In Brief: A love of electronics meets retro pop sensibility and emotionally charged lyrics. Paper Route’s my kind of band, and I’m bedazzled by Absence from start to finish.
It’s rare that I fall in love with a band as quickly and easily as I did with Paper Route. Sometimes a group of musicians simply clicks with me, simultaneously hitting all the different sectors of my brain that dictate what I like about music and why. Particularly in the realm of electronic music, it’s quite common for a group to be right up my avenue in terms of their love for constructing catchy rhythms, but fall short on the songwriting or come across as too distant due to the lack of live instrumentation. Or I’ll get the occasional “WTF” moment that derails everything with some of the more experimental bands. Sometimes I enjoy such acts for their very determination to construct something different out of the digital tools available to them, but the idiosyncracies that I admire in theory can keep me at arm’s length from whatever they’re trying to communicate in practice. It’s no small feat, then, for a band to show up with such a richly layered approach, built out of live instrumentation overlaid onto “laptoppy” rhythms and background noise, and to connect with me on a lyrical level, AND to strike a deft balance between 80’s revivalism and post-modern genre-savviness on top of THAT. From beginning to end, I listen to Paper Route’s debut album Absence and think over and over, “These guys get me.”
For a record named Absence, the sound is actually remarkably full, with thrilling percussive breakdowns on several of the up-tempo songs, retro beats and synths that aim to bring back a bit of nostalgia for those who either fell in love or moped around to the tune of several one-hit wonders from the 80’s, and more than enough atmosphere to spare on the ballads. Their music can be quite melancholy, wearing its heart on its sleeve on most occasions, but supporting those emotions with thoughtful lyrics which aim to get at the root of the communication breakdown between lovers, or between man and God. It’s from the sense of conflict and longing in these songs that Absence gets its name, often finding greater clarity in these moments spent away from the relationship that is in need of mending. The record isn’t without its share of hope, and they have a knack for choosing just the right moment to let the sunlight shine into an otherwise downbeat arrangement, illuminating it as if a prism had broken the light down into all the colors of the spectrum. It’s not a gleefully happy collection of songs like you might get from their similarly “laptoppy” tourmate Owl City, but it’s the kind of record that feels like it’s acknowledging battles lost and looking forward to winning the war. Maybe it’s just the place I’m at in life right now, but I feel like Paper Route’s got just the right mixture of light and dark shades to resonate with something inside me. If I had to pick one record to play for you and say, “This is kind of what my life feels like right now”, I’d probably pick Absence.
1. Enemy Among Us
The start of the record isn’t at all typical of what Paper Route generally sounds like, so if you’re convinced from the layered pianos and the glitch-laden beats and vocal samples that they’re going to spend an entire record paying homage to Radiohead, you have no idea what’s coming. And I sort of like that for a band who spends a lot of their time in high-energy mode, the open with something unusual and reflective. The shifting piano chords are simple and yet wonderfully tense, creating a glassy texture for the rest of the song to build on. The dual vocals of J. T. Daly and Andy Smith work in unison to describe the conflict between two people who want to keep a relationship together, but who keep getting driven apart due to the unseen work of an adversary who “stole as best he could”. The mood is somewhat downtrodden, but there’s hope in a line which perhaps gave the album its name: “In the silence, you’re the first one that I turn to/You’re the first voice that I turn to, in the absence of my own.” What starts as an understated opening tracks turns out to be rather dazzling by the time it wraps up.
With insistent drums and power chords seemingly hammering on every eighth note, you could easily confuse the album’s transition into upbeat territory with a lot of modern rock bands, but then there’s this retro keyboard hook that hangs over the whole thing, which launches it back a good 20 to 30 years, intentionally playing with the juxtaposition of musical eras. While that seems like a cheery enough melody to get us off the ground, the song is an uneasy one, lamenting the loss of an unreconciled relationship and insisting that things would be different if the person had just listened. Despite not slowing the pace to “intentionally weepy ballad”, the pre-chorus hits pretty hard with the line “The memories of losing you/You’re like a ghost.” This frustration, as if the person is going over and over what could have happened in his head, sort of justifies the repetitive chorus of “I wish you would listen”, and the song remains solid throughout, despite a slight lyrical gaffe in the second verse (“Looking for love like a bride looks for dresses.” I don’t know why, that one always strikes me as mildly awkward.) Just to keep things from getting too poppy, there’s some fairly experimental guitar squealing in the bridge, which plays out as more of a space-aged guitar solo in a live setting, but works well enough with its intended dissonance here.
The band shifts up into overdrive for one of its most fast-paced and furious rockers, all full of machine gun-style percussion and staccato guitar riffs, but well-grounded in the moody piano chords and solid melody that lurk underneath the tough exterior. Again there’s that theme of two people who desperately want to be together yet push each other apart, creating the “round and round” metaphor that you’ve undoubtedly heard described in many songs by the same title. I can’t hold the re-used metaphor against the song when it’s this much fun and the lyrics do such a good job of depicting how one person pushes when the other pulls. As with many of my favorite examples of electronic rock music, drummer Gavin McDonald doesn’t get an excuse to slack off, occasionally dropping out to let the electronic stuff punch the listener in the face just as the lyrics deliver an extra dose of blame, but generally keeping up with the intense pace that the dudes behind the laptops have set for him. It’s another stunning live piece performed in full-on electric mode, and yet it works equally well when stripped down to purely acoustic elements with stomps and handclaps in place of that intense rhythm. (A little time spent on YouTube demonstrates how well these guys adapt to different musical settings.)
4. Good Intentions
This one only feels mid-tempo due to the intensity that came before it – the drum loop seems reasonably laid back but also ticks off the time rather incessantly, nicely maintaining the album’s forward momentum. The keyboards and synths here are a good mix of modern and throwback, and a falsetto vocal hook just to sweeten the deal. (You might feel differently if you have a low tolerance for melodrama, but then, the term “80’s” should probably have been sufficient to scare you off in the first place.) On the surface, it’s a simple song of yearning to be noticed, of falling head over heels for someone and believing you can cure they’re aching loneliness. It borders on the obsessive, depending on how you read into it (and there’s great precedence for this sort of thing given how so many people keep misinterpreting that one Police song). The line that caps off the chorus (which throws some otherwise odd metaphors at us) is rather telling: “I wanna be your one solution/I just got no execution.” Plus, consider the title, even though it shows up nowhere in the song. We all know where that road leads.
5. Tiger Teeth
You know how some 80’s songs like to give you that air of “exoticness”, tweaking the beats and the instruments ever so slightly to make it sound like they’re more foreign than they really are? This song pulls that exact trick, and couple that with the knowledge of where tigers come from, and suddenly you’ve got a slight East Asian aura surrounding this song. (Plus I can name moments where both Depeche Mode and Duran Duran have referenced tigers, if that helps to put you in the right frame of mind.) It’s really just caffeinated synthpop, of course (complete with that cheesy “tumbling drums thing” that so many 80’s artists thought it was cool to do on the fourth measure when leading into a verse or chorus – and I love it for that), and the complete lack of subtlety works in the band’s favor since the song is a big flashing red light warning us of a cruel, cruel woman. Her grip feels like the jaws of death, as she never lets him live down a single thing he does wrong, apparently always using it against him to the point where he can only cry, “Will I ever get it right, my baby?” While this is definitely more of a keyboard song than a guitar song, the low-pitched guitars do help to add an air of foreboding. It’s a perfect package that, if you can excuse the inherent, dated dorkiness, turns out to be one of the band’s most awesomely defining moment. It’s currently my favorite on an album where picking favorites is hard work indeed.
6. Be Healed
“Ooh ooh OOOOOH-woo-woo!” Nope, that’s not a bird call, it’s the incessant vocal hook that loops throughout this rubber-textured power ballad, probably owing some amount of debt to Prince for the androgynous crooning. I can see how that would bug some people, but I love it. Surprisingly, I love the vocals all throughout this song, despite the fact that one of these singer dudes is strongly reminding me of The Fray‘s lead singer (and I tend to view The Fray as Switchfoot minus the personality. Safe to say, I don’t like ’em.) It’s a lonely, soul-searching moment that finds a man afflicted, bogged down with concerns that keep him from being the man he used to be, and calling out repeatedly, “Can I be healed?” I love how the guitars come swooping in to add drama (and also to help stave off allegations that the band’s just programming sequencing software and letting it run). If you’re familiar with Men at Work‘s “Overkill”, then this one would seem to mine similar territory.
7. Last Time
The tension between hanging on and letting go finally comes to a head in this climactic song which finally musters up the courage to declare that “This is the last time I’m gonna let you down. It’s finally over.” Much like “Carousel”, the sentiment is explored amidst a hectic, even chaotic performance of highly kinetic beats and jerky guitar chords, though this time the mood is more danceable overall. They’re almost a dead ringer for Mute Math here, now that I think about it, and in keeping with some of that band’s most animated tracks, they even throw in a surprise drum solo. I love the way that the false ending after the second chorus leads into that – it’s a fast song that runs past five minutes, so you’d actually assume the song’s really over at that point if you’re unaware of how long the song is supposed to be. It fits, since the attempt to end it fails and just kicks the couple back into another cycle of frustration. I think the last time (ugh, forgive me) that I heard a false ending like that which so satisfyingly tied into a song’s theme was John Mayer‘s “My Stupid Mouth”. But John Mayer doesn’t do kick-butt percussion breakdowns or sweet vamps like the overlapping vocal parts that weave together at the end of this one.
8. No Sudden Revelations
The way that “Last Time” flows seamlessly into this track makes it feel like a bit of a coda, perhaps the one track on the album that doesn’t feel complete on its own. That’s OK, as it’s a marvelously restrained composition, floating on a sea of keyboards, strings, and smoothed-out vocal snippets, giving it a dreamlike quality. This one pulls a complete 180, as if seeking to take back the ultimatum of the previous song and beg, “Will you leave me? I won’t leave you.” It almost plays as a mantra, repeating a few times like a stray thought being mulled over until the fadeout. There are a couple of spoken-word lines thrown in at the end, which add to the overall sensitivity of the song, even if they are a bit narm-y. (Watch any number of music videos from the 80’s and tell me if a singer mouthing some utterly sincere words right into the camera with his hand over his heart doesn’t have the same effect.)
Ooh, synthpop goes urban! Me likey. We’re definitely flung out of the 80’s for a bit here, perhaps into the early 90’s, when pop music was experimenting a bit more with streetwise influences, and hip-hop was likewise diving headfirst into pop territory. The difference between then and now (well, other than the obvious fact that Paper Route isn’t trying to rap) is that there’s a fair amount of dissonance, jarring us out of the past and right back into the present, where the experimental indie kids are all penetrating the pop music sphere. This is going to make the song grate on some people’s ears, but I think it puts it at a good midpoint between “uber-cool” and “does not compute”. That fits the lyrics, which describe a dreamlike memory from a person’s youth, getting absolutely carried away by the feeling that this nostalgia creates and begging, “Please warm the blood inside my veins”. Who I am now doesn’t jive with who I used to be, the person I once admired – so take me back to that. Yet you can’t go back. You try, and hit a wall of static like this song’s noisy bridge.
10. Are We All Forgotten
Subtle signs of faith begin to show in this song, which bumps along on its bass-heavy, syncopated rhythm, describing a lover encountered years ago “On the banks of the stormy Jordan” and even going so far as to suggest that this love relationship, weathered by time and circumstance, can be healed: “I still believe forgiveness comes with love and God when it washes over me.” The song takes that leap of faith in its chorus, offering a hand as a sign of pure trust, pleading for the gesture to be returned in kind: “Don’t you break my heart again.” You could see the lover as a fellow human being and the song would then be about God reconciling these two embattled people, or you could see the lover as God, or at least a man’s perception of God, hoping that the understanding he’s arrived at this time doesn’t turn out to be false like his misconceptions did the last time around.
11. Lovers’ Anthem
This song is so beautiful, its heart all a flutter atop its bed of digitally chopped-up pianos and “epic movie moment” strings. (Alright, so I may have slightly stretched the truth about the strings never being used in their cliched, conventional sense on this record. Forgive me.) Yet, when you read the lyrics, it’s downright painful. (In the sense that you feel the singer’s pain, not that it’s painfully bad.) You hear it and you want to believe it’s about two people finally finding each other or returning to each other, and the absolute elation that comes from it. And then the words hit you: “I want the kiss I’ll never get/To be awake without awakening.” This is a point of desperation – an assumption that one’s dreams might never really come true, or else that it had come true for a while and then he let it slip through his fingers. It takes skill to communicate that kind of loss without going overboard, and it might actually be this song’s brevity which keeps it from being overwhelming. (Due to the gradual fade-in and fade-out, it felt like a longer song, one of epic proportions, the first few times I heard it. But then I checked my iPod and realized it was only three minutes long. They made those three minutes count!)
12. Dance on Our Graves
The band actually saved one of their most epic moments for last, because this one starts off as a solemn piano ballad, and if you know Paper Route by now, you’ve got to figure that this sort of instrumental isolation can’t stay as it is for too long. It begins by facing deep, dark fears – temptation from the Devil himself and lamenting, “Why do the things I hate come so naturally?” while straining to look up out of the pit, to see if God is still there. Yeah, so it’s more of a clearly religious song than the mostly relationship-oriented stuff earlier in the album, but good songwriters coming from this perspective generally have a knack for making the two work together instead of sorting songs into the “religious” and “secular” bins. As the rhythm picks up – softly at first – in the second verse, it becomes even more apparent that we’re heading for something big, and it almost feels like that massive moment is coming when that second chorus comes around: “I need you now! I need you more than ever before!” Yet that falls off into a near-hush, with the album’s final words playing as simple reassurance of a reward to follow all of the heartache that’s come before: “When we see the light when we’re going home/We’ll dance on our graves with our bodies below/We’ll sing ‘Glory, Hallelujah’.” And then they let the music embody that joyful song, as whinnying strings suddenly come leaping forth from the speakers, with one final rhythmic breakdown joining in to conclude the album. In these guys’ tech-obsessed minds, that’s the closest approximation of heaven that they likely figured music could express. I’m sold!
Maybe it’s weird that I feel so lifted up by an album that is mostly so downtrodden. I hope I’ve done Paper Route justice by explaining why the music and lyrics on this project hit me so hard. It’s easy to see in these songs a myriad of scenarios – things I hope to be, and things I fear becoming. Nothing makes the band’s case better than the music itself, of course, so go hit up their MySpace and sample a few songs for yourself (whatever they’ve currently got up from this album, I know it’ll serve as a good example of their overall high quality). Hopefully they’ll gain enough momentum to be running this route for a long time to come, rather than fading away and becoming yesterday’s news. (Ow. Again, I apologize.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Enemy Among Us $2
Good Intentions $1.50
Tiger Teeth $2
Be Healed $1.50
Last Time $1.50
No Sudden Revelations $1
Are We All Forgotten $1
Lover’s Anthem $1.50
Dance on Our Graves $1.50
J.T. Daly: Vocals, keyboards, percussion
Andy Smith: Vocals, guitars, harmonica
Chad Howat: Bass, piano, programming
Gavin McDonald: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.