In Brief: With everything from 2010’s Slow Soft Syrup EP improved or at least maintained, plus 6 new songs, Snowden’s long-awaited followup builds admirably on the sound of their 2006 debut.
I thought Snowden was a pretty cool band name when I first stumbled across their music back in 2006. Originally an Atlanta-based band, they got their name from the main character in the novel Catch-22, which I didn’t know anything about until it made an appearance in an episode of LOST. Then a few years later, I discovered a lovely little song called “Snowden” by the British band Doves. But most of you are probably thinking of none of these things when the name “Snowden” comes to mind. You’re probably thinking of the infamous Edward Snowden, whose status as a wanted man on the lam couldn’t have come at worse time for Snowden, the band. After toiling for the better part of six years, Snowden frontman Jordan Jeffares finally managed to pull-together the band’s sophomore album, No One in Control, only to be released at a time when his band’s name is probably less Google-able then it’s ever been. I wouldn’t necessarily expect Snowden to become a household name anyway – their curious mix of kinetic drum beats and too-cool-to-care indie rock vocals, with more than a hint of new wave influence, has never really broken through to the mainstream. Touring with Kings of Leon, a band whose own homegrown label Snakes & Serpents gave Snowden’s second disc a home, is probably about as much exposure as they’ve ever gotten.
Odd political climate and worries about the CIA snooping into your browser history aside, now’s a pretty good time to get into Snowden. No One in Control is the kind of carefully crafted album that is both pensive and full of movement, despairing at times and exhilarating at others, bringing together songs that have been floating around in various forms for quite a while with newer ones that seem to pick up right where the band’s first record, Anti-Anti, left off. During the long hiatus, I had only briefly checked in with the band with 2010’s Slow Soft Syrup EP, which showed five songs present on this new album in their early stages, many of them stark constructions compared to what ended up here. That minimalistic side of the band took me by surprise given the thick layering that went on throughout much of Anti-Anti, and I’m glad that the band has found a fluid way to pull together the two sides of its personality. The only member of the band besides Jeffares who has been a consistent presence throughout is drummer Chandler Rentz, whose percussion work here gives Snowden the familiar energy that was so addictive before. knowing when to restrain himself in support of one of Jeffares’ moodier moments, and when to bring the beat as confidently as he can, is a bit part of Control‘s success, but of course that would mean nothing if not for Jeffares wearing pretty much every other hat, playing all instruments aside from the drums and also acting as co-producer. His vision isn’t necessarily a bright one – many of these songs are haunted by the demons of addiction and apathy. But he seems to have sharpened his skills as an observer loitering at the bar, witnessing the dance floor mayhem and the hazy fallout that follows it as patrons incoherently make their way home in the arms of people they might not even know. Some bands are all about being part of a “scene”, but Snowden seems more like the kind of band who comments on the scene without necessarily distancing themselves from it.
1. No One in Control
Sprawling out at seven minutes long, the title track is definitely a strange way to open an album… but it might just turn out to be Snowden’s signature song. It seems like a slow, minimal piece at first, with just a bit of guitar fuzz, and the light, patient tapping of drums to keep time. Indeed, in its first appearance on the Slow Soft Syrup EP, this song was quite minimal throughout, and I never quite grew into it. Here, it finally feels like the confident beast it was meant to be, shifting gears seamlessly from its sparsest moments to it densest ones, when the drums are going full throttle and it sounds more like the danceable Snowden of old. This new arrangement feels like a smart synthesis of past and present for the band. And while the lyrics, which find Jordan absolutely smitten by a mysterious woman with a penchant for getting high, might be off-putting to some, the magical, nostalgic mood of the song really ropes me in. It makes me think of the scene in Almost Famous where the lead character is so over the moon for Kate Hudson‘s character despite the fact that she’s retching up the contents of her stomach in a bathtub after a really bad overdose. Sometimes when we’re in love, we see things through a strange filter, and the thick, metallic haze of this song captures that feeling perfectly.
2. So Red
Slow Soft Syrup got its title from this catchy little song, which seems unassuming at first due to its gently ticking rhythm, but which worms its way into your head with its incessant vocal hook – “Ah, ah ah, ah! Oh, oh, oh, oh.” A strong bass line and a tambourine that helps to send an otherwise mild-mannered rhythm into overdrive during the chorus also help. Lyrically, this one’s pretty repetitive, with the chorus declaring, “You’re so red that it hurts” over and over, while layered vocals overlap one another as the bridge repeats, “It’s not that simple”. The verses seem to continue the notion from the previous track of being infatuated with someone who is likely to draw you into a disastrous addiction of some sort. That’s just a guess – you could read the adjective “red” in a lot of different ways. Is she angry? Is she bleeding? Is he seeing big, flashing warning lights in his head? Does she just do everything with an intensity that goes off the scale? Your guess is as good as mine.
3. Anemone Arms
I didn’t think as much of this slower song when I first heard it on the EP, but its spacy guitars and slower rhythm have begun to grow on me with this new version, which is really only a slightly tweaked from its original state. This one sounds right played slow and detached, because it’s intentionally playing the extreme devotion of its lyrics off of the uncaring affectation on Jordan’s voice. He speaks for a collective of people: “Religious to the other extreme/We allow you everything/Have all the fun that you want/We’ll catch your tongue if you go too far.” The words seem loving and freeing, but every now and then there’s a strangely controlling or possessive thought inserted, as if the freedom being offered is merely an illusion. This makes the words sound eerily like those of a cult leader. And that makes the song all kinds of creepy cool.
4. The Beat Comes
This one’s by far the catchiest track on the album… and it was released some time last year as a single, which was a good choice even if it probably wasn’t the band’s intent for the album release to come so much later that whoever heard the song ran the risk of forgetting that the band even existed by then. This one’s got all of the ingredients you’d need to get a new listener hooked on the band – acoustic guitars colliding with a danceable beat and wry use of retro synths, Jordan’s half-sassy, half-detached vocals hitting just the right rhythmic cadence to be irresistible when combined with those synths, and the drums hitting all the sixteenth notes when things get hot and heavy, making the beat as invigorating as an early U2 song. As usual, I can’t make heads or tails of Jordan’s lyrics, but his use of the word “macerated” (which I had to look up, ’cause apparently my vocabulary is lacking) and the overall defeatist attitude seems to suggest someone who keeps trying their luck at something, failing at it, and slowly wasting away as a result. This is deliberately contrasted with the addictive rhythm and melody of the song, and I’m not sure if that’s the band’s way of saying to hang in there because that big break is coming soon enough (which would be appropriate if the song is from the point of view of a band who keeps trying their luck in the music biz and having a rough time with it), or if they’re making fun of the fact that they have to be slaves to the sensibilities of pop music in order to get noticed. So it could be one of those stealth things where they’re making fun of me for liking the song. If, so I don’t mind it, because I think it’s possible to write songs that are artistic and catchy at the same time, and this one’s a perfect example.
The idea of being slaves to a sound seems to continue in this track, which remains similarly upbeat, with a bit of a rattling guitar riff just to make the sound a little more lean-n-mean. Here, the lyrics seem to play as a sarcastic instruction manual for how a band can make a sound that will get them noticed. The first verse sets the tone lightly enough: “I never lied, I never lied/I never promised or led you on/That I would ever want more/than hold the rhythm and have fun.” The lead-in to the chorus is what really clinches it: “Turn the bottom up/Turn yourself down.” That, and a later instruction to “Cut the mids”, which is delivered as sort of a post-chorus hook, all seem to be insinuating that the music business is all about the primal instincts, things like booming bass and a strong beat, but that the mind of the artist gets drowned out in the process. It’s an interesting complaint/observation for a band whose sound is so intrinsically rhythmic to make. And while the tight bass and drum work does a lot for Snowden, I never feel like the words or the other “mid-range” elements get lost in their sound, so I can only assume they aren’t giving anyone a serious list of instructions here.
6. Keep Quiet
Setting aside the persistent, danceable rhythms for a bit, but not going into full-on minimalist mode, this song floats somewhere in between, propelled by the dry thumping of the toms and heavily processed guitar notes ringing out like beacons in the night. It’s taken me a while to figure out what’s different about this one – it just sort of floated on by me for the first few listens, and I struggled to find an in-road to understanding Jordan’s fascination with a woman who is so emotionally closed off that “Even God can’t get inside”. I can’t tell if he admires her or if he wants something disastrous to happen that will finally break apart her facade. And the song sort of plods along like that, until this moment midway through where most of the indie-rock haze fades away and we’re left with a simple piano melody, a glimpse at the underlying scaffolding of the song, and for a brief moment I’m interested in how the song developed from one man alone at a piano to the full-band arrangement that it ended up with. I still don’t think it’s necessarily a great song, but there’s a hint of potential there that I wish had been explored in a way that made the rest of the song stand out a little more.
7. Don’t Really Know Me
This was my personal favorite track on Slow Soft Syrup, and while the reworked version of “No One in Control” has since eclipsed it, I’m glad that they left this one more or less unchanged. Perhaps some supplemental percussion might have been added, but for the most part, this sounds like the song I knew and loved three years ago. It’d the moody guitar ambiance combined with the peppy rhythm that does so much for me here – I can’t necessarily say that I relate to the lyrics all that much (or most of Snowden’s, for that matter), but they have a knack for coming up with grooves that are once driving and reflective. The lyrics seem to take the ill-advised devotion of the title track and warp it into a twisted reflection of the lifestyle of the person he’s in love with, assuming that “this is how true love behaves” as he goes off the deep end with actions up to and including taking copious amounts of valium and carving his name into her leg. No matter how extreme his attempts, he’s always met with the same indifferent response, “‘You don’t really know me’, she said.”
8. Not Good Enough
I haven’t totally put my finger on what bugs me about this song. Nothing major, really – it follows Snowden’s usual template of throwing heavily processed guitars on top of a drum loop and then adding other hazy textures from there, and at first listen, there’s nothing much to differentiate it from other songs of theirs that are likeable for doing the same thing. Something seems just off about this one, though – the beat’s a little stilted, the melody never really latches on to a solid hook, and the sad sack lyrics that I normally find interesting just aren’t making my neurons fire this time around. I catch occasional glimpses of brilliance, like the line “Build us a church out of guitars and speakers”. I’d love to isolate that line and put it in a better song. Not one that just sort of whines about a person’s best efforts still not living up to expectations. But the time Jordan gets to the bridge, where he just repeats “Que sera, sera” like an annoying broken record, I’m ready to fast forward to the next track.
9. Candy For Everyone
With its slow, booming drums and its distant guitars dragging across the stratosphere, this one sets itself early on to turn into a climactic ballad in the vein of their previous album’s “Victim Card”, which for me was a definite highlight. The problem is that it doesn’t quite seem to get there. The lyrics appear to offer sympathy to someone who is down and out, both financially and romantically, and it cleverly ties these together by possibly illuminating what the heck “So Red” might have been all about: “There’s no shade of red/In a pocket book or sunset/That can clean up the mess/That is made by a lover’s lips.” But the place where this person is advised to seek comfort is.. well, just sort of vague. Literally all the chorus says is “Come on, there is candy for everyone.” And you could read that a lot of different ways. It could be drugs or alcohol, or stress eating, or something way more innocuous like warm words from a friend. Shoot, I don’t know. But whatever the “candy” is, it seems like a temporary distraction, a way to medicate for a short time and distract the mind. Nothing wrong that, I guess, but the end result is that the song sort of misses the mark it’s aiming for. The candy exists and is there for the taking, but my response is basically, “Yeah, so what?”
10. No Words No More
This track, which was the closing number on Slow Soft Syrup, finds Snowden at their most introverted and despondent. I thought it was a heck of a downer at the time, though it’s not even really all that negative, it’s just sort of about having a lack of words or reasons to explain your doubts and disappointments. The piece of information I was missing at the time was that this is actually a cover of a Love and Rockets song from the 1980s. I always knew Snowden had some 80s/New Wave influence, but this isn’t really your typical 80s song – the original version is largely acoustic, and has a loose, almost lounge-y sort of feel to it. Given what Snowden has done to it, fans of the original probably wouldn’t recognize it at first, unless you paid close attention to the words, because here they’ve tweaked everything, intentionally flattening the melody and the delivery, and gutting the song’s instrumental framework in favor of a slow dirge of bass and electric guitar, both made intentionally fuzzy and distorted via amplifiers, so that the whole thing just sort of floats by in a depressed fog, avoiding anything resembling a climax or resolution, and ending instead with an elliptical fade. I could understand someone not liking what Snowden did to this song, finding it boring or annoying, but there’s something intriguing about the texture of it and the inventiveness of the complete genre shift they’ve pulled here. I’m not necessarily amazed by this one, but I do genuinely enjoy listening to it.
11. This Year
Snowden’s first album ended with the understated, semi-acoustic “Sisters”, and this one seems to follow suit, with a similar mellow rhythm that ebbs and flows comfortably rather than hitting you in the face with an obvious hook. It sounds like they’re using sleigh bells or something of that nature to supplement the percussion, which I suppose is fitting since the song finds Jordan declaring his wishes for the upcoming year, which apparently involve a trip to New York to take someone he’s been estranged from back into his life. This would seem to end the album on a hopeful note, except that he sort of second-guesses himself at the end of the daydream, singing, “I’m a sucker, I thought I had it all worked out.” So instead, we end on an unfulfilled wish that the wisher knows is a bit of a naive one. It’s bittersweet, but the production complements that mood quite nicely, with the echoing vocals bleeding in and out of the background, moving in time with the icy sea of guitars and bass.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
No One in Control $2
So Red $1
Anemone Arms $1.25
The Beat Comes $1.75
Keep Quiet $.75
Don’t Really Know Me $1.75
Not Good Enough $.50
Candy For Everyone $.50
No Words No More $1
This Year $1
Jordan Jeffares: Lead vocals, guitars, bass, keyboards
Chandler Rentz: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.