Album: Happy However After
In Brief: With the name change comes an even stronger commitment to jazzy complexity, Latin rhythms, elaborate torch songs, and apparently a newfound love of electronic keyboards. It’s not my favorite variant on the Kindo sound, but it’s certainly a unique way for them to go against the flow in the current rock music climate, and they’re clearly still at the top of their game performance-wise.
When we last heard from The Reign of Kindo in the form of a full-length album, these guys hated music. Well, not all music, obviously – I mean, they seem rather proud of the music that they make, and there are numerous influences from the worlds of rock, jazz, and pop music that they presumably admire a great deal. But the overall state of the music industry just wasn’t doing it for them, and they took a little detour from their normally very earnest, dramatic, romantic sound to humorously mock the disposable nature of a lot of music, in the appropriately titled song “I Hate Music”. The album it came from, Play with Fire, was released in 2013, and since then, I’ve gotten a lot of hints that the band wasn’t up for cooperating with the usual business model for how to promote and release music in the modern era. For a while they seemed to rebel against streaming services, only putting up the singles from Play with Fire on Spotify, and at one point even going so far as to take down their older albums that had once been listenable in full, only to reverse that decision more recently and make their entire back catalogue available. They’ve been working on new music pretty steadily in recent years, often announcing via social media that new songs were available to their Patreon subscribers. I’ve never been big on the idea of musicians as subscription services, but I have to admit it’s an inventive way of raising cash while you’re working on an album outside of the conventional major label promotional machine. So, after nagging them enough times on Facebook about whether this would someday congeal into a full-length LP and finally getting confirmation of this, I decided to simply buy the record when it came out. I’m stubbornly old-school enough to still expect the musicians I enjoy to put out their songs in an album format, meant to be listened to in a specific order, which I vastly prefer as a means of consuming new music to struggling to pay attention to a bunch of individual songs as they slowly dribble out. But I’m also old-school enough to happily pay them for a physical product once it becomes available, despite my use of Spotify. At some point in either late 2017 or early 2018, the band went through a bit of a rebranding phase, dropped the “Reign” part of their name, and became known as simply Kindo. Suffice to say, a lot of change has gone on in the nearly five years between Play with Fire and their first record under the new name, Happily However After. As a longtime fan, I was excited to see what new leaves they might be turning over with this one, but also apprehensive that the phenomenally tight blend of jazz, Latin, and progressive rock influences they had cultivated might somehow change along with the shedding of their old name. It turns out I had very little to fear in that department.
Back in 2010 when I reviewed This Is What Happens (still my favorite of the band’s four LPs), I made a comparison between Kindo and Maroon 5. On the surface both were kinda jazzy and funky pop/rock acts with smooth, golden voiced frontmen and a glossy, melodic sound. Maroon 5 was certainly the more radio-friendly of the two, but their music had seemed to become more predictable and classless over time, while Kindo, never bothering to fret over whether that same level of fame was anywhere near attainable for them, became more exploratory and harder to pin down with simple genre labels. Nowadays, comparing the two bands is almost unthinkable. (And given that Maroon 5 put out the absolute worst record that I listened to in all of 2017, this is decidedly a good thing.) Kindo’s music still boasts a certain kind of sexiness – not the kind that flaunts its sweaty muscles in the audience’s face, but the kind that shows up in a suit and tie with an elaborate floral bouquet, and treats its audience to a sumptuous meal and an evening of thought-provoking, conversational intimacy, rather than just trying to get them into the proverbial sack as quickly as possible. At times it’s tempting to describe their approach as “dated”, but I generally reserve that term for bands who don’t know that what they’re doing has gone out of style. Kindo doesn’t take it easy for long enough, or allow their rhythms and melodies to be straightforward enough, to fit into the cheesy “smooth jazz” format that some of their instrumentation may bring to mind, and despite how heavily they seem to favor electronic keyboards over the old acoustic ivories on this particular record (which was admittedly a difficult change for me to swallow at first), this doesn’t seem like a cheap grab at the whole “indie rock darling goes synthpop” trend that seems to have swallowed up a number of other bands I’ve been following in recent years. As the very first song on Happy However After is quick to remind us, Kindo’s music doesn’t stay on the grid. It may now possess a few synthetic components, but it’s not interested in sounding machine-like or futuristic. Leave that stuff to the electronica acts – these guys still find great joy in getting together all in a room in real time and letting their instruments sing.
If there’s one constant to Kindo’s music, it’s that lead singer/songwriter Joey Secchiarolli seems to prioritize communicating clear emotions in his lyrics, to the point where they can sometimes be unabashedly cliched. The complexity of the music makes it clear that these guys don’t do anything by rote, but if you’re familiar with the themes from past albums – celebrating uniqueness and individuality, pining for the kind of love that seems unattainable while being deeply unhappy in an existing, borderline co-dependent relationship, and of course a few flowery odes to the process of making music itself – then you’ll know more or less what to expect here. That’s not to say that Joey hasn’t tried anything new in the lyrics department. There are a few songs, particularly near the end of the album, that seem to aim for something more transcendent and otherworldly than the band’s usual. But there are also a few embarrassing moments in one or two clunkier songs where they pull the cheap trick of letting sampled voices tell a story that the lyrics either can’t or aren’t trying to tell on their own. It’s a trifling little thing when compared to the album as a whole, really, but it’s hugely distracting when it comes up. So the result is often that I find these lyrics relateable, and in some cases reasonably creative, but for the most part I’m more fascinated by the musicianship than the penmanship.
All in all, the group seems to have weathered the changing music scene reasonably well, presenting a smorgasbord of musical ideas within a mere ten tracks on an album that might not be the home run that This Is What Happens or Playing with Fire was, but that sits admirably next to their first album Rhythm, Chord & Melody on that slightly lower tier of incredibly good, if not quite great, quality. This band started off setting a pretty high bar for itself, and thus far, they’ve never failed to clear it.
1. Human Convention
The opening track is definitely the most off-the-wall thing the band has ever done. I find it hilarious that this might be someone’s first impression of the band, because even though it’s a sprightly three-and-a-half minute performance, it’s loaded with so many time signature shifts and key changes that it seems to be daring the listener to keep up. Especially with the rubbery keyboard sounds subbing in for the usual piano, this sounded like a complete mess to me at first, and that’s coming from someone who is pretty used to the band’s shtick at this point. There is a discernible verse/chorus structure to it once you get used to the curveballs, and it’s a pretty impressive feat when you consider how densely intertwined the layers are, with the rhythm section shifting back and forth between a stuttering, offbeat jazzy approach and more of a “Latin party” approach, the guitar and keyboard melodies coiling tightly around this lopsided framework, and the horns jumping in at just the right moment to keep the mood festive. This might sound like pretentious wankery if it weren’t tied to a philosophical lyric about the very concept of time being a human construct that we’ve all agreed to follow and that we often become slaves to. Hmmm… that still might be pretentious. But the band members’ ability to all keep up with each other is downright jaw-dropping, and I can only imagine how surreal and awesome of an experience it would be to watch them recreate it live.
2. Catch the Gleam
Putting a ballad at track two after that dizzying opener was certainly a ballsy move. Personally, I’d have preferred a more easygoing up-tempo track before we got into some of the more intense balladeering, but there are ten tracks on this record and I suppose the band felt like there was no time to waste in terms of showing off all their best sides. This is one of the more piano-driven tracks on the record, and it’s pretty easy to tell that it’s aiming for the same sort of romantic awe and wonder that flowed so naturally in their song “Flowers by the Moon” a few albums ago. That’s a personal favorite of mine, and while this one isn’t trying to recreate the same formula, it definitely has a similar theme in terms of being absolutely overwhelmed by the beauty in the world around us. The analogy that they use this time around involves a ship being tossed about on the waves at sea, and the sailor staying the course because he’s confident that there’s treasure to be found once he reaches the shore. The slow build from serene calm to cathartic climax is pulled off really well here, and the key changes, which often seem to happen mid-verse or mid-chorus, somehow manage to keep the melody of the song unpredictable even while making sure the chorus sticks in the listener’s head. At least, that’s the magic that this song has worked on me. Some might find Joey’s vocals a little show-offy here, but again, it fits with the lyrics, which describe a tumultuous, emotional experience felt as a person searches for beauty and certainty. I can’t really be critical of Kindo’s earnestness when the music sounds like such an accurate representation of the scene Joey is painting with his words.
3. Let Me Be
Well, they can’t all be winners. Normally, this song has all the ingredients that I’d look for in an upbeat, crowd-pleasing Kindo song. Percussionists Steven Padin and Michael Carroll are really working it here, infusing the song with an infectious Latin energy akin to the previous album’s “Impossible World”, Joey’s guitar licks are incredibly slick and do a lot to keep the song moving, and the entire band sounds like one big, unstoppable party. There’s some real attitude to this one, since Joey’s telling off a manipulative lover who can’t seem to take a breakup at face value. He’s trying to get rid of her for good, but she keeps showing up at his door and wearing him down with her feminine wiles. If this premise sounds a bit tired, it’s because it is. Kindo already explored this dynamic in “Romancing a Stranger” on the previous album, and while I didn’t mind it there, now having two songs from them that imply a man loses all control of his willpower when a woman is sufficiently beautiful… well, it carries some unfortunate implications. I mean, it’s suppose to make you sympathize with a guy who is just doing his best to be honest in a relationship he’s dissatisfied with, but all I can think as I listen to this one is that, short of actually physically restraining you, no one can make you do anything, no matter how physically attractive they might be. So it just portrays the protagonist as incredibly weak-willed. The staccato, inelegant repetition of the song’s title in the chorus starts to grate on me after a while, too. But the real kicker is the vocal sample that shows up in the song’s intro. It’s a male voice, pitch-shifted to sound extra creepy, and it turns out to be saying, “Best not make any more threats… they will be met with fire and fury, and frankly, power.” Holy crap, did these guys seriously throw a Donald Trump quote in there? How’d they expect that one to go over? The song’s not even political, so what is this implying? It seems odd for that to be a representation of the kind of power a beautiful woman has over a helpless man, but if it’s intended to represent his ultimatum back to her, that’s extremely problematic. I just don’t know how to take it. (And as much as I hate Trump, this isn’t just a political bias thing on my part. It comes across as corny and cloying in general whenever a band borrows a soundbyte from a sitting president – see Coldplay‘s awkward use of a few Barack Obama clips on their album A Head Full of Dreams, for example.) Another set of samples shows up in the bridge, where a kid repeats twice, “She don’t know what she’s doing”, only for an older kid to respond, “Oh yeah she does, she knows exactly what she’s doing”, and I feel like this is supposed to be the punchline of the song as it leads into the final chorus, but it’s just so awkwardly timed that I can only manage an uncomfortable laugh. I believe these clips are from the nostalgic baseball flick The Sandlot, and they’re describing an older girl who some of the young guys in the film are crushing on. It further drives home the notion that beautiful women have a superpower that compels men do their bidding, and that this is a lamentable tragedy that men are powerless to stop. Ugh. You guys are better than this. You’re clearly demonstrating that your musicians are ten times more talented than anyone in Maroon 5 here, so let’s not stoop to anywhere near Adam Levine‘s level of skeevy songwriting, okay?
4. One in a Million
I’ve pointed out in a few recent reviews how mundane it’s become for songwriters to rhyme “world” with “girl”. So I’m not sure whether to clap or cringe when the opening couplet of this song is “I can tell you want this more than the world/I see how you want your story to unfurl”. It’s a clever way to avoid a tired rhyme, but it’s also kinda corny. The chorus doubles down on the corny rhymes by declaring, “Give me all your love and your affection/Give me something to believe in our direction.” Ouch. I get that the general idea of the song is that Joey thinks he and a woman he’s fallen for are such a good match that he’s kind of astounded at the odds of them actually finding each other. The song’s mostly in the mode of him trying to convince her of this, rather than celebrating a rare pairing that has already been achieved, so your mileage may vary on whether his earnest pining of her comes across as flattering or just begging. Truthfully, due to those lyrical stumbles, I find myself tuning out the words here and paying more attention to the music here – which is sort of a piano-based slow-dance that is hard to describe. It’s in 4/4, but very syncopated, and there’s probably some sort of Latin jazz influence that I’m not picking up on, but I like the overall flow of it and how well it lends itself to the little pauses in the melody where it seems to suddenly duck your expectations and jump into a different key on several occasions. It’s not quite as all over the place melodically as the first two tracks, but it pulls off the whole “sensual, but not sleazy” thing quite well.
5. Smell of a Rose
You know what else “world” sorta rhymes with? “Pearls.” Yup. Joey is actually singing “Take me to the edge of the world/Take me to the place where you keep your pearls” with a straight face, and that’s what they’re banking on as the first few lines of their chorus hook. Actually, despite my lyrical nitpicks, I do really enjoy this one. It’s got the kind of fast-paced yet easy-going vibe that I found myself wishing for as a transition between “Human Convention” and the more ballad-y stuff – swap this one with “Catch the Gleam” in the track order and I think the album might actually flow a bit better, because that track seems like it would make an excellent Side A closer, while this one is a good “momentum maintainer”. Musically it’s probably the most straightforward thing on the album so far, in the sense that it keeps the rhythm it establishes without throwing a ton of musical curveballs. But that’s not to say it lacks sophistication. The energetic horns give it the atmosphere of a really upscale party, where suits and ties and fancy dresses might be required, but everyone’s still going to be busting their moves on the dance floor. There’s generous space left for solos as the song winds down, and I think at one point the keyboard and guitar are soloing in unison with each other. (Which I guess technically means it’s not a solo… but they’re playing the same notes as each other really fast, which I think is immensely fun to listen to.) This is a song that is designed to celebrate the beauty and mystery of the world around us, and to put a smile on our faces. And it does an excellent job of what it sets out to do.
6. Return to Me
I have no idea what songs the Patreon subscribers got to hear first, but to me, this was the first taste of the new Kindo. I’ve had since January to take this one in while the rest of the record came out in April, so that may have biased me in some way, but I do strongly believe that this is the absolute best track on the record. It manages to walk the fine line between being instantly recognizable as a song only Kindo can record, and yet throwing listeners for a loop by making them wonder what the heck’s going on with the sparse arrangement and the trippy beat. I mean “trippy” quite literally here, as the drums appear to be stumbling over themselves, out of sync with the serene, early-morning piano meditation, until you get the hang of how things are syncopated. It’s a song that asks the listener to fill in the blanks, and that’s a challenge I always enjoy, as a listener who has such a drive to know what time signatures I’m hearing and whether they’re consistent or they change over the course of the song. There’s a definite shift halfway through this one where the rhythm seems to tighten up a bit and the style of it transition from jazz to more of a rock sound, heralded by a guitar riff that slices into it like a thunderbolt of epiphany sent from heaven above. It’s fitting, because while this seems at first to be a lament about a one-night stand who didn’t even stick around for breakfast, it quickly becomes clear that Joey is not singing about a human woman, but rather a muse that seems to have left him, putting him through the old rite of passage all songwriters seem to go through eventually, where they have to write about their writer’s block. At least, I really hope this is all a metaphor for his ability to create beautiful music, because the lines “I need you for the money/I need you for my soul/The magic that you brought to me/Was under my control” would be super problematic otherwise. That really is the most logical interpretation, though. It’s a solid performance that immediately assured me Kindo was back, baby, and still knew their way around a smooth arrangement without having to dumb down their sound.
7. About Love
I’ve pointed out already that when Kindo does love songs, they’re either about something idealized and unattainable, or else something real and deeply flawed. Joey is clearly self-aware on this point, as this song is all about his inability to sing a song about love. It seems to explore the classic dilemma of actually verbally saying “I love you”, in this case in his capacity as a songwriter, who I suppose would be expected to write a genuine love song for the woman he was with to back up the fact that he genuinely loved her. He admits he can’t quite do it, and his fears of hurting her by admitting it are captured pretty well in the lyrics. His tendency to over-idealize whatever he thinks true life is leads him to believe that maybe it’s a dream he’ll never fully realize. This is a solid lyric, for the most part, through the verse describing his dream state is a bit goofy – “Perhaps I’m a dreamer who doesn’t wake up/I’m floating through skies in a red paper cup/And I’m falling through trees with pillows for leaves/I might fall, but I won’t skin my knees.” If you’re falling from that high of a height, is skinning your knees ever going to be your first concern? Aside from that little nitpick, I really enjoy the song. It starts out like a simple, sparse torch song focused on just the keyboard and vocals, but as the bass, guitar, and drums come in, they subdivide what was a slow, basic rhythm into something more complex, adding a lot of kinetic energy and a layer of uncertainty to the overall performance.
8. Colder Than December
As the only song in the back half that is immediately, straightforwardly up-tempo, this one seems like a bit of a respite from the more intensely soul-searching tunes surrounding it. The band makes good use of drum programming here, giving the song a light, snappy beat that mixes well with the live drums when the full band kicks in. As you might gather from the title, though, it’s not the cheeriest song. The lyrics make it pretty clear that it’s about the changing of seasons in a relationship, when someone’s love for Joey grew cold and she just walked away, leaving him in the lurch because his definition of what it meant to feel alive pretty much revolved around her. The lyrics make good use of what would normally be a tired metaphor – the leaves vanishing from the trees, the birds not singing despite the bright morning sun, that sort of thing. But the chorus never quite delivers a strong enough hook to justify the decision to make this an up-tempo song, and I’m still having issues with Joey’s choice of words when it comes to his own sense of agency and responsibility in a relationship. She made him come alive and made him fall in love with her, and now she’s the one choosing to put him through this misery by walking away. I really hope all of this is fiction, because the sheer haplessness he seems to feel makes me wonder if these relationships keep failing because he thinks of love as a wonderful, mystical experience that happens to him if the universe sees fit to favor his happiness, rather than as an outwardly expressed feeling that both parties must choose to actively give as well as receive.
This song has a rather slow, stiff beat to it that is quite unusual for Kindo, in that they’re deliberately structuring a song around the rhythm section without doing anything intricate with the drums or bass. The bass is quite prominent here, repeating an ominous riff that echoes throughout most of the song, allowing the piano, vocals, and occasional solemn horn bits to determine when and how the mood and melody twist and turn. This song is taking a while to grow on me, but I like how, even within this rigid structure, the jazz influences take it to places I wouldn’t expect. Where “I Hate Music” proudly declared defiance of the music industry’s current standards regarding what was considered relevant, “Obsolete” seems to be resigned to the fact that musicians with the sort of drive and passion for creating a complex and distinctly human emotional experience for patient listeners to enjoy are becoming dinosaurs in an age where their work can easily be replicated by machines. Even the way he describes this happening seems to invoke an outdated understanding of how modern technology works – “Take it from me, we are soon obsolete/’Til your system upgrade is complete.” As the song continues its march toward the oblivion of cultural irrelevance, parts of the recording deliberately glitch out, and the vocals are replaced by an eerie robotic voice at one point – all tropes we’ve heard before, but all done quite effectively. The song’s coda is the only part where it truly gets goofy, as a Siri-like voice can be heard reading off what I can only assume are random, context-less Tweets: “He is one aggressive puppy, ever since the golden cobra incident” and so forth. This puts the song a little too far into the Father John Misty zone for me, but I still admire what the band is trying to communicate here, and the vulnerability in a few of the lines where he wonders if his love life and/or family life will crumble around him due to the financial instability of his career is definitely something I’ve been able to relate to at certain points in my life.
10. City of Gods
Kindo aims for transcendence on the final track, which is abuzz with progressive ambition right from the start, with the synthesizers that open it up giving way to a surreal lyric about finding oneself in a futuristic city overrun by machines, to the point where Joey wonders if there’s anyone around to hear the sounds he’s making. It’s a dystopian take on the whole “If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” dilemma, I suppose. At over six minutes, I believe this is Kindo’s longest song, and it’s hard to predict ahead of time where it will go from one minute to the next, as it seems to work its way through several sections, at first leaning more on the jazz influence, and then amping up the prog rock influence as the song builds to a conclusion, ultimately winding up at more of a “jam band”-styled conclusion that reminds me of something Umphrey’s McGee might come up with. This track doesn’t flip through the band’s Rolodex of influences (ha, now there’s an obsolete reference!) quite as impressively as “Human Convention” did, but it’s also got more time to sprawl out and give the players their various moments to shine, and as an album closer, I liked that they went for the big finish and managed to pull it off in a unique way, that is every bit as captivating as “Hold Out” or “Psalm”, the grand finales from their first two records, without sounding anything like either of those.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Human Convention $1.75
Catch the Gleam $1.50
Let Me Be $.25
One in a Million $1
Smell of a Rose $1.50
Return to Me $2
About Love $1.25
Colder Than December $1
City of Gods $1.75
Joseph Secchiaroli: Lead vocals, guitar
Steven Padin: Drums, backing vocals
Danny Pizarro: Piano
Michael Carroll: Guitar, percussion
Jeffrey Jarvis: Bass
Geraldo Castillo: Percussion, backing vocals
Kelly Sciandra: Piano, trumpet
John Baab: Guitar
Darren Escar: Saxophone
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: