I Can Make a Mess
From: Hammonton, New Jersey. I don’t know about you, but when the weather gets hot, I eat local blueberries every day. As I travel around this land, I sample the competition, and I say with 100 per cent confidence that while South Carolina may have the peach-edge, and California might beat our strawberries by a nose, there is nothing like a Jersey blueberry. I believe it has something to do with the loaminess of our soil, or the marsh grass, or the nuclear power plants. Look, I’m not a botanist. All I know is that if you’ve got a supreme package of blueberries on your table — berries from Blue Buck, for instance — that fruit was grown and packaged in Hammonton. Ace Enders doesn’t mention blueberries in his lyrics; like the apocryphal Maine fishermen who throw lobster meat to the hounds, he might be sick to death of the local bumper crop. In the finale to the three-disc The Mother, the Mechanic, and the Path, he describes Hammonton as a “small suburb town, 40 miles from the city (Philly, not New York), a quiet place but people have the biggest mouths.” The deepest part of the Pine Barrens are directly north, the Mullica River swamps are to the east, Vineland is about 10 minutes south, and sophistication requires a trek to the west. Hammonton is agricultural, middle-class, fairly socially conservative — a genuine garden corner of the Garden State.
Format: Eleven-song LP, released independently on the ‘net with very little fanfare. Enders won’t jump up and down to call attention to his projects — he’s too modest for that. He excels at making records. He’s not always terrific at promoting them. This set was released in October, but it took Enders awhile to get it available on iTunes and streaming services. For now, Growing In is digital-only, and the best place to hear it is probably the I Can Make a Mess bandcamp page.
Genre: Somewhere between Rites of Spring and the Hotelier, emo stopped being a descriptor of music and became a class/geographical marker instead. Bands from the big city and the college towns don’t often get called emo, and hip musicians lucky enough to be operating with trust funds almost never do. But if a young rocker is white, and working-class, and suburban, and earnest, and maybe a bit uncool, he’d better brace himself for the emo handle. Enders was dubbed emo from the beginning of his run, and I doubt he’d fight you very much if you classified him that way; it didn’t kill him, and it didn’t make him stronger, either. But “emo” tells you more about who Ace’s friends are — and the socioeconomic conditions of his upbringing — than it does about the music he makes. This reminds me of the other half of his description of Hammonton: he called it “the kind of place where people care more about your stories than who you actually are.” And what is Enders, actually? Well, he’s a rock singer-songwriter in the classic ’70s style, writing personal-confessional stories about his life and matching them to music that suits the mood he’s interested in generating. Like most modern rockers, he’s got a soft spot for Weezer. That’s apparent on his new album, even if some of the rhythm guitar on it feels less Blue Album than Welcome Interstate Managers-era Fountains of Wayne.
Arrangements and sound: Because he is a supremely self-deprecating fellow, Enders would resist calling himself protean, even though he’s proven that he’s good (and getting better) at everything he tries. He has been home-recording for many years, and occasionally producing records for other artists — he recently helmed the sessions for Dan “Soupy” Campbell’s side project Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties — and each release sounds crisper and fuller than the last. As is nearly always true with modern rock records, there’s way too much midrange electric guitar here. But if you’re going to strum away — and there’s no stopping Ace — you may as well make the six-string sound like the clanging of the bells of fate.
What’s this record about? The official word is that Growing In was made quickly, and that the lyrics were essentially freestyled while Enders was composing the songs. Normally I would call hooey on this, but there are reasons to believe that Enders is sincere. For starters, Growing In does not feel quite as tightly plotted as some of his other projects, and while his search for the mot juste has never exactly been scrupulous, his diction and delivery are more casual here than they’ve ever been before. I don’t think for a second that he didn’t go back and edit what he’d written for the sake of clarity, but if Ace says he made up most of this on the spot, I’d wager he made up most of this on the spot. For finishers, the lyrics on Growing In are a succinct — and never overworked — summary of the same major themes Enders has been riding since the first Early November album. All of his narrators are looking to overcome their own frailties and shortcomings and the dehumanizing effects of capitalism and grow into honorable men. And an honorable man, according to Enders, is one who is devoted to his family, who takes his responsibilities to his community seriously, and who treats industriousness as the wellspring of creativity, rather than the other way around. “I’ve got to stop throwing my time away,” he hollers on “Undecided,” a pep talk to self that would have made Cotton Mather smile (if he liked the colonial equivalent of punk rock, which is doubtful). “I Love My Wife,” a fidelity anthem, demonstrates that Ace can be at least as uxorious as Max Bemis is; “Deciduous” is, in part, an apology in advance to his children for his obsessive dedication to his craft. “I’m a 30-something musician having a problem of never-ending wishing,” he confesses, “but I hope one day my kids think I’m cool.” If all this sounds like Ace has a priest on his tail … well, there’s never been any explicit declaration of Christian faith in his lyrics, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an American songwriter in better touch with human corruptibility, or whose understanding of his own weaknesses is any more damning. Enders even appends a parenthetical “Sarcasm” to the title of “I’m the Man,” just so we know that he’s aware of the sinful misapplications of swagger. We know it’s sarcasm, Ace. We hear you. You’re telling us in verse that you prefer the spinach dip at Applebee’s to the bottles of hooch. This old teetotaler appreciates your honesty, and your willingness to be square, too.
The singer: As befits a grown man called Ace (his real name is Arthur), Enders sounds perpetually youthful, urgent and yearning, pristine even when he’s shouting his head off. This lets him get away with the kind of eruptions of idealism on the microphone that went out of style, oh, around about the time of Altamont. But a worked-up Ace is a great Ace, so here’s hoping he never embraces adulthood. Enola, last year’s sunny, washed-out I Can Make a Mess album, suggested that Enders was mellowing a bit, so it’s nice to hear him roaring back with all obstructive reverb scorched away. “Get Normal” is an exhibition of his versatility, and a good example of how much territory he can cover in 3½ minutes: there are those long, pure, held high notes that vault from the mixes and hang overhead like jet trails, conversational stretches where Ace’s mouth just barely keeps pace with his mind, face-scrunched cathartic screaming, and passages that are downright pretty. It’s telling that Ace’s “sarcasm” voice on “I’m the Man (Sarcasm)” isn’t all that different from his double-fist-pump wail on “Keep Moving.” He attempts to sing with a smirk. He can’t quite do it. Maybe that’s what emo means.
The music: To get into the history a little bit, I Can Make a Mess was originally designed as an outlet for Enders’ more sensitive material. Early Early November played it pretty rough, and the group’s palette was, initially at least, too limited to accommodate the ever-changing moods of Ace Enders. Back then, the side project was called I Can Make A Mess Like Nobody’s Business, and Enders shot for the seamless quality I associate with ’70s singers like Van Morrison and John Martyn who are determined to lure their listeners into a trance. The first ICMAMLNB album features among its tracks a little musique concrete, four sketchlike songs without names, and two others with handles long enough to satisfy Fiona Apple. But on that triple-disc set, the Early November blew open its sound wide enough to fit acoustic pop and a radio play, which made the distinctions between Enders’ main gig and his sideline tougher to define. For awhile, it seemed like I Can Make a Mess was where Enders played around with synths, loops and machine beats; this seemed particularly true when The Early November returned from a hiatus with a roar. Enola was an exercise in summer-holiday electropop not too far removed from what Enders’ pal Kenny Vasoli does in Vacationer, and it seemed to point the way forward for I Can Make a Mess. But it lacked Vasoli’s sense of tropical ease, and Enders might have realized that he’s more of a frantic cold-weather howler anyway. Growing In, then, is an about-face and a total redefinition of what I Can Make a Mess is: Enders has put the synthesizers back in the closet and cut the most straightforward guitar-rock set in his catalog. Most songs feature drums and bass, a couple of overlapping six-string tracks, Enders’ voice, and that’s about it. Everything is hit hard, but never with any malice — the governing principles here are speed and energy. The guitar chugs are firm and good-natured, like a handshake sealing a deal; the leads are discharged with the anticipatory zeal of a hungry man cutting into dinner; the drums are like a gavel pronouncing everybody not guilty. The exception, and overture to I Can Make A Mess as it used to be, is the acoustic “Back Whoas of Lavish Glass,” a three-minute auto-lullaby smack in the middle of the album that gives Ace an opportunity to settle his nerves before careening toward the finish line.
The songs: For a guy who has tried his hand at many different styles of pop-rock, Enders has never been experimental for its own sake. He also isn’t afraid to toss verse-chorus-verse convention in the trash can if the mood to wander strikes him. He’ll take his time getting to a chorus, or refuse to write a chorus at all, or save the catchiest bit of a song for the outro. Conversely, he can be an expert handler of earworms. I Can Make a Mess has often been the repository of Enders’ loosest songs, so the attempt at automatic writing on Growing In might lead a longtime fan to assume that he’s taking some liberties with form this time out. Only it’s not as indisciplined as all that: about half of these songs have instantly memorable choruses, and the other half build to something hummable. On some tracks, Enders extends a now-familiar technique of his: here he doesn’t move to the tonic chord until a measure or two after a conventional songwriter would. Melodic resolution comes, but only after a delay. It’s not confusing, and it doesn’t destabilize the listener, but it does create a moment of weightlessness. It helps underscore the theme — everything is under construction, the folded edges don’t line up exactly right, and that’s exactly how Ace wants it.
What else connects this album to the artist’s prior work? The Early November triple album is the deepest and richest record in the Enders discography, and the rainy-day reverie The World We Know, the second I Can Make a Mess set, is probably his most realized project. Growing In isn’t as good as either of those. But on all the big releases, spinoffs, side projects, free internet giveaways, and lost albums in Enders’ sprawling catalog, I don’t think he’s ever sounded like he’s having half as much fun as he’s having here. Though it isn’t accurate to call him uptight, Ace sure as heck isn’t the most relaxed man in modern rock. Incidentally, the album on which he sounds like he’s having the least amount of fun is not all that dissimilar to Growing In. In between the reformation of The Early November and the I Can Make a Mess reboot, Ace made a wild stab at mainstream acceptance with a pickup band he called A Million Different People. When I Hit the Ground is a disciplined, streamlined guitar-rock record with great big choruses and looser, more generalizing lyrics than Enders usually writes. It’s a very good album, although many of his fans consider it overproduced, and for all I know, Ace feels the same way. It was definitely a detour into compromised territory that Enders doesn’t usually cover — for instance, there’s a wet kiss to Barack Obama on there. C’mon, it was 2008; all the kids were doing it. Anyway, if you took When I Hit the Ground, added some fabric softener, and ran it through the wash 10 or 12 times until it was supple and broken in and pleasantly shrunken, you might end up with something as comfortable, and plush, and free of static cling as the new set.
What’s not so good? I could sit here and pick nits. There are mistakes here and there — a few missed notes, a couple of false starts. The drummer drops the occasional stitch. Some of the verses don’t rhyme, or scan particularly well. Yet on a record where the watchword is spontaneity, it’s never much of a problem. All of the usual caveats that surround emo music apply here: Ace does tend to get overwrought about relatively mundane stuff, and his songs elevate his experience to the level of high drama. Somebody who isn’t quite paying attention might receive this as straight-up presumption. If they wanted to be really uncharitable, they could say something about the theatrics of white male entitlement. The open secret of emo, though, is that none of these guys feel particularly comfortable with the patriarchy — or their authorial voices. Pop-rock singers who work in this style are groping toward a form of self-expression that doesn’t feel boastful, or clangorous, or coercive. In Ace’s case, this is complicated by his deep desire to be a good person, and his working-class stoicism, too. He’s not going to tell you that he’s one of the best rock songwriters in New Jersey. Me, I’m happy to do it for him.
Recommended? Enthusiastically, pal.