Review: Guster, Ganging Up on the Sun

One reason Guster is such an important band is that they can be positive without being trite. They don’t offer simple solutions, just a dose of empathy, a kick in the seat to get you going and a barrage of bongos and congas to emphasize the point.

Like Indigo Girls before them, they’ve grown more sophisticated over the years, both musically and lyrically. (Quick aside to Rhapsody: Indigo Girls is a much, much better “similar artist” for Guster than what you have listed. Matchbox 20? Are you kidding? This is music for smart college kids and those of us who used to be smart college kids, not teenage girls smitten with Rob Thomas.)

That growth can be dangerous, as Indigo Girls discovered. After spending the ’90s mastering a terrific fusion of folk-rock and prog-rock, they turned a little too country for my tastes, and the lyrics were too straightforward and strident. (That said, Tether is a terrific, uplifting anthem that builds to some guitar work that qualifies as both searing and soaring.)

Guster skirts on the edge in Ganging Up on the Sun. If you glance at the lyric sheet, you might think they’ve joined the rest of their genre in self-pity and hopelessness. On Empire State, in which Ryan Miller broods over some barely audible accompaniment, they do. And Hang On, the last song in the running order, dips a little too close to cliche, as you can guess from the title.

Thankfully, those are the worst two songs on the album. On the rest, they tackle their topics with a mix of poignant metaphor and gallows humor, set against a backdrop of shifting musical styles that offers plenty of changeups. As with the predecessor Keep It Together, it’s hard to hear some of the songs and not think “9/11” or possibly “global warming” or just, in the second line of Manifest Destiny, “how did everything get so fucked up?” But they generally leave just enough ambiguity that the words can be addressed to a politician, a friend, a significant other or anyone.

Manifest Destiny is the most accessible track, not just because of that ear-grabbing f-bomb in the second line. I’ve seen a review referring to this one as Beatlesque, but I’ll be more specific — it’s straight from the Paul McCartney songbook in musical style, with a cabaret-style piano. Lyrically, it’s a nice tale of escape, harkening back several albums to, appropriately enough, Great Escape. (“You and I could split this scene / Build a town and then secede / like an Adam and an Eve”)

In the same vein is the album’s other playful song, The Captain, which reminds me of the great scene in the BBC adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which Ford and Zaphod, thinking they’re doomed, are singing the Betelgeuse Death Anthem. (To my astonishment, I found that most references to this song online are indeed “Betelgeuse Death Anthem” — I can’t believe I remembered the name.) “Marching forward with no doubt in his head / Onward,” chants Ryan and company over a banjo and country backbeat, as if we’re going to have a righteous hoedown while the “captain” leads us wherever — maybe oblivion, but let’s just keep on dancing.

One Man Wrecking Machine is a good choice as the album’s first single (and video) because it has a catchy chorus that burns itself into your head without that grating sensation of most pop songs. It’s a sort of twist on the Guster classic What You Wish For, with the final chorus slightly more positive than the last. The first two verses are a wish to go back and re-script high school, maybe to get on a firmer footing after that. By the end, we’ve realized that’s a useless wish.

At first glance, I thought the lyrics were a little too close to sheer self-pity. But on a couple of listens, it sounds more like a common Guster theme — feeling your pain while encouraging you to do something other than wallowing in it. Sure, we all dream of going back to high school and being smarter, more popular, more athletic, etc. But if you could build a time machine, what would you solve? What difference would it make?

There are a couple of louder, uptempo songs. C’mon is a more overt sequel to Great Escape, perhaps too much of a repeat for my tastes. The New Underground is along the lines of the great Smashing Pumpkins genre-bashing Cherub Rock … IF it’s about the music industry, which can’t be assumed.

And there are a couple of more subdued, minor-key songs. Lightning Rod is another one of those post-9/11, pre-ice cap melting songs that sound vaguely ominous, but Ryan manages to convey a sense of resilience which, again, a lesser band wouldn’t manage. Satellite is faster, borrowing the mood and maybe a hook or two from The Church’s Reptile (Yes, I felt vindicated in thinking this when the Gusterography site quoted Brian Rosenworcel’s description: “It’s more of a Fleetwood Mac meets The Church kind of thing”). I like the song but don’t know quite what to make of the lyrics, and I’m not alone.

That leads us to the centerpiece of this album — the epic (running time: 7:06) Ruby Falls. It’s an unusual Guster song for so many reasons. First, it covers a lot of musical territory — almost a ’70s feel at times, then some shrieking guitar, then a long, shimmering fadeout punctuated by a trumpet solo, so indispensible in the arrangement that Adam Gardner seems to have learned the trumpet just so he could play it live. Second, the chord changes are just crazy — a tab I read lists the verse as F, Dm, A (no, not Am!), Bb, F, Eb, Bb, then the chorus is Dm, Emsus4 (OH, I love this chord in this chorus), Bb, F.

Third, the lyrics — Rosenworcel’s — could refer to almost anything you like. A broken relationship? Again, the state of the world? Getting lost in the woods, looking for a waterfall? Here’s Ryan in an engaging interview: “The song probably means something totally different to (Brian) than it does to me, and I’m the one singing it.”

It’s just brilliant. The only band I can name that could’ve written and recorded something like this is Yes, and Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman would’ve tacked on some 800-note solos to stretch it to 20 minutes. The only showy bits in this song are some thunderous fills from Rosenworcel, perhaps proving the former hand-drum king can also find his way around a kit. (Or maybe he actually did it all on hand drums just to fool you — there are a handful of songs that sound like a kit on first listen but probably aren’t, and he spent a lot of time in the bongos-and-congas area when I saw them live a few weeks ago.)

I’ve seen some valid criticism of this album, and I can imagine some others. There’s nothing as catchy and fun as some of the early Guster works, and some people miss the old sound. Rebuttal: Within the confines of the old two-guitars-and-hand-drums sound, they probably could never top Lost and Gone Forever, and you can rest assured they’ll be playing those songs live until Brian’s hands can no longer take it. Today’s Guster can bounce around through several musical styles and still have it sound like Guster. That’s the sign of a mature band.

Yet I’ll agree with this reviewer that we don’t hear enough of Adam’s vocals, and that Ryan’s voice wears thin as you hit the seventh or eighth song. Guster built itself up with two good singers, not one great one, and they made it work. It strikes me a mistake to drop to one at this point.

I generally don’t do “star” rankings. I’ll summarize this way:

  • Interesting, worth at least a listen? Definitely
  • At least three iPod-worthy songs? I have six — Lightning Rod, Satellite, Manifest Destiny, One Man Wrecking Machine, The Captain and Ruby Falls.
  • Fun as well as artistically satisfying? More the latter than the former, but certainly entertaining
  • Best album to get if I’m a first-time Guster listener? No — get Lost and Gone Forever, then download Amsterdam and Come Downstairs and Say Hello, then get this one. If you want more of the old Guster sound, try Demons and Great Escape.

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