Album: You Are My Sunshine
In Brief: It’s introverted, quirky, and a bit difficult, but also transparent and relatable. Give it time, and the sun will break through the cloudy haze, and Copeland will brighten your day.
Every now and then, it’s nice to purchase a CD, unwrap it, and listen to it for the first time without the preconceived notions that can be generated by repeated exposure to a lead single, or even without my usual “safety net” of downloading an entire album from the internet for purposes of “sampling” it before buying it. It’s rare that I will place such a high level of faith in any artist these days, and to be honest, I’m not sure how Copeland ever ended up on my “buy without hearing” list in the first place. We don’t even have to go back in time even two years to get to a point where my impression of them was that they were a wimpy emo-piano-rock type of band who couldn’t figure out how to actually rock. The simple truth is that 2006’s Eat, Sleep, Repeat slowly wormed its way into my consciousness, becoming a an oft-repeated late-night favorite due to its melodic ambience and its somewhat experimental take on the type of rock songs that are written with shy-guy bloggers in mind. Then I turned back a page to 2005’s In Motion, and found that the band actually could turn out a few decent rockers while in the process of wearing their hearts on their sleeves. So I guess at some point I assumed that they could only improve on the formula going forward. And all I knew about 2008’s You Are My Sunshine before buying it at its ridiculously reduced price on the day of its release (it says something about our economy when a brand new CD costs me less than my lunch) was that its title seemed to continue with the band’s trend of making interesting music while inadvertently giving less patient critics about a million excuses to kick their behinds. That is to say, Copeland’s music is an easy target to poke fun at until you put in the time and effort required to understand where they’re coming from.
About a month later, I’m still trying to decide whether the band has actually improved on their old sound. On first listen, You Are My Sunshine seemed anything but bright and poppy, due to its largely downbeat approach and the distant haze of synthesized keyboard sounds that largely replaces the prominent role played by the piano on their previous albums. Tempos, time signatures, and song lengths didn’t seem to cooperate. Moments of inspired guitar heroism emerged from time to time, only to disappear back into the cold electronic haze. I wasn’t even sure what genre to tag them as in iTunes any more – “piano rock” is no longer valid, “indie rock” might work, but it’s far too broad, “emo” implies a lot of raspy screaming or whining, and “post-rock” implies some sort of apocalyptic droning or some other attempt to use rock instrument to subvert the purposes of rock music. Was this band deconstructing their own instincts to the point where they had created their own version of Kid A? Nah, not quite – it’s hard to compare a slight bit of stylistic restlessness with Radiohead‘s wholesale attempt to alienate their audience. (I liked Kid A, for the record, and I now credit it for opening my mind to otherwise difficult and largely non-commercial records such as this one.) But it’s hard to shake the impression that Copeland is retreating further into its own idiosyncracies.
And yet, despite my criticisms and the fact that I sometimes feel alienated by You Are My Sunshine, I seem to keep listening to it with an amount of fervor normally only reserved for five-star albums. It might be the sweet, calming hook of Aaron Marsh‘s gentle, multi-layered vocals on several tracks, or it might be the busy-body percussive attack of Jonathan Bucklew that melds electronic beats with real ones in a fashion that seems more aggressive than a record of such “ambient” quality would otherwise warrant, or it might be the way that Bryan Laurenson and his brother Stephen can jump back and forth between attention-grabbing guitar solos and incidental texturing that fits both extremes of the band’s sound. It’s probably some combination of these factors, plus Marsh’s knack for vulnerable turns of phrase, even on the songs that are musical misfires. You Are My Sunshine is a mixed bag, to be sure, with its worst moments seeming to go nowhere and its best moments fighting for attention amidst a record whose sound seems almost designed to help the listener zone out. I’m not quite sure what the band’s intent was with this one, other than honest exploration of themselves, even including the artistic dead-ends. And some of those dead ends eventually open up into new passageways, if I just stand there and bang my head against the wall for long enough.
Like I said, it takes time and effort to understand where these guys are coming from.
1. Should You Return
‘Cause this song is all I have to make me feel
And all it takes is just a love to make it hurt
And every sound arranged in time can make me lose
Now it’s a funny way, I find myself with you…
Listening to the first track on the album is a lot like admiring a finely tuned wristwatch as it dutifully ticks off the seconds, then pulling it apart to see how everything works, and then watching pieces of it break off and start to spin backwards in time. If that makes no sense, I’ll just describe it as a delicate pop gem with a slightly experimental side, as evidenced by the double-tracking of Aaron Marsh’s vocals and the little bits of guitar and the occasional vocal part that echo in the background or get played back in reverse. It’s really sweet stuff, and it’s basically Marsh’s attempt to woo a girl back to him after apparently losing her – he doesn’t mind the risk of making himself look like a fool because it’s worth it to feel something again. While it’s a slow-burner, the unforgettable melody, the slow, meandering bassline, and the bright sounds coming from the piano and the synthesized elements all work together to make it my favorite track on the album, and having my favorite track right at the beginning might explain why I keep popping this disc back intothe CD player so frequently.
2. The Grey Man
Don’t worry now, it’s all erased
Burned to grey and white
Tell yourself you don’t still taste her
Or hear her through the night…
This track seems to want to be more of a confident rocker, by Copeland standards anyway, but it suffers from a bit of an identity crises. Fittingly, the song seems to actually be about an identity crisis – a man trapped between two worlds, tempted to blend into the crowd and to not show any semblance of emotion for fear that it will get construed as weakness, and yet knowing that never speaking up for himself will mean never getting the girl. The indecision makes him a “grey” man, undefined by any color or notable character traits. It starts off quite beautifully, fooling you into thinking we’ve gone to ballad-ville early in the record with its melodramatic piano intro (think back to “Kite” from In Motion and you’ve sort of got the idea), but then bringing in some rather insistent drums and chiming guitars, banging away in 6/8 time like a more introverted Coldplay (oh no, I just made the obvious comparison that I hate making for every piano-based rock band out there!), which is all fine and well until they change to a standard 4/4 beat for the chorus. It’s a total momentum-killer for the song, making the chorus feel like it moves too slow in comparison to the rest of the song’s kinetic nature. Because of that, my ears rejected the song the first times through, the way that the human body might try to reject a transplanted organ, but upon forcing myself to listen more carefully, the transitions don’t seem as awkward once I’ve come to expect them. Still, it’s an example of how to take a solid beat and melody and sabotage it by second-guessing yourself and thinking your approach might be a bit too straightforward. The 4/4 part is what’s straightforward, so the attempt to experiment here is a bit backwards.
3. Chin Up
Back to when we started, losing who we were
Maybe we should only tip a bottle back to keep us filled up…
This is the first of a few slower tracks that I’ve not-so-affectionately dubbed Copeland’s attempt at “I’m Safer in an Airplane, Part II”. The aforementioned “Airplane” song was the one blunder in an otherwise solid collection of decent to outstanding tracks on Eat, Sleep, Repeat, and it didn’t fit in because it was too mechanical and anti-climactic. This track commits a similar blunder, bumping along somewhat listlessly in 6/8 time, and perhaps having the advantage of a slightly warmer atmosphere due to its live drums where that other song used programming instead. But it still feels monochromatic, like some sort of extra force is needed to distinguish the verse from the chorus, but they keep it at the same low intensity level almost all the way through, with the song only beginning to pick up steam as a string section joins in near the end. This might not be so bad later in the album, since the previous disc had several moments of quiet grace farther in, but seriously guys, track three is a bit early for this sort of understated melodrama. The song’s also based around a central metaphor that comes across as a bit hackneyed – “Everybody knows that you’d break your neck to keep your chin up”. It’s one of those things where I get the intended meaning – “breaking your beck” refers to running yourself ragged to the point where you’re killing yourself trying to accomplish something, and “keeping your chin up” means maintaining a positive attitude, so basically it’s a song about the great lengths that someone will go to in order to maintain an appearance of being happy and problem-free, while secretly drowning in sorrow (and apparently a bit of alcoholism, as evidenced by the line “Maybe we should only tip a bottle back to keep us filled up”). It just gets creepy when you try to visualize exactly how that metaphor would work if played out literally – one could probably get a hell of a crick in the neck from constantly tilting one’s head back to keep one’s chin up, but I doubt that an actual broken neck could result from it. (I know, I’m taking it too literally. The point is that the phrasing is just plain awkward, OK?)
4. Good Morning Fire Eater
‘Cause it’s no good if you can have it all
They’re giving back what they never stole in the first part
And it always goes when you need it the most
The kindest love is still bleeding from the last shot…
Just when I was starting to wonder if this album was a good purchase due to two flawed tracks showing up so early on, along came this flawless little moody beauty of a song to offer Copeland a shot at redemption. I love the way that this one plays out – they’re not fooling around with shifting time signatures here, but the sparse, appregiated electric guitar intro certainly fools you into thinking the song will be in 3/4 or 6/4 or something, until you realize that Aron’s vocals don’t quite fit the pattern. Then the drums break in after the chorus, and it all makes sense. From that point forward, what seemed to be another pretty ballad starts to get a lot more cluttered and claustrophobic, thanks to the clattering percussion and an extremely fuzzy lead guitar part that stands in stark contrast to the clean guitar line which opens the song. It’s pretty and yet it’s messy, and it’s hard to pull off both sounds at the same time, so Copeland is demonstrating their mastery of aural texture here. The song seems to address a person who has been utterly kicked down in every area of his life, a hurt animal who has stopped to lick his wounds. I’m not sure, but I feel like there’s some sort of a growth being expressed despite the misery here, some small amount of hope shining through in the notion that “The kindest love is still bleeding from the last shot.” There’s some sort of affirmation there, but I haven’t quite done the math to figure out what it all means, nor is that fully necessary for me to fall in love with the song. Excellent performance here by everyone involved.
5. To Be Happy Now
Longing and sorrow, it’ll find you where we are
Smiling down the avenue
And the children, getting younger as we pass
They couldn’t make you turn back…
What’s this – an actual convicing rocker on an introverted Copeland album? I didn’t think that was possible these days. It’s still not as in your face as, say, “No One Really Wins” or “Love Is a Fast Song” (those being two powerhouse moments on In Motion), but the way that the lead guitar rises and falls on this song is incredibly anthemic, and it remains incredibly upbeat throughout, so it’s a rare bird as far as this more experimental phase of Copeland’s career goes. You can probably guess from the title that this song (like pretty much all of Copeland’s songs) is a little high on the emo-meter, but I think there’s a great trick being played here, in that the song seems to question the very nature of happiness without actually asking the question. It simply talks about aging and the passing of time, and the gradual dulling of youthful idealism, and noting that in the midst of it all, “You just want to be happy now”. The unasked question is, “What is happiness, anyway?” Does it get confused with complacency? Do we tell ourselves we’re “happy” with stuff that we’re really just OK with because it helps to pass the time and take our attention away from all of the things that didn’t turn out the way we dreamed they would? Aaron’s vocals just soar into the heavens during the bridge here, and it’s a powerful moment, as is the sudden ending when the guitar riff suddenly smacks into a wall and the entire band stops cold.
6. The Day I Lost My Voice (The Suitcase Song)
You see love, is a drink that goes straight to my head
And time is a lover, and I’m caught in her stare
And the sentiment there follows me straight to my bed through the night…
I think this one might be “I’m Safer on an Airplane, Part III” – two musical offspring of the same weak song from a prior album probably shouldn’t both be here at once. Maybe it’s not entirely fair to jump to that conclusion just because a song is slow, largely mechanical in nature, and played in 3/4 time, but sheesh, this thing feels really out of place after the fluid and beautifully constructed songs that preceded it. At first it’s all “Zelda sounds” – you know, programmed keyboards that sound like flutes and whatnot coming from the speakers of a 16-bit video game system – and a bumping bass line that wants to be funky but can’t quite break out of its robotic personality and find its groove. Aaron is singing about having his bags packed and being ready to run from a relationship at the first sign of trouble, and it’s a bit like a robot attempting to sing soul music. There’s a bit of overreliance on either a vocorder or some other type of electronic manipulation that affects Aaron’s voice – it doesn’t sound bad, but it’s one too many synthetic elements in a song which feels like it needs to breathe more. A few minutes into the song is where it finally starts to feel like it has a soul – a few horns start to blurt around a bit, and there’s this really cool moment where a female vocal breaks in and sort of steals the show for a second – her name is Rae Cassidy, and she’s got an interesting balance between confident brassiness and girlish innocence to her voice, not unlike Feist or Katie Herzig. (I actually could have sworn it was Herzig the first few times through, actually.) By the time the song’s over, I’m ready to admit that I enjoyed it more than expected, but it still takes way too long to get to where it intends to go, so my reasons for liking the song have more to do with individual sweet spots where some new element enters the mix, rather than with the way that the song plays out as a whole. (We’ll revist this problem at the end of the album.)
7. On the Safest Ledge
Could you be happy now, with the wind in your hair
And your eyes open wide and your feet going nowhere?
This track feels like “The Grey Man” has a long-lost Siamese twin, which got surgically removed, but somebody attached the lower half of one twin’s body to the upper half of the other. I say that because this one takes the opposite approach – the verse kind of clatters along in 4/4, and the chorus confidently rings out in 6/8, and while the transitions between the two aren’t as jarring here (the whole actually flows pretty well), I can’t help but wonder what would happen if this song’s chorus were spliced into “The Grey Man”, and vice versa (with some small adjustments made for tempo and pitch, I bet it could work). Drums are the big driving force behind this one, with the pounding and crashing of cymbals bringing the soaring chorus melody to a boil, but reverting to more of a subdued shuffle for the verses, which sort of fits since it’s another song that appears to be analyzing risk versus staying in one’s safety zone. This might explain the paradoxial title – I didn’t think ledges were ever safe, unless perhaps you stood back far enough from the edge to guarantee never falling. Rae Cassidy comes back to steal the show again during the bridge, and I have to say, I’m rather enamored with the way her unexpected sudden appearances add so much flavor to the tracks on the albums that she contributed vocals to. I’m also intrigued by how this song’s central question of “Could you be happy to fall like a stone, if you’d land right here safe in my arms?” seems to reiterate the central unspoken question from the song “To Be Happy Now”.
8. Not Allowed
Here we go, I’ll smile for you now
‘Cause you’re sad, but I’m not allowed to be sad
Here we go, I’ll make a joke for you now
Make you smile, but I’m not allowed to be sad…
Here’s a moment where I don’t mind Copeland’s electronic idiosyncracies taking over, because they’ve got sort of a subversive dance track on their hands, with a deceptively bright melody to distract us from a bit of downtroddon subject matter. It’s got heavy bass and a sort of “introverted techno” type beat that you might expect from 21st-century Radiohead, but overlaid with bright piano and occasional bits of watery guitar, just to remind you that there’s a real human band beneath the robotic facade. Aaron’s doing a bit of song and dance for someone he loves here, making jokes and faking smiles and doing whatever it takes to bring her up, all the while knowing that he can’t admit to what’s eating away at him because it’s “not allowed”. It might just depress her more. Sometimes this is reality when dealing with a depressed person – you don’t want to feel selfish by focusing on your own problems and making it look like you don’t care about theirs. But at the same time, letting it all be about them, to the point where you have to walk on eggshells and avoid breaking the unwritten rules to keep their fickle mood intact, can be extremely draining. This is where a common theme on the album begins to come into focus for me – so many of these songs seem to be about the great lengths we’ll go to in order to avoid feeling difficult emotions. It’s rare to hear a song that is so upbeat and catchy, and yet probes complex and believable emotional issues at the same time, so I’ve gotta give the band full marks for this one.
9. Strange and Unprepared
I never stop feeling strange
‘Cause you never know if you really change
You can never tell if your center stage
Is thin as glass, and never meant a thing…
This brief piano ballad feels like such a whisper that it barely even registers with me half the time. Lyrically, I feel like it’s derived from the same sense of stage fright that drove Aaron to pur his heart hout in the previous album’s finale, “When You Thought You’d Never Stand Out”, but here it’s all stuffed into a silent question mark, a state of shutting down and staring blankly out at the crowd. “You never feel good or bad, only strange and unprepared”, he half-mumbles over the soft, smoothed-out piano chords, and he even goes so far as to replace the song’s entire second verse with listless humming. Since I brought up Radiohead when describing the previous track, I’ll take the analogy one step further and say that this feels like the sort of thing that Thom Yorke might have made up off the top of his head one day while writing material for his solo album, and then rejected when he realized it was best relegated to B-side status. That’s probably what Copeland should have done with it, too – it’s not bad, but it definitely drags down this album’s bell curve a bit.
10. What Do I Know?
It’s brittle and it trembles as the wind is coming toward
And if you string it up, it dries right out with time
So raise your glass to that new dollar in the bank we’re reaching for
But the drink was sweeter before we had a dime…
This oddball song, arriving as late in the album as it does, is sort of the “stealth rocker” of the bunch. You’d never expect it from the calm, mid-tempo shuffle of the drums, or the way that the chorus is driven by a bassline and little else, but suddenly there’s this ferocious guitar solo that jumps out at you during the bridge, and I’ve got to admit that I love the sneak attack there. I’m not sure that makes the song brilliant as a whole, but it certainly is fun for those fleeting moments when the band is on full blast. The song is best evaluated by whether the lyrics have anything worth saying – and I think they do, asking oblique questions about the things that make us feel safe and secure, only to basically conclude by repeating that same simple question, “What do I know?”, in the chorus, as if to imply that the answer is, “Not a whole hell of a lot.”
11. Not So Tough Found Out
Hold me, you’re here and then you’re gone, love
Like a dream, like a sigh.
Tell me you’re hearing every word now
Like a song, love, like a song…
If you thought “The Suitcase Song” was just a tad overindulgent, just wait ’til you get a load of this puppy. This is where Copeland goes over the deep end and lets what might otherwise have been a good thing drag on for too long. What we have here is a meditative, keyboard-driven track that basically ruminates on what it’s like to realize you’re a big wuss, which repeats itself over and over for ten and a half freakin’ minutes. I don’t have a problem with a song that poetically admits to weakness, nor do I have a problem with experimental minimalism in music, nor do I have a problem with songs that stretch into the double digits, if the music is doing something interesting enough to warrant it. But here, it’s the same four chords over and over, with most of the song comprised of cold, icy keboards and a rather indifferent programmed beat, with spacy background sounds and the occasional backing vocal gradually starting to add depth to the mix over time. Basically, it’s Copeland’s version of “Everything in Its Right Place”, with the lyrics perhaps a little more organized than that (I don’t think Copeland just pulled ’em out of a hat, but they’re still frustratingly short on coherent details), but executed a bit too ponderously to have the same trippy effect. This is another song that is chock full of “sweet spots” – the first is Rae Cassidy’s final cameo (which serves a similar purpose to the vocal counterpoints that Anna Becker added to “When You Thought You’d Never STand Out” on the previous album), and then a French horn shows up to imitate her melody, and after that, BAM! The electric guitar goes crazy in that whole “nervously strike a high note repeatedly as fast as possible” sort of way that indie rockers like to play it, and that’s basically the big climax, which unfortunately occurs somewhere around minute seven. So we get way too long of a comedown, with previously heard elements (and a bit of Rae’s vocal spice) looping around again and again until the song is stripped bare piece by piece, leaving that cold, repetitive keyboard melody to finish the song exactly as it started. If the chords somehow changed midway through the song, or there were more separate sections of the lyrics that got doled out as time passed, or there was something else new to occupy those last few minutes, the ten-minute length could be justified, but basically, they’re just treading water for way longer than necessary here. This would have been a good six or seven-minute epic to close out the album – going any longer than that just renders it tedious.
While Copeland’s got a “nice try” for almost every “nice job!” on this album, my overall opinion is still largely positive – it might not be their best album, but it’s a promising new step for a band that seems to not want to trap itself in preconceived notions of what “emo” or “piano rock” bands, or even “rock” bands in general, are supposed to sound like. They’re working out the kinks here, but there are enough examples of kink-free songs to make me look forward to a further refinement of this sound on future albums. This probably isn’t the best place to start if you’re new to Copeland – In Motion probably still has the greatest likelihood of getting you to appreciate them as a band before things start to get a little weird on Eat, Sleep, Repeat and then become downright odd on this album. (Though I haven’t heard Beneath Medicine Tree yet, so I don’t know what they were lkike back in their earliest phase.) The weirdness is an acquired taste, but Copeland’s knack for compelling musicianship and insightful lyrics is consistent throughout, so if you liked them for what they had to say before, you should still like them here, and if you thought they were a wimpy band before, You Are My Sunshine probably isn’t going to change your mind. This album exists for those who aren’t ashamed to approach Copeland on their own terms, and I’m still learning to do that, but I’m enjoying the ongoing process quite a bit.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Should You Return $2
The Grey Man $1
Chin Up $.50
Good Morning Fire Eater $2
To Be Happy Now $1.50
The Day I Lost My Voice (The Suitcase Song) $1
On the Safest Ledge $1.50
Not Allowed $2
Strange and Unprepared $.50
What Do I Know? $1
Not So Tough Found Out $1
Aaron Mars: Vocals, guitar, piano
Bryan Laurenson: Guitar, piano
Jonathan Bucklew: Drums, percussion
Stephen Laurenson: Guitar
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Originally published on Epinions.com.