In Brief: A quaint and quintessential work of unquestionable quality. Put it in your queue.
A common belief held by a lot of indie music fans is that all mainstream music released by big corporations is fluff. They might be able to name their personal favorite exceptions, but for the most part, it’s all faceless radio fare designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Then you have your defenders of the popular mainstream stuff, who use sales numbers to ridicule fans of the little indie bands that couldn’t, essentially using the “X million people can’t be wrong fallacy” to prove that their band is better. There are plenty of intelligent people who exist in between these two extremes, but sometimes it’s fun to watch people at the extreme ends of the spectrum when they’re at each other’s throats.
But sometimes you get your indie bands that release mostly fluff. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, necessarily – it’s more of an observation that a band’s stature in the music business does not necessarily equate to the amount of depth they put into their lyrics, or how much they have to prove their grown-up-ness to the world, or how artistic and difficult to get your head around their chosen sound might be. Sometimes you get bands that toil faithfully in the underground making little other than simple, sunny pop music. The San Luis Obispo, California-based group Sherwood strikes me as one of those bands. And I actually kind of like them for it.
I’d still describe Sherwood as a rock band, if I had to pick a genre. Occasionally a driving bass line or a punchy guitar riff takes the lead and drives a song into slightly edgy territory, but for the most part, it seems like their simple songs of love and loss have signed a non-aggression pact with listeners. It gives their music a sweet sense of innocence, giving away their love of vocal-heavy pop groups from simpler days like the Beach Boys, but for the most part I think they’re careful not to overdo the saccharine flavor by loading down their songs with a ton of cliches. What they write is typically quite simple, but can sometimes have a powerful effect when you listen a little closer and consider the subject matter. The touchy-feeliness of Copeland is a good reference point – they’re not as experimental as Copeland got to be in their later years, but Sherwood’s heart-on-sleeve style does remind me of some of their more straightforward songs. Mae, Lost Ocean and other piano-based rock bands bear similarities as well, and then through in some gang vocals and cheery “whoa”s here and there, and you’re reminded of a kinder, gentler Jimmy Eat World. It’s a style that you’ve probably heard before; Sherwood is just really consistent about making delectable sounds with it and not relying too much on any one gimmick.
I just got into Sherwood last year, with QU, an album that came out in late 2009. It actually seems like I discovered it during the season it was most intended for – the summer. Several of their songs have that sunny road trip vibe, which isn’t surprising given the beautiful section of California coastline just minutes from their hometown. Even before I knew exactly where they were from, a listen to QU reminded me of some of my favorite trips through places like that – maybe I’ve got blinders on due to the strong link that gets formed between music and nostalgia in my mind, but for me, if a band can play on that emotion without sounding like they’re abusing it to distract me from a lack of talent elsewhere, then I’ll probably be an easy convert. The occasional tracks that are more down-tempo hint at something deeper, mostly emotional unrest in family situations. So for those who can’t handle an album of gloppy love songs, know that there’s a break in the subject matter here and there. Like I said above, Sherwood isn’t a one-trick pony. And while they haven’t crafted some sort of massive artistic statement with QU, I still hold to my belief that it’s still a commendable accomplishment to come up with a beautifully-crafted pop album. It’s catchy enough that if any radio stations bothered to take a chance on them, they’d likely be pleasantly surprised, but it’s got enough of an indie pop vibe that it doesn’t feel like some bigshot producer tried to dress them up in a sound that stripped the band of unique personality quirks. Those factors combined are what tend to hit the sweet spot for me as far as pop music is concerned.
This is a quick, acapella intro track – under a minute, in fact. It’s a shame that it’s so short, because hearing three or four of the band members sing in unison is pleasant enough to make me think I could probably listen to an entire album’s worth of it. While I’m slightly annoyed that this trails off into an overly long bit of dead space (a long, solitary organ chord that gradually fades out) rather than segueing immediately into the next song (and also that it feels like a snippet of an idea that never resurfaces in full song form), it’s a nice hint at the vocal deliciousness that will follow on many of the full-band songs that follow.
2. Maybe This Time
The first full song is a good example of the two worlds that Sherwood likes to straddle the lines between – sweet, gooey pop music and anthemic guitar rock. It’s a slick, unabashedly radio friendly love song, with the guitars giving it much of its momentum, but with very strong bass and synthesizer lines that infuse it with 80’s nostalgia. Plus there’s this chimey litle keyboard line that is overtaken by the tried-and-true “Big WHOA! sing-along” trick that’s worked for every poppy rock band this side of Jimmy Eat World. We all know the drill by now, but some folks like me can’t help but get swept away by it each time. The optimistic nature of the song is infectious, as a guy looks back past failures in his love life and realizes that it’s not worth mulling it over to the point where it scares him out of taking a chance with the current object of his affection. It’s exactly how you want to feel when it dawns on you that you have a big crush on someone – maybe just this once, I’ll hit the jackpot!
3. Hit the Bottom
Keeping the music upbeat, this track deals with more weariness than you might realize at first if you’re not paying close attention. While it commits a songwriting faux pas that’s a slight personal pet peeve of me (introduce a nameless guy character in one verse and a nameless girl character in the next, only to do nothing with their stories in the end), I think there’s enough cleverness to the way lead singer Nate Henry describes their down-and-out situations that I can look past it. “She works the night shift for day wage.” “His clock is flashing the same score.” (That last one took me a few tries to realize that the clock had never been set, and thus, 00:00.) The recurring line “Oh, it can feel like forever” ties it all together, possibly allowing the verse to steal the song’s main hook right out from under the chorus. Not that the chorus has anything to worry about, itself a sturdy concoction of catchy melody and a melodic guitar line that leads out of it – plenty of memorable characteristics to keep bringing me back. The ingredients are so simple, with the acoustic and electric guitar, and especially the drums dominating the sound, as well as the group vocals just where it helps most to give the lyrics a little extra zing. It’s typical pop/rock music, and yet the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.
4. Make It Through
The Beach Boys influence comes on strongest in this sun-drenched anthem which rivals the Barenaked Ladies‘ “Summertime” in its eagerness to persevere through winter and feel those first warm rays of summer once again. (Which… come on guys, does it ever even snow in San Luis Obispo? I’ll let it go – I’m a Southern California kid and I complain about our two or three grey, rainy weeks of winter every single year.) There’s a hint here that the presence of a special someone is what really brings the warmth back, which may not be the most original sentiment, but it’s sure presented in the most earnest and heartwarming (gah!) way possible. I really can’t argue with the bouncy beat (which emphasizes the stomping and clapping as much as it does the electronic rhythm track) and another round of infectious “oohs” and “whoa”s. This may feel like a too-perfect concoction of sound in the studio for those who like their music a little more organic, but look up their acoustic performance of this song on YouTube – they re-create it exceptionally well in real time.
5. You Are
Cheesy synths collide with more energetic guitars in this rhythm-heavy song, which has a lot of jerky stops and starts as its verses stumble toward more of a straightforward chorus. The band’s view is a little more cynical here, hinting that a person who is having a difficult life might actually be the cause of their own downfall – basically creating their own gravity that constantly drags them down. For me, this one’s just OK amidst some of their more exquisitely crafted track – it’s one of the few moments when Sherwood, though energetic and decidedly plugged in, feels like something a little closer to a generic rock band. Fun song, and I bet it goes over great live, but it doesn’t work the same emotional magic as so many of the other tracks do.
6. Ground Beneath My Feet
You think this is just going to be a simplistic ballad at first, when it’s nothing but Mike Leibovich‘s piano and Nate Henry’s hushed crooning. There’s a hint of sadness to it, an idea of moving on to the other side of something, maybe even death itself, so you might be prepared for a big, emotional power ballad, but still, you won’t be expecting the hard turn that the song takes after the first chorus. That’s when Dan Koch‘s electric guitar very suddenly takes off and the drums are rolling and tumbling along, trying to keep up, and what we expected to be a tear-jerker is suddenly a nervous, excited anthem, putting a very different spin on its tenuous glance at the new life it initially dreaded. It feels epic even though it only lasts for a mere 4:15. And that acapella chorus break at the climax of the song? Totally thrilling. I love how the same refrain is performed in a markedly different fashion each time through (ballad mode, then rock mode, then glorious vocal break). I might have to dock them a small amount for using an overly emo line such as “Every second takes a thousand days away from me” – the exaggeration’s just too much to be believable there. But that’s a small issue within an otherwise solid song.
7. Around You
While there’s plenty of ear candy on this record to get my attention, this disarming little love song is the one I keep coming back to the most, the one that seems to strike the perfect balance between emotional warmth and technical excellence. It feels like it started life as a ballad – strip it down to its repetitive keyboard line and simple acoustic guitar strum, and it’d be a humble but lovely creation, the solitary voice of a man beckoning his lover to come home after a period of absence and remaining there for good. “I want to wake up to you” is one of those lines that’s so simple and so effective, and then there’s the beautiful economy of words in the chorus – “The night is strange and new/’Cause love is soaking through/And in a daze, I’ll run to you/And I will throw my arms around you.” Those first two lines especially seem to grab me every time. What really makes this song an instant win for me, though, is the rhythm section – Nate’s got a lovely, fluid bass line going while drummer Joe Greenetz is working overtime with a fast-paced, danceable beat that might have come from 80’s-era U2. Depending on which instrument you pay attention to, you’ll consider this either one of the album’s mellower tracks or one of its busiest and most intense. The cascading vocals during the chorus (especially when all instruments but the rhythm section drop out at one point) always give me chills, definitely in the good way.
8. What Are You Waiting For?
There seems to be one song that has the curse of being overlooked on most of the albums I own, often due to being sandwiched in between two of my favorite tracks. This one gets that distinction here – not a bad slice of power chord-happy pop music, but as I observed with “You Are”, the ingredients are more basic here. It brings Sherwood’s usual sunny mixture of 60′[s and 80’s nostalgia a little bit into the 90’s with its stronger emphasis on power chords, the synths playing more of a supporting role. Again, I’m sure my opinion will be at odds with those who prefer their rock music more conventional and don’t like the mellow/electronic stuff getting in the way. The lyrics are decent, though nothing to write home about – basically a man’s attempt to talk himself out of procrastinating, as he takes stock of how much he complains about his stagnant life and yet never changes anything.
9. Not Gonna Love
Pure, corny fun here. I would say that you’ve just gotta love the perky drum beat, the gang vocals shouting “Hey!” here and there, and the marimba, or whatever the heck that Caribbean-sounding instrument is that just makes you want to lie in the sun with a rum and Coke and think, “This is the life”. But then, I could see why a lot of people would find this track (and many of Sherwood’s) to be too perky for its own good. What’s funny is that the musical mood is actually rather dissonant from the lyrics, which seem to be the antithesis of “Maybe This Time” as they describe a man trying as hard as he can to not fall in love. Maybe the songwriters here are just poking fun at their own pessimism, but I figure, if you’re going to see the glass half-empty, you might as well do it by way of clever metaphors. “I am the favorite in a fight that I can’t win” and the rhyming of “Could be the evidence of grace” with “Could be a right hook in the face” certainly qualify. This was my favorite track the first few times through, until “Around You” completely swept me off my feet. it’s still holding strong at #2, which for an album that’s so lovely all the way through, is not a bad place to be at all. (This is another good one to go look up on YouTube – there’s a version where the guys improvised with just their voices and three dudes playing the same piano at once. It is awesome.)
Just when you thought the combination of sweet melodies and mopey lyrics couldn’t get any more pronounced, along comes this simple acoustic track (really, it’s almost nothing other than the steady strum of an acoustic guitar and the occasional cymbal roll for dramatic effect, plus a piano that works its way in at the bridge), which finds Nate singing a bittersweet duet with Molly Jenson about an aging mother who simply hopes her children will make some time to come see her. Your heart just has to break for her when you hear the words “Living has made her sour/How she wishes she could stop the clock.” Nate and Molly sound absolutely thrilling when they harmonize with each other during the chorus. It’s amazing to me how so many of this band’s songs can dig up such an array of feelings with such simple lyrics. This is the song that sort of unlocked a larger theme of the album for me, looking back at childhood innocence and feeling empathy for that mother who just wanted to grab hold of those special moments with her young children and never let them grow up. Now here they are, worn by the ravages of time, and those issues have affected how the son’s adult relationships play out in the album’s other songs.
Another strong bass line and an anthemic synth riff (again echoed by a industrial-strength dose of “whoa”s) make this song quite possibly the most stadium-sized number on the entire album. It seems almost idiotically simple at first until you really dig into the lyrics and find that the simple longing for home is really a cry for absolution, and that home is more than just the physical house alluded to in the previous song, where your parents raised you. As the song hurtles forward, it’s like a runner taking a full-on sprint for the finish line – and you’d expect the song to maintain its stride and finish without ever stopping to take a breath, which leaves you completely unprepared for the changeup in the bridge that permanently alters the rhythm of the song. Now it’s a jaunty 6/8 instead of the direct four-on-the-floor rhythm it started with, and the texture of the song changes along with it, keeping the strong bass line but bringing in the trembling echo of the lead guitar and sweet backing vocals that rival some of Relient K‘s more sensitively arranged numbers – this is especially apparent on the fade-out. As big of a production as this all is, it sounds just as lovely stripped to its bones – there’s video footage of Nate and Dan singing this one all by their lonesome on a mountaintop, which gives a more intimate dimension to the song. Once again, go hit up YouTube if you don’t believe me.
12. No Better
The final track, possibly unintentionally, adds dimension to the story of “Worn” by explaining how the mother ended up old, alone, and bitter. Clearly a personal song for one or more of the band members, it looks back on a time when two parents decided to split up, keeping the mood bittersweet and intimate with little other than crystalline piano and electronic drums behind Nate’s voice as he tells them both that they should have known better. (Get it? No better? Know better? Perhaps this is a bad time for a pun.) I actually find myself wishing that this one would come to more of a grand conclusion than it does – it’s certainly got a ton of emotional gravity to it, perhaps outdoing most of the album in that department other than maybe “Ground Beneath My Feet” and “Worn”. But it’s the one moment where I think maybe the band should have rethought the electronic approach and gone with something more organic. Other moments where the programmed elements are dominant, I don’t mind. Then again, one of my favorite songs on this subject is “Always” by the Newsboys, which has a similar construction, so maybe the issue isn’t the programming, it’s just a lack of oomph. Either way, it’s a competent enough finale for an album that has turned out to have more on its mind than you might have thought from its innocent, up-tempo mood most of the way through.
There’s been a bit of a curse going around lately, dictating that bands who I just got into will very suddenly break up, and apparently Sherwood went through a period of inactivity in 2010 that led to rumors of their disbanding, but thankfully those were false and they’re supposed to be coming out with a follow-up in 2011. I look forward to it, just as I look forward to digging into the band’s back catalogue and trying to soothe the emo-pop kid inside me who is sad that he lost Mae and Copeland last year.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Maybe This Time $1.50
Hit the Bottom $1.50
Make It Through $1.50
You Are $.50
Ground Beneath My Feet $1.50
Around You $2
What Are You Waiting For? $.50
Not Gonna Love $1.50
No Better $1
Nate Henry: Lead vocals, bass guitar
Dan Koch: Lead Guitar, Background vocals
Dave Provenzano: Rhythm Guitar
Mike Leibovich: Keys, percussion
Joe Greenetz: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.