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Audio Reviews
Only Good Thoughts Can Stay
by Jared Mees and the Grown Children
Tender Loving Empire (2011)
Only Good Thoughts Can Stay
It has taken me more than a month of on-and-off listening to work my way through Jared Mees and the Grown Children’s third full-length, Only Good Thoughts Can Stay, and not without good reason. In the main, the album is a densely evocative affair, filled to the brim with subtly extended metaphors and rambling narratives that often read equally well as prose as they do as poetry. Which is to say that, being long on casually-rhymed couplets yet short on obvious choral repetitions (which, along with a well-placed bridge, act like the veritable ¶ of sung verse), Mees’s sprawling lyrics tend to require the listener’s full and constant attention, lest s/he lose hold of a central thread and thereby miss out on a given song’s long-developed payoff.

But if Only Good Thoughts Can Stay is insistent, it is also engrossing. Between Jared Mees’s own wending croons and the Grown Children’s rambunctious pop-rock instrumentation—bright acoustic and electric guitar riffs by Mees and occasional trumpeter Javier Madrigal, upbeat drums and bass by Joe Bowden and Quilty Kim, whirling organ and piano and Wurlitzer from long-time collaborator Megan Spear, irregular shots of cello and viola from Gabriel Minchow and Eric Tegerson, plus ancillary percussion and a full choir of backing vocalists—there is scarcely room, let alone reason, to let one’s mind wander.

Forget multitasking; this album requires a decent set of cans and a close reading of the lyrics sheet.

True to its title, Only Good Thoughts Can Stay is designed as a somewhat cheerful exorcism of bittersweet memories and somber experiences, with album opener “Hungry Like a Tiger” wasting no time in engaging in the album’s titular purpose. Sped along by a pulsing backbeat, quick strums, and the underlying bleats of Madrigal’s trumpet, Mees happily notes that he is “breathing good air through good lungs with a good heart beating,” and reminds the listener that “a problem ain’t a problem unless you keep feeding it.”

In other words: If you want to break out of your funk, then you need to stop dwelling on whatever it is that brings you down. Positive Mental Attitude all the way, y’dig?

At least that appears to be Mees’s intention from the outset. Sadly, his initial offerings of optimism and stoic self-mastery are soon diluted by the fatalistic response of the choir in “Limber Hearts”, which calmly reminds both Mees and the listener that “the high life can’t last forever”. While the heartening mix of piano, buzzing guitar riffs, brassy percussion, strident trumpet, and airy coos in “Limber Hearts” remains resolutely uplifting, there is the nagging suspicion that Mees has not yet fully bought into his whole PMA shtick. But he is trying.

Then there is the overwhelming anxiety attacks of low-key thump-and-strummer turned upbeat piano-, trumpet-, and organ-aided clap-and-sing-along “W.W.J.B.D.”, wherein Mees recounts (from his wife Brianne’s perspective) long-distance offerings of encouragement, affection, and good old common sense. It is a gorgeous song, an existential travelogue that both laments and celebrates the terrifyingly beautiful tumult of life on tour:

“It’s all coming together, though it feels like such a mess. It just takes a little faith to quell the chaos in your chest. So just take ten deep breaths, try to smile if you can. Get the hell out of Le Grande, because this is what you wanted, though it isn’t what you planned. And you’re not dying; your soul just can’t keep up with the van.”

As in 2008’s Caffeine, Alcohol, Sunshine, Money, Jared Mees and the Grown Children tend to mix up the good with the bad, blending and blurring the circumstances of their songs to the point where sad sentiments are mated with happy melodies as if it were the most natural combination in the world. Just listen to the childhood vignettes in “Billy Bird”, its punchy bass riffs, jangling guitar, and snappy percussion following Mees from a makeshift funeral for a fallen fledgling to his eventual setting off for college, as seen through the eyes of his younger brother. Yet even the brightness of Madrigal’s trumpet and the lightness of Spears’ backing lilts cannot wholly disguise the sharp twinge of nostalgia—quite literally, the ache of returning home—in Mees’s voice as he pores over those oddly entangled memories of death and departure and their prefiguring of the unexpected (and often painful) complications of adult life.

Speaking of which, “Inaudible Song II” wraps its head-bobbing rhythms, burbling bass, buzzing guitar, and celebratory horns around the (somewhat indirectly conveyed) story of a widower who decides to remarry shortly after his wife’s passing. Mees imbues the narrator with a wholly believable guilt over this nascent romance, a groove-worthy backbeat built from rattling snare and burbling bass playing as he begs his still-grieving son for understanding and sympathy:

“You know how hard it’s been, because you were there at the end. But you say ‘go on living’. But I’m tired of living if I’m gonna be living alone, and I can only keep this up for so long.”

Playing a bit like a 1950’s doo-wop ballad, “Tiny Toy Piano” dwells a little while longer on the intertwining themes of love and loss, this time highlighting the youthful endearments and heartfelt goodbyes that bookend a lifelong romance:

“For fifty years, I fell further every foot. For fifty years, falling never felt so good. My grandma followed my grandpa like my mother did my dad, and soon I came to realize that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. So please, don’t be sorry, it’s a natural thing, no worse. I knew we both had to go, I just thought I would be first.”

It is a touch maudlin, to be sure, but, even in the face of death, there is an undeniable sweetness to the idea of having shared one’s life with the person one loves.

Following a brief pastoral-choral interlude with “Inaudible Song I” (which almost sounds like a nod to Tender Loving Empire label-mates Loch Lomond), “Even Little Mountains” proffers a brighter nugget of romantic-escapist pop-rock to ward away the dourer doings of its precedents. Then “Juicy Fruit” rolls in with its rather more mellow adaptation of Caffeine, Alcohol, Sunshine, Money’s erstwhile country-fried (and not altogether hopeful) romper-strummer “Oh No Oh My God”.

Next up, Jared Mees and the Grown Children rev up the rock with a modern take on the age-old murder ballad. Featuring twang-and-buzzing guitars, eerie organ, skin-centric percussion, and back-and-forth snarls from Mees and Spears (plus rousing chorals), “Graverobbers” recounts the tragic tale of a dastardly, double-crossing pair of post-interment thieves. Though it is a bit of an odd duck when set against the overarching theme of the Only Good Thoughts Can Stay, the crowd-friendly quasi-chorus and raucous riffs are sure to make “Graverobbers” a guaranteed hit during live performances.

Rounding out the album with echoing slide guitar, twinkling piano, bright acoustic and electric riffs, potent percussion, rumbling bass, blaring trumpet, taught strings, and all-together-now da-da-da’s, “Shake” helps Jared Mees and the Grown Children go out with an emphatic, celebratory bang. “I am trying to burn down this lonely forest with a single chorus sung in a minor key”, admits Mees, “and I am trying to love what I have to leave, and I’m trying not to grieve prematurely.”

After all, as Mees himself avers: “Only good thoughts can stay. Only good thoughts can stay.”

Released on May 10, 2011, Jared Mees and the Grown Children’s Only Good Thoughts Can Stay can be purchased in CD format at the Tender Loving Empire online store or digitally via iTunes.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (June 14th, 2011)

Tags: audio, reviews, jared mees and the grown children, only good thoughts can stay, tender loving empire, 2011