for a band to let fans down and lose the passion evident in their early work is to stay stagnant and try to replicate exactly what made one album so special. The Gaslight Anthem certainly understand that much. They have been slowly shedding Springsteen comparisons for years and continue to push themselves as songwriters despite fans clamoring for The ‘59 Sound Part 2. It just wasn’t until Get Hurt that they made it a central part of the promotional push, but even then it felt like a half-measure.

Pianos Become the Teeth have taken reinvention even further than The Gaslight Anthem. On the two songs released since The Lack Long After – “Hiding,” from a 2013 split with Touche Amore and Keep You’s first single, “Repine” – Durfey doesn’t scream once, the distortion is dialed back, and there is more melody than ever before. On the surface, this might seem like a totally different band, but despite huge stylistic changes, Pianos Become the Teeth have managed to preserve the intensity that has become their calling card.

For instance, it’s easy to imagine how Durfey’s scream would underscore the emotion in a line like, “There’s no good in your eyes anymore, and it makes you want to drive home drunk and alone, curse the faces in the wheat, drown yourself in the gold because you can’t let it go,” from “Hiding.” Instead he sings it, and the shaking, vulnerable delivery sells it better than any yell ever could.

According to Noisey, the band has fully embraced this new style, leaving Keep You with no screaming at all. There will undoubtably be some backlash from fans, but it’s exactly the kind of bold move that Brian Fallon was talking about in the months leading up to Get Hurt. I can’t wait to hear it for myself and find out if they actually pulled it off.