Album: Some Things Never Leave You
In Brief: The newly reformed Sherwood makes a stellar comeback on their first album in seven years. No wheels are reinvented here by any means, but by injecting some surprisingly aggressive rock moments into an otherwise “perfect pop album” mentality, they’ve improved on an already winning formula.
Sherwood is one of those indie pop bands that makes for excellent summer road trip music. I’m sure that I, along with scores of other critics, noted this while reviewing their 2009 album Qu, but it’s worth reiterating. That album got me into the band, and since it was the last thing they did before aborting their plans for a fourth album and breaking up somewhat abruptly in 2012, I kept coming back to it time and time again whenever a long car ride needed a little perking up, especially if it involved a trip up the central California coast to the band’s old stomping grounds. It seems that having families and physically moving away from the city of San Luis Obispo, where the band formed after a few of its members met in college, made it harder for the band to continue as a full-time thing, but their unexpected reappearance in 2015 reminded me that perhaps bands who break up for this reason shouldn’t be so quick to call it a done deal. Just say you’re taking a longer break between records. If the results are as good as their long-delayed fourth album, Some Things Never Leave You, then I’m sure most of the fans will understand.
If Qu came close to being the perfect indie pop record, with its catchy rhythms, impeccable vocal harmonies, and irresistibly optimistic choruses, then Some Things Never Leave You seems like it wants to be that record’s more confident big brother. The guitars, which were more restrained on Qu, come roaring out of the gate on a few of these new cuts, and in general there’s less reliance on keyboards and programming here, though they do play a role. You’ll never mistake this for any heavy or edgy form of rock music, but for a band with such a knack for melodic goodness, the sheer gusto with which they go for a big, loud finish on a few of these songs genuinely catches me off guard. Sometimes records that seem to be aiming straight up the middle in terms of the pop/rock landscape they inhabit can be a bit difficult for me to defend because there aren’t really any stylistic curveballs or unusual instrumentation for me to geek out over – it just comes down to the sheer strength of a basic guitar/keys/drums/bass lineup and the songwriting striking a chord with me. And even when a record with such a simple recipe gets my stamp of approval, it usually falls somewhere in the “B” range. Almost everything I review these days is a “B grade” record. It means I’m getting better at avoiding the bad stuff (or at least, I’m not wasting my time going into any level of depth about it), but it also means I’m less likely to be truly, completely captivated by a new record as I was back in the day when I got “A grade” excited about new music on a regular basis. Some Things Never Leave You, despite seeming like a simple, modest record on the surface, really got it hooks in me to the point where I overcame my own stinginess and decided to give out my first “A grade” of the year. For my 2016 self, that’s really saying something.
If I had to identify a loose theme for this record, it would seem to be a healthy appreciation for one’s past, combined with a desire to overcome past limitations and be a better man. I know that sounds really vague and millions of bands have written about the same stuff. Sherwood’s take on it is interesting to me, though, partially because new music from them seems so immediately warm and familiar that it’s like being whisked back to old memories I didn’t even know I had, and also because of their very tangential connection to the world of “Christian music” that occupies a lot more of my past listening time than it does my present. As far as I can tell, individual members are Christians, but they’ve always been on indie labels, only recently singing to Emery‘s “BadChristian” label (the name of which is a bit tongue-in-cheek and self-effacing on the part of its creators, who host a podcast by the same name) to distribute this fan-funded effort. Aside from a few very oblique references to matters of faith and some relational connection to Christian bands, I’d never single them out as a “Christian” band, but I also wouldn’t call them “bad” Christians because there’s a sense of good-natured innocence to almost everything they do. A mild swear in the final track on this album (which is apparently enough to get some Christian fans shaking their heads with disapproval, unfortunately) is literally as “bad” as it gets, and for me it ends up being one of the album’s most powerful moments. In terms of bands who tend to fall into the cracks between the worlds of Christian and mainstream music, I think of them as a lower-profile and less goofy version of Relient K sometimes, and I’ve made comparisons to bands like Mae and Jimmy Eat World in the past that I think still apply. I’d say you’d do well to check Sherwood out if you enjoy the poppier side of any of those bands.
1. Outside / In
The album starts with a swift, motivational kick in the butt. The guitars are certainly more front and center than they were on Qu, but for most of the song the emphasis is placed on the bouncy rhythm and the strong melody. Lead singer Nate Henry seems to have been doing a little soul-searching when he wrote this one, finding himself in a dark place, and just sort of being complacent to stay there due to fear of change, and the song ended up being about the resolve to finally get up and consciously walk away from the darkness. “I know the path to take, and I’m the only one in my way,” he says, fully owning up to the blame for the rut he’s been stuck in, which is a refreshing change from the vague, unnamed oppressor that tends to become a scapegoat in your average rock song about overcoming personal pain. Up until the bridge of the song, it’s fairly easygoing, but then they drop the tempo to half-time, the guitar chords get noticeably heavier, and the whole band is decidedly in “rock out” mode, and I’m all like “HELLS, YEAH!!!” The band has actually said in an interview that they were careful about not mixing the rest of the song too loud so that this moment would really register, and I think they did a beautiful job, because it’s the kind of thing where, if you had it on as background music before, suddenly you can’t not notice it. It’s the perfect way to start a workout, or a commute to a new job, or really anything you’ve added to your routine as a deliberate change to get your life out of the doldrums.
2. Closer to You
The playful second song feels a bit like a flashback to more innocent times. The fast-paced interplay between the finger-picked electric guitar, drums and bass reminds me of something I’d have heard on Mae’s The Everglow a decade ago, and that’s very good company for any band to be in. The simple story of a boy climbing out his bedroom window at night to sneak down the street and find out what is girl is up to has probably been told many times before, but it fits into an overall theme that seems to recur through this album, of going back to your old home and your old neighborhood and things not quite being the way you remembered them. He seems to want to go back, relive those adolescent adventures, and figure out how to prevent whatever sequence of events ended up driving them apart. There’s a nice little call-and-response vocal bit near the end of the song – “Won’t you come out and let me come over/Hand to my hip, hand to my shoulder” that once again reminds me of Sherwood’s knack for adding those little fun bits to push an already good arrangement a little bit further. The result is that what might have simply been a fun record I’d put on every now and then becomes an irresistible one that I feel the strong urge to play over and over.
3. Little Bit Better
The next track, which shows slight hints of the pop/punk influence from Sherwood’s early days, feels a bit like a throwback to the early 2000s, as much of the album does. I don’t mind that at all, given the emphasis on nostalgia in some of these tracks. We start to get some hints of why two people grew apart here – a guy can’t seem to make up his mind about either his level of commitment to a girl or his willingness to change for her, so he finds solace on the road, physically separated from her, hoping to clear his mind but she sees it as just stalling for time. There’s a female vocal that interjects here and there = “You can take a breath, but don’t wait too long”, as if reminding him she can’t wait around forever. The kinds of questions he’s asking about the man he really is deep down aren’t the kind that can necessarily be answered on a strict timetable, so you get the sense that he’s changing, but not quickly enough. “It’s a long way down to feel a little bit better/A little bit better”, says the incessantly catchy chorus. It’s just the right amount of repetition to make sure it sticks in your head without the song getting bogged down by it.
4. New Year’s Eve
This song falls squarely into “power ballad” territory, with a slow but steady drumbeat and “chimey” guitars that feel a bit like the intersection of mellow emo and Coldplay circa 2002, and if this were actually 2002 I’d probably be telling you how sick to death I was of bands emulating that sound, but Sherwood has a knack for taking these very basic pop/rock sounds and pushing a little harder to truly wring the emotion out of them. The way the guitars gradually go from soft and fluttery to a drop-tuned wall of chugging power chords over the course of this song really says something about the emotional state the writer is in – it doesn’t pull the predictable “soft verse, heavy chorus” trick that a lot of bands did back then, but instead it’s a long, steady build towards a loud crescendo. He re-tells a love story that’s either tragic or ends with happy tears – the lyrics are ambiguous enough that I haven’t quite parsed it out yet. Sparks apparently flew between a young couple as they roamed the streets of New York one New Year’s Eve, and just when he thinks he’s emotionally prepared for what’s coming next in the relationship, she up and leaves him. He’s got a black dress that she for some reason left behind, and he doesn’t want to go drop it off at the thrift shop or whatever because a part of him clings to the reminder, I guess. Later in the song, she’s approaching him in a white dress, and I’m thinking, is this a wedding or a dream? regardless of the outcome, the message of the song seems to be that he desperately longs for the assurance that after a night of passion, she’ll still be there the next morning, and at the beginning of the next new year, and so on. This plea for her to stay bleeds beautifully into the following song.
5. Back Home
Now she’s the one who’s decided to hit the road, I guess. Apparently a bad case of wanderlust has stymied the couple’s plans once again, and rather than bargaining, the guy’s sort of cynically calling her bluff, telling her she’s not going to find anything better out there than what she’s got back at home. While there’s a taste of bitterness to the lyrics here, insinuating that she’s in love with the concept of newness rather than with him, there’s also a genuine desire for reconciliation: “I know it all feels new, but it won’t last/If we can figure out when the moment passed/We might fall in love again.” The song is a good workout for the band’s rhythm section, with the driving bass being more noticeable than any guitar riff or melody, and the drums keeping a steady pace throughout, giving the song a feeling of constant forward motion, trying to get away from something. At six minutes, it’s the album’s longest track, the steady groove persisting long past where you think it should be about ready to wind down. Nate’s voice comes back in, masked underneath a layer of Auto-tune, for the coda, and I know some will criticize this part of the song and think it’s repetitive or cheesy, but I think it’s fitting that the farther away she gets from him, the more his warning to her seems like a cold memory. There’s something tragically beautiful about that, even though on the surface the song might be perceived as a feel-good toe-tapper. In the context of the album, the extended ending of the song feels like a purposeful intermission, a chance to pause and reflect before Side B of the album gets going.
6. Bottle It Up
Pure nostalgia for one’s old neighborhood and the way things used to be permeates this short, sort of pop/punky tune, which deliberately starts with the old trick of lo-fi guitar and vocals sounding like they came from a demo tape or are being played on a tinny old boombox, then the full weight of the rhythm section comes in and you’ve got loud and rambunctious, yet crystal clear rock goodness. I’ve got to give a tip of the hat to drummer Joe Greenetz, whose drum rolls and fills make this one an exciting ride from start to finish. Though it’s a short track and it can feel almost like a side note in the context of the more pensive songs around it, it’s worth noting that the last verse is where they drop the album title: “I heard that rain was falling on our old house/When they finally tore it down/They say somethings some things never leave you.” Knowing that the old house is gone makes the otherwise cheery chorus of “Can we find another way to used to go?” rather bittersweet.
7. Together Alone
I’ve raved so much about the first six tracks, that labeling the next handful as merely good tracks is going to make it seem like I’m really underselling them by comparison. Musically, there’s nothing bad about this track. It’s a little more subdued than some of the others, but still reasonably upbeat. Once again that upbeat tone contrasts with a bit of a downer lyric, as a man surrounded by his friends still wonders why he feels alone. Clearly he and his buds have been through some stuff – they’re all there at the parties he attends, they’re sleeping the night off in his car as he drives them home, etc. But there’s some sort of a failure to connect. Perhaps he’s the one who changed and they haven’t really grown much since he left home and came back. Musically, what’s most notable about this song is how the standard pop/rock arrangement of it suddenly changes to solo piano at the end, possibly pulling in a bit of a home recording that could have been Nate’s original idea for the song. For a moment there, it reminds me of how Relient K sometimes changes things up at the beginning or end of a heavier song by throwing a sensitive piano verse in there. Vocally , he even reminds me of Matt Thiessen for a second there. Mood-wise, the two bands’ new albums actually have a lot in common… and that’s all I’ll say on that subject for now, lest I get ahead of myself on the Relient K review.
I like how the last note of the piano leads perfectly into the vocal “cold open” of this song – one which truthfully didn’t stand out to me as much at first, but which has grown on me a bit, once again thanks to a punchy chorus and some engaging drum work. It’s easy to miss the verses that find a man at his lowest, not even sure whether to believe in himself or his ability to change any more, due to a chorus that seems to raise its fists triumphantly skyward, declaring “When I could see the sky open wider/As if it’s all for me/A silver light shining through every door and street/It wasn’t this hard to believe.” The similar exuberance of Mae’s song “Anything” comes to mind, except that childlike belief that the world was his to win over seems to be past tense, and now he wants it back.
9. The First
Speaking of things I was listening to in 2002, the piano melody in this delicate ballad strongly reminds me of Jimmy Eat World’s “Hear You Me”. I developed a very belated attachment to that song just last year when my brother watched his bride walk down the aisle to an instrumental version of it – sorry, tangent. The point is that this melody immediately evokes a beautiful, vulnerable, romantic sort of mood for me. Figuring out who this person is that Nate is singing to, who seems to have been both his first love and his last, is a bit tricky – the overall context of the album leads me to believe it’s that same adolescent lover from his youth, but the curious line “Have I ever told you that you were the first/To bathe me in water, quenching my thirst” brings to mind more of a caretaker’s role. On Qu, the song “Worn” empathized with an aging mother, so I’m tempted to think that this song could similarly be about a parent getting older, and perhaps the caretaker role swapping places between the two of them. That should be a powerful enough impression to grant this song an “A” grade, and I do enjoy it a great deal, but its one major flaw is that the overall delivery seems a bit too mechanical and polished, rigidly clinging to the 3/4 rhythm – I keep wishing it would loosen up a bit and flow a little more freely. Once they go for the big finish with the guitars and drums at full strength, then I really start to feel the emotion of it – it just needs a little more warmth and intimacy in the lead-up to that moment.
10. Old Ways
The penultimate track, while my least favorite on the album musically, is thematically important as it pivots the narrative from a place of personal loss to a place of growth and opening one’s mind. A slow, grudging acceptance seems to be slowly dawning on our protagonist here, as he admits he can’t just go about the same routine and think the same thoughts that he did in those innocent younger days. He’s not the same man, he has to let go of the woman he was once in love with, and perhaps he also has to let go of the source of guidance he could once confide in when things went awry. It’s too bad that this dawning realization has to happen to the tune of a rather dull rehash of the drum-and-bass groove that sounded much more exciting in “Back Home” – they try to liven it up with some brighter keyboards and drum fills, but largely thanks to a repetitive chorus with a rather nondescript melody, it just never seems to get off the ground. The lyric “When your minds made, there’s no room anymore” is key, though – it provides a bit of context for the final song.
11. The Unknown
The slow grind of the electric guitar at the beginning of this closing ballad lets you know pretty quickly that they’re going to slowly build up to a big finish. While that may be a predictable approach, I was genuinely caught off guard at first by the band’s meditation on closed-mindedness, particularly the line “If we let this one brick fall, we’ll lose the whole damn wall.” Oh, the conversations I’ve had just about the use of that one word! Some find it jarring. I definitely found it surprising, but I’ve actually come to see it as a bad of wordplay, because it could also refer to a dam wall, i.e. the structure that keeps a flood of water from devastating everything downstream. To someone so entrenched in their beliefs that they’re unwilling to question any of them, this is what they fear poking even one tiny whole in their logic might do. So it’s an interesting conversation to have with Christian listeners who are legalistic enough to be bothered by the use of what is, in my mind at least, a fairly mild swear word. What really gives it an interesting context are the verses leading up to this, in which the Devil is the one tempting a man to stay on the straight and narrow – with the implication being that wandering from that rigid set of norms is actually what sets a person free. You could interpret this in a more spiritual light if you want, or – as I’m starting to think after analyzing the rest of the album more closely – it could just be a simple reflection on how never leaving the small world you might have been brought up in, and seeing what else was out there and how others thought and believed and live their lives, leads to lack of growth and an ongoing distaste for change. There’s frustration in this song as the energy level slowly builds up to another brash, loud finish, but there’s also freedom: “Unless we grow, transform in others’ eyes/Cascading butterflies into the unknown.” I’m not even sure what that line means, but like with a lot of open-ended lyrics, I’ve learned to enjoy the not knowing. To me, the unknown is a reassuring aspect of faith, rather than something to be feared and explained away. The more I learn, the more I come to understand how little I actually know. That’s pretty exciting. By contrast, thinking we already know everything and just repeating it by rote as a form of comfort for the rest of our lives sounds like a prison sentence. So it’s obvious why I’m going to strongly relate to a song like this, even though others listening to it might have wildly different interpretations.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Outside / In $2
Closer to You $1.75
Little Bit Better $1.50
New Year’s Eve $1.75
Back Home $1.50
Bottle It Up $1.50
Together Alone $1
The First $1.25
Old Ways $.50
The Unknown $1.75
Nate Henry: Lead vocals, bass
Dan Koch: Lead Guitar, background vocals
Joe Greenetz: Drums, respiratory therapist (Seriously, Wikipedia? WTF.)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: