In Brief: A total feel-good indie rock album. Copeland had “the sensitive man’s rock band” down to a science on this one.
Alas, poor Copeland. I can’t claim that I knew them terribly well at the time of their demise as a band. It’s funny that I knew them at all, really, because after making such a disastrous first impression on me by way of a rather tedious live set as a festival where I just wanted them to get the hell off the stage and make way for Mae, they had their work cut out for them in terms of overcoming my scorn and getting me to give them a fair listen. I gave them my best effort just as they turned a bit of an experimental corner with their third album, Eat, Sleep, Repeat, and it was the warm, honest, emotional ambiance of that record that slowly wriggled its way into my heart. Still, I had only afforded them that chance because they were slated to open for one of Switchfoot‘s tours, and they were still as off-key and unaware of how to put together a concert set that flowed logically as they were the first time I saw them. Once the highly polarizing album You Are My Sunshine rolled around (which would unexpectedly turn out to be their final release), I had learned that they were simply better at creating engrossing sounds in the studio than they were at replicating a lot of it live. Some would say that the heart of rock & roll is on stage, when you can’t really fake or overdub much of anything (though modern technology has changed this a lot), and to those people, Copeland could never be considered a rock band despite the guitar-heavy output on their earlier records. But when I went back to their “rockiest” album, the 2005 release In Motion, I decided that this best represented the band’s career in a nutshell. This was a snapshot of their best attempt to be “the sensitive man’s rock band”.
Two things stand out rather immediately on In Motion that make it quite different from any of Copeland’s other albums: the guitars and especially the drums. While it’s true that their debut album Beneath Medicine Tree was largely guitar-driven and their later work was highly rhythmic, In Motion has a high number of songs where these instruments seem to leap out of the speakers. Drummer Jon Bucklew notably retuned his kit for every single song (well, at least the eight songs out of ten that have any percussion), and at times they’re the loudest instrument in the mix, subverting the expectation that guitars and vocals should come first in melodic, pop-oriented rock music. Bryan Laurenson‘s guitar work often has a sort of jagged, distorted edge to it, not to offer any pretense of toughness, but simply to add to the turbulent emotional core that lurks beneath songs which might otherwise sound like a schoolboy writing in his diary. That schoolboy, of course, is Aaron Marsh, a man whose voice can reach angelic heights even if he has a really hard time giving it the same amount of strength and tonal accuracy live that he does in the studio. (Whether it’s pitch correction, generous overdubbing, or just a hell of a lot of takes, is anyone’s guess.) His intention with In Motion was, not surprisingly, to move people physically as well as emotionally. Given the strong forward momentum with which this album hurtles forward from the speakers, I’d say the group did an excellent job of this. It’s not without its more downbeat, sensitive moments, but it’s probably the easiest Copeland album to recommend to a newbie due to how all-around well-written and well-performed it is. I’d probably still give Eat, Sleep, Repeat the edge in terms of overall creativity, but this one’s tied for a close second (and yes, there can be a close second!) with You Are My Sunshine.
In Motion probably has the best lyrics out of all of Copeland’s albums as well. A lot of the songs on their other albums have this sort of fragility to them, reflecting on the beautiful and painful things that happen to us and trying to make sense of the bigger picture. But this is an album that’s all about making stuff happen. Here love is a force to be reckoned with, a prize to go out and claim, a song to throw back your head and sing joyously at the top of your lungs. It does a lot to dispel the sad, sack, woe-is-me sort of mood that an indie rock song can be too easily assumed to have as soon as you hear that the band’s got one of those “pretty boy” kinds of singers. Here Marsh is at his most decisive, as if this record represented all the stuff he ever wanted to say to the people he was once afraid to say it to (or the stuff he wanted to urge others to get over themselves and say to him). Fans of Death Cab for Cutie would likely understand a band having those sorts of mood swings from album to album, and musically, they’re actually not a terrible comparison to make if you’re unfamiliar with Copeland. Mix that with the more sensitive side of Anberlin (Marsh is buds with Anberlin’s lead singer Stephen Christian, after all), and that’ll sort of clue you in about the sort of ride that In Motion wants to take you on. It’s probably the only Copeland album that’s better for your commute or workout or whatever you’re doing during the day that you need to keep your energy up for, than it is for late night reflection and pontificating on the deeper mysteries of life and love on your Facebook page (which their other three albums are all there to help you with). It still wants you to reflect – it just doesn’t want you to do it sitting still!
1. No One Really Wins
This is just about the most raucous thing you’ll hear anywhere in Copeland’s discography, with the guitars all growly, the crisp and boisterous drums practically hogging the mic, and even a bit of distorted varnish on Aaron Marsh’s voice. Despite having fairly sensitive lyrics, it’s almost the sound of a band rebelling against its own image (and maybe even humorously winking at how weird this is when they change out the ragged rock rhythm for something rather danceable in the second chorus). It’s a tour de force for everyone involved, one of the band’s all time finest songs. At the heart of it is “an endless fight of grace and pride”, which the band makes it clear will have no winners. “I don’t want to win this time”, Marsh explains in the chorus. It’s somewhat ironic that this reasonably big change for the band occurs in a song where he pleads, “Change if you want/But don’t you go and change for me/I can love you as you are.” But that’s an amusing mystery that I’ll happily embrace.
2. Choose the One Who Loves You More
The slicing transition between the first two tracks is one of my favorite moments on any Copeland record, though the song that follows took me some time to appreciate. It settles into its own little odd groove that fits in somewhere between funk (check out James Likeness‘s fuzzed-out bass) and Britpop (admittedly an easy comparison for any piano-based rock band in the mid-2000s). Because of this, there are a few lulls that, though pretty, threaten to compromise the momentum of the song, and thus the album as a whole. Marsh’s lyrics are confident despite discussing grey, rainy days and fears that are difficult to face up to, and I suspect it’s because he’s itching to march right up to a special someone and tell her how she feels. The song is presented as a joyous ultimatum – “I think I’m knocking on your heart’s door/Choose the one who loves you more”. It’s interesting in the way that it defies normal song structure, with a chorus that feels like a bridge, a bridge that slows down the song considerably and puts guest vocalist Stephen Nichols front and center (his voice being an interesting contrast to Marsh’s, especially when the two turn it into a bit of a duet), and a final vamp that probably would have been the chorus under normal circumstances. I’ve grown to appreciate this one for its outside-the-box approach.
3. Pin Your Wings
Copeland turns out one of their most memorable riffs at the beginning of this one, equal parts poppy melody and palm muting. The result is one of the band’s catchiest songs, in which Marsh sweetly sings to some girl named Amanda who seems to have a never-ending string of wannabe boyfriends. Whether the relationships are all short-lived because the guys are jerks or because she’s scared of the commitment isn’t really specified in the song, but Aaron’s plea for her to stay put for a while before diving into the next relationship is pretty clear. Once again, the drums are front and center, which is generally the way I like it in pop-oriented rock music, though the electric and acoustic guitars still sparkle with life and intertwine quite nicely with each other. It’s a much simpler song than the two that opened the album, but it’s an amazingly effective one.
Despite all the rock-oriented stuff, the sweet progression of piano chords that opens this one made it the first track on the album to fully win me over. The texture of it is still reasonably upbeat due to how the drums come gracefully galloping in, but it’s got a “dreamy” quality (yeah, I know, way too obvious of an adjective) that would have made it a perfect fit for one of the band’s later albums. The lyrics are textbook teenage longing, though Marsh has this uncanny knack for making stuff like that sound profoundly appealing: “I want to see your hairline and cheekbones/Your red lips and cell phone/Won’t you let me know?/Will I wake to find you waiting by my bedside?” It’s interesting how the lovely piano and Marsh’s gliding vocal melody collide with Bryan Laurenson’s increasingly distorted guitar soloing near the end – on later albums, the band would have probably been content just to let the mellow groove speak for itself, but here, the guitars and drums are the elements that give the song continuity with the rest of In Motion.
This one’s the odd song out that doesn’t really seem to fit the album. Opening with the sound of an old projector, it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine some grainy, black-and-white, sped-up footage of a man flying a kite in a park somewhere. Marsh’s vocals are incredibly operatic, hitting a lot of high notes as the piano, subdued guitar, and an accordion all waltz along. They got the ambiance right, but it’s a complete jolt compared to the songs around it, which makes me wonder if they shouldn’t have waited a bit to find a better home for the song. The lyrics, while well-meaning, also feel a bit off – he envisions himself as a kite cut loose and going off on an epic adventure in the sky. It doesn’t really connect well to the romantic dreaming described in more conventional terms in the song’s verses, and I can’t see how his lover’s defense of his free-spirited ways would be at all convincing to any nay-sayers: “When they say that I’m just a terrible kite/You’ll tell them you’re proud of my marvelous flight.” Wouldn’t people be more likely to criticize the person flying the kite, who let the string snap and lost it to the wind? THIS. MAKES. NO. SENSE.
6. Don’t Slow Down
The second half of the album opens with two songs that almost seem to contradict each other. Fortunately they’re both pretty good. The first of them seems like conventional mid-tempo pop/rock at first – I got the impression that it couldn’t quite make up its mind about whether it wanted to be fast or slow (which is admittedly the barrier that kept me from getting into a lot of Copeland’s songs at first). I’ve sort of come to see this song’s hesitance as important to the story it’s trying to tell, because some woman’s got Marsh so smitten that it feels like getting hit by an oncoming train, and yet she’s being careful, calculating the risk, not yet able to bring herself to fall head over heels the way he has. His total devotion to her, while a bit naive, is charming. This is essentially how young love works, and why it’s so compelling to write about – that impulse that takes over before reason kicks in can be a powerful thing, even if it isn’t always a wise impulse to follow.
7. Love Is a Fast Song
Is it weird that a song with the word “Fast” in its title actually seems to have fewer bpm’s than the “Slow” song that preceded it? This is the song where reason weighs in and slams on the brakes, and yet the body’s instinctual urges keep wanting to catapult it forward, resulting in an uneasy dance between loud, edgy guitars and drums and cymbals that are almost in the red, and a cold, reserved, calculated verse. The lyrics, which describe the downside of love that moves too fast for the brain to fully think it over, are unusually cynical compared to Copeland’s usual approach: “You should not be angry, if all she wants is your money/You should not be angry, ’cause all you want is her body.” It could be read as wry commentary on the way that music affects us – fast songs tend to go straight for the gut, with the object being to suck you in with a catchy melody, a danceable beat, something that makes it easier to ignore the lyrics and the underlying logic and just be easily seduced by the captivating motion of it all. Slow songs, in comparison, generally take their time to romance the listener. Marsh is convinced that the person he’s singing to is capable of both kinds of love, but being stuck in between the two is what creates all of the conflict and the potential to do some serious damage. I’m willing to bet that this song was a real crowd-pleaser in the band’s heyday – if they’d played this one live either of the two times I saw them, maybe I wouldn’t have been such a skeptic! The band’s rhythm section is at the top of their game here, and the guitars are just plain mean, and the whole thing does its job beautifully, considering it’s the album’s de facto title track.
8. You Have My Attention
What’s this now? Another waltzy rhythm and Christmas bells? That’s not really working for me. It probably won’t make any sense to you for me to praise one song due to its inherent schizophrenia and then criticize another song for the same thing. But the slow, wobbly way that this one unfolds seems to leave it in limbo between acoustic balladeering and the noisy rock beast that it eventually becomes, dragging on with an annoyingly repetitive riff and some drum fills that I would probably otherwise find exciting. Maybe part of the problem is that its chorus is pretty much dead on arrival. Its message of complete devotion, wanting to sing along to every note and beat of someone’s life as if it were a song, is just a hokey analogy, and anyway, the song right after it threatens to make it redundant in the “singing about singing” department. So let’s just skip to that one, eh?
9. You Love to Sing
I could have just as easily disliked this one, due to how it settles so quickly and comfortably into another “Britpoppy” sort of rhythm (a similarly-themed Travis song comes to mind). But I figure if you’re gonna have a song about the sheer joy of throwing your head back and singing a song and not caring who’s watching, then it had better have a highly singable chorus, and this one passes the test. The drums shift into a pattern of perfect syncopation just in time to avoid rhythmic monotony, and the relaxed rhythm of it just flows off the tongue 100% naturally: “Sing with your head up/With your eyes closed/Not because you love the song/Because you love to sing.” There really isn’t that much more to it aside from an interesting bit of synth soloing in the bridge that helps to add to the overall ambiance. I’m thinking that this one goes down better for me knowing how it hints at the band’s future musical direction, than it probably did when this album was brand new to Copeland’s existing fanbase at the time.
10. Hold Nothing Back
A brief, but beautiful, acoustic piece closes the album, and while it’s a bit of a cliche for an otherwise rockin’ album to do such a thing, Copeland makes it work by doing more than just strumming dry, simple chords. One of my pet peeves with a lot of rock bands that try this sort of thing is that they’ll have a guy who can solo brilliantly on the electric but who apparently can’t finger pick or do anything interesting with the acoustic to save his life. Laurenson (or possibly Marsh; both play guitar for the band and I’m not sure whose brainchild this one was) passes the test with an almost classical-sounding melody, accented slightly by some sparse notes from the electric guitar, but mostly leaving room for Marsh and his (admittedly conspicious) double-tracked vocals to make us all swoon. The message is about as simple as it could be, firmly cementing the image of “sensitive man’s rock band” in my mind as he croons while birds chirp in the background: “Do what you want but I know who you are/Say what you want but I know what you’re thinking/If you fall in love/Fall in love and hold nothing back/I’ll fall in love/Fall in love and hold nothing back from you.” That’s about 80% of the song, right there. This might not be much as a song isolated unto itself, but as a coda for an album that’s all about cutting through the unspoken sentiments and the nervous hesitation and proclaiming loudly and proudly that you’re in love, it’s just what the doctor ordered.
I’m willing to bet that the label-hopping Copeland went through during their brief career (minor to major label, then back to minor again) likely prevents any sort of “best-of” package from being released, at least one with any hope of completeness. Nevertheless, if such a compilation did exist, I’d wager that In Motion would be the most represented in the tracklisting. As such, it’s probably the best place for someone who has never heard of the band to start…. or for a mean skeptic like me who heard a few songs out of context and who misjudged the band as a result to be proven wrong.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
No One Really Wins $2
Choose the One Who Loves You More $1.25
Pin Your Wings $1.50
Don’t Slow Down $1
Love Is a Fast Song $1.75
You Have My Attention $.50
You Love to Sing $1
Hold Nothing Back $1.25
Aaron Marsh: Lead vocals, guitar, piano, Mellotron, organ
Bryan Laurenson: Guitar
James Likeness: Bass, backing vocals
Jon Bucklew: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.