Yes, there’s still music stuff on this blog. Previously in this semi-column, we covered a stereotypical indie record and the prime of one band’s career. This time we’re going to step closer to punk and find another outstanding indie effort. You might see one of these pieces every month or so. Or maybe longer.
In 2001, the band Brand New was not worth thinking about. Awash in the sea of pop-punk, they were just another group about to have a random hit single. In fact, you might remember their song “Jude Law and a Semester Abroad” if you thought hard enough. Most of their first record, Your Favorite Record, was in a similar vein: too much guitar, not enough nuance, nasally vocals, fully of stereotypical teenage angst. They were a band that wished it could find Green Day’s hooks. You would normally be right to think they went on Warped Tour, released a crap followup sophomore record (yes, even more crap than the first), and eventually vanished to the abyss. Nobody would even notice, you know?
But then something remarkable happened: Brand New grew up and turned into genuinely good musicians. They became the creators of one of the single best records of the past decade, an album that deserves praise in the contexts of both indie music and popular music in general.
There were slight hints after all. You’ll notice that only “most” of Your Favorite Record was like “Jude Law.” Between all the pop-punk mess was one song that tried to reach more nuance. “The No Seatbelt Song” has a truly cringe-worthy title but pushes the bounds of Brand New’s style. It’s a quiet, almost-haunting little number with an intriguing blend of electric and acoustic guitar. Lyrically, it’s somewhat unpolished (the refrain “It’s only you, beautiful” isn’t overly evocative) but the sung content doesn’t hold the song back from being an interesting idea.
Merely two years later, “No Seatbelt” was closer to the jumping-off point for Brand New’s second album. Instead of following the success of their charting single, the band pushed where they wanted and released Deja Entendu. The change was evident almost immediately. Punching guitars were gone, replaced by dark bass sound, interesting song developments, and the band owed a debt to the volume control of Pixies. No more were they trying to be a poor Blink 182 facsimile. There were spaces, slow moments, legitimately interesting drum figures.
Of course, that’s not to say the whole thing was a success. Too often (that is to say, even at all), Brand New fell back on a few of their old tricks. The chorus of “I Will Play My Game Beneath the Spin Light” feels like only a minor improvement over their debut efforts. “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” is pleasant but not overly rewarding as the band pushes against the “crap” part of “crap-pop-punk” just a bit too much. In both cases, it’s the in-your-face set of over-distorted guitar that ruins things.
Then after a three year record gap, the band went deeper and released on of the best albums of the last decade. It’s a shocking claim, really. Here were the guys behind “Jude Law” suddenly shedding the slightest relation to that song’s poppy inspirations. It’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me
It opens quietly, a slightly strummed guitar and a single singer. Quiet murmurs about friends, near-loss, mending, and forgiving. Then a reference to Rudyard Kipling’s “If” … wait, really? Yes, there it is, “Is it in you now / To bear to hear the truth you have spoken.” It doesn’t feel forced into the song; the pointless snotty tracks have vanished. And that’s right where the “Sowing Season (Yeah)” explodes: a yelp of “Yeah!” and the drums and guitars send a punch to the gut. But instead of taking the path to homogeneity, Brand New quickly falls back down toward the quiet. It’s a devastating effect that both enhances the urgency of the loud and increases the potency of the silent.
The power chords are gone. Instead, there is a sound not unlike that of The Moon & Antarctica or Doolittle. Guitars echo and ring out, the bass is meaningful and firm, the drums are varied and no longer just a vehicle to push ever-faster toward some conclusion. In effect, the music is no longer a visceral punk experience best felt in a most pit; Brand New are a mentally pleasing, actually interesting rock band through the entirety of The Devil and God.
Second track “Millstone” is a strong case study of the band’s new-found powers. On their first two records, the band would have riffed on some kind of adolescent relationship problem. Here, they explore personal identity, God, true love, and self-identity. It’s a stark comparison, especially given the artful treatment here. The sonic difference is quite powerful, too. The chorus pops nicely, but operates on the strength of one guitar with reverberating strums, another guitar with ethereal notes, and a rhythm section that deftly staples it all together. We’re not subjected to needless thrashing. Sounds are allowed to blend and breathe.
Even the loudest songs exist without the kind of blind force that would have inhabited earlier work. “Not the Sun” is the probably the closest Brand New get to Deja Entendu on this record, but the production fills the sound. Instead of constricting the explosive chorus to pure guitar, the strumming moves and the bass pushes out the bottom end. The other primarily “punk” song, “The Archers Bows Have Broken,” explores religious hypocrisy and plays on U2-esque guitars in its chorus to escape the paradigms of pop-punk.
Brand New are interesting, ambitious, and successful throughout The Devil and God, but the make-or-break centerpiece of the record is the seven minute opus “Limousine.” It’s a multifaceted journey, as is to be expected from such a long track. But it manages to succeed at every step along the way. Quiet, foreboding reflection builds into a loud section. But then the band throws a curveball, taking the structure off the rails and bringing us to the true core of the song.
A new, crescendo section grows from the ashes. Each verse from here on out starts with a number, starting with “one” in a very quiet place, almost whispering “One will love you so much, do me a favor baby, don’t replay / ‘Cause I can dish it out but I can’t take it.” And it grows. “Two” has the same verse, but louder. “Three” and “Four” follow. By the time it hits “Five,” the vocals are strained, the guitars are kicking in. It finally ends in a repeat at “Seven” and the whole thing bursting at the seams. It’s a magnificent track that builds and impresses at every turn.
The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me is a shockingly accomplished indie record, and even more amazing given the prior pedigree of Brand New. There is texture, nuance, exploration, a remarkable departure from the crap-punk of the band’s earliest work. In fact, this is one of the best entryways to indie from the punk-rock direction.
Note, however, that punk is not the problem and serves as a phenomenal building point for many a rock band. The issue is the bastardization of the genre, the loss of urgency, the meaningless vocals. The Devil and God avoids all these problems. With unexpected musicianship, powerful guitar sounds, and exploratory lyrics, Brand New have reached a point that any music fan should explore.