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How Do We Explode
by Gary B & the Notions
Modern Hymnal (2012)
How Do We Explode
Popular music, like fashion, is cyclical. Trends change and shift with the seasons, hipness ebbs and flows with the give-or-take regularity of the tides, and once-prominent styles disappear for years only to reemerge with the sudden, swarming omnipresence of the seven-year cicadas.

Or something like that. I dunno; it’s not an exact science, and I’m not exactly a scientist.

Notwithstanding, trends in popular music seem to work on a twenty- to thirty-year cycle—roughly the amount of time that it takes for children to grow up and begin making music of their own, often by imitating and experimenting with the sonic forms which they absorbed from their parents’ record collections. Alternatively, it’s the amount of time it takes for an overdone genre to fade from public view to the point where it can seem hip in a retro sort of way, oft-times courtesy of a quasi-ironic and/or diehard niche audience, and thereby backdoor its way into the mainstream for another chance at the top of the pops. Just don’t call it a comeback—isn’t that right, soul-infused synth-pop à la Hall & Oates?

That’s simply how the creative process works: present innovators look to the past to determine what they want their future to be, borrowing and adapting from previously-established styles at will. It’s less a matter of shameless repetition than of gradual evolution, of nipping and tucking and cutting and stitching, of repurposing dead stock, tweaking dated patterns, and experimenting with modern methods and materials in order to transform the same-old, same-old into something fresh and interesting, if not necessarily 100% “new” or “novel”.

Which is all well and good for the neophytes, but the fact remains that, the older one gets, the harder it becomes to accept any given “new” work at face value. Once one hits the downhill slope to the big three-oh, the “Oh! What’s that?” first-blush infatuation of youth slowly but surely fades into the shrugging “meh” of meta-contextualized past and personal experiences. The source materials stand out far more than the expertly-sewn seams and well-worked details, and value is assigned less according to the overall quality of the finished product than to the altogether vague concept of its “originality”—as if any creative enterprise has ever existed wholly apart from its predecessors.

Hardly.

I mean, let’s face it: outside of screening for blatant plagiarism, originality is a pretty bullshit metric. We all stand on the shoulders of a whole cumulative mess of giants, who likewise stand on the shoulders of other giants, and so on and so forth. Hell, it’s giants all the way down! We learn by imitating, and we innovate by increments. “Everything is a remix” and all that jazz, yeah?


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Forgive the digression, but I open with this roundabout apology for the reflexively referential nature of popular music—and of creativity in general—with good reason. That reason being a sort of caveat emptor to the work of Baltimore-based quartet Gary B & the Notions.

Simply put: I have definitely heard this before.

Less simply put: Considering the boisterously upbeat power-trio +1 pop-rock set-up, the angular guitar heroics and blues-y riffs, the drawling punker croon-shouting and rhythmic change-ups, and the slice-of-life commentaries and getting-by balladeering, it’s safe to say that Gary B & the Notions utilize a classic blend of pop-rock staples, the heritage of which is both readily apparent and blatantly referenced. It’s like a well-worn hat, dusted off and gussied up with a bright new band, donned at a jaunty angle and with nary a hint of irony. Think Elvis Costello, Big Star, the Cars, Sonic Youth, Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana, Nothing Painted Blue, even latter-day acts like Elliott Smith and Ted Leo: the selfsame sort of avant-friendly alternative-rock that has occupied a rather comfortable niche in collegiate radio programming since the 1980’s.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Given my druthers, well-turned-out nostalgia bests for-its-own-sake experimentalism any day of the week. And, much to their credit, Gary B & the Notions’ latest offering, How Do We Explode, is nothing if not a pleasant return to a well-made sound.

Recorded at Boston’s Esthudio with Jeremy Mendocino of Pretty & Nice manning the helm, How Do We Explode keeps its dual guitars a-blaring and its rhythm section low and punchy. Liars Academy alumnus Bryan Elliott blends his ringing six-string riffs with those of frontman Gary Lee Barrett, Jr., while bassist Kristopher Heath and drummer Rick Bowman (who doubles as the frontman of The Frauds) rumble and crash in the low end, leaving Gary B’s gruff-and-tumble bar-band vocals situated in that somewhat fuzzy sweet spot between bleeding lo-fi rawness and done-to-death studio-scrubbed flawlessness. Neither too rare nor too crisp, opening duo “The Shape of Distant Worlds” and “The Surfin’ Song” set things off with sharp guitar riffs and propulsive percussion, their warm-and-hazy brume dampening the mix for a pleasantly tube-y vibe. The tunes may be freshly-minted, but they sound like they are coming from a well-loved LP that has seen its fair share of turns on the ol’ table, an aesthetic touch that only deepens the resonance between Gary B & the Notions and their forebears.

Moving on from moving-out metaphors and lovelorn beachside bumming, “How to Eat a Brick Sandwich” slows things down with dead-time reveries and disillusioned allusions to Hollywood movies, dime store deals, and lackluster radio fare. It’s a sharp little tune, yet it never quite establishes a solid sense of place or a coherent narrative. Likewise, “Lyndsy Fonseca” proffers a rambling ode to the song’s titular actress, but it doesn’t nail the audition hard enough to land the lead, let alone earn a cursory callback for a secondary role. Personally, I blame the lackluster script—Gary B & the Notions may have no shortage of chops when it comes to crafting high-quality pop-rock riffs and rhythms, but their ho-hum lyric poetry could do with a bit of workshopping.

While a relative lack of depth is somewhat expected in pop-rock’s musical vignettes, Gary B & the Notion’s lyrical inconsistency is a troublingly consistent problem. “Back Pain Lozenge”, for one, is a kick-ass blues-rocker built on balls-out riffage and howling sing-shouts, but its overly vague metaphors can’t make good on the song’s abundant musical promise. The rhymes feel disjointed and unintentionally opaque—there’s a rip-roaring street-level anthem for the working man tucked away in here somewhere, but Gary B & the Notions just can’t seem to bring it to the fore. Instead, they leave the listener with quasi-religious, could-mean-anything couplets like

“We could calculate my assets for our trial / we could tell you the places not to hide / a catastrophic weight, I add it to the crutch / when you’re called upon by the chosen one, know the back pain’s way too much.”

Although those loaded lines might read (and rock) well in and of themselves, there’s no clear-cut connection or artful thematic progression from one verse to the next, leaving the listener scratching his or her head when s/he should be rocking out and singing along.

Then there’s “Too Busy for an Ambulance Ride”, which blends its Exodus-extracted metaphors of expulsion, transience, and hard-scrabble existence into a palatable paste but neglects to add a sense of purpose to the mixture. Sure, it tastes great—the guitars flare and shimmer, the drums pulse, the bass thunders, and Gary B belts his lines with no small amount of gusto—at least until one tries to parse through the pureed Pentateuch poetics in hopes of finding, perhaps, a bit of nutritive substance. Or for a verse that could tie the whole thing back into the rather cryptic (or simply ill-chosen) title. No luck there.

Sadly, such glaring lyrical hiccups taint their otherwise excellent songs with a thousand tiny gaffes, especially when one considers the otherwise-memorable musicianship behind it all. Just so: “It Could Be” boasts an exceptionally solid melodic foundation—dig that intro!—with great amenities like a thrilling harmony in the chorus, but the throwaway verses simply aren’t built to code. Ditto how the cut-and-paste imagery of “Guns That Tore It Apart” works against its truly excellent pop-rock riffage. “How could you write that song?” indeed.

Granted, it’s not all bargain basement metaphor mixing and frustratingly ambiguous poetry, especially at the tail end of the album. The addiction-centric “Street Drugs” is one of the most focused and cohesive tracks on How Do We Explode, its gritty and abrasive instrumentation fully supporting the song’s clearly-established themes of self-destruction and substance abuse.

Rounding out the album, “Get Your Hands Off My Man” wraps its sharp licks and head-bobbing rhythms around a seemingly autobiographical laundry list of day-to-day dissatisfactions and wished-for creature comforts. In both tune and tone, the song works, and works damnably well.

Ironically, the last two tracks on How Do We Explode are such genuinely great examples of how to successfully pair lyrical content with musical context that they leave me wondering why the rest of the album is so slipshod by comparison.

Which is not to say that Gary B & the Notion’s How Do We Explode is by any means bad; it’s still quite good, particularly the solid (and somewhat reminiscent) pop-rock musicianship behind it all.

Still… it could be better.


Set to be released on May 8, 2012 by Modern Hymnal, Gary B & the Notions’ How Do We Explode can be previewed and pre-ordered (in both physical and digital formats) via Bandcamp.

Tour dates as follows:

4/21 @ Brighton Bar – Long Branch, NJ
4/22 @ What We Talk About – Allston, MA
4/24 @ Fat Baby – Manhattan, NY
4/25 @ The Rock Shop – Brooklyn, NY
4/26 @ Blue Moon Saloon – Shepherdstown, WV
4/27 @ Metropolitan Lounge – Annapolis, MD
4/28 @ Catacombs – Richmond, VA
4/29 @ The Cave – Chapel Hill, NC
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (April 16th, 2012)

Tags: beatbots, audio, reviews, gary b, gary b & the notions, modern hymnal, how do we explode, 2012


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