Cymbals Eat Guitars
From: Ocean County. Sort of. Frontman Joe D’Agostino grew up by Barnegat Bay, but moved to Staten Island with his family before his first blush of rock ‘n’ roll notoriety. Cymbals Eat Guitars has been a respected act since the starter’s pistol, and New York and New Jersey have both claimed D’Agostino as a favorite son. The band’s third long-player isn’t going to lose him any stature on either side of the Hudson, but it does clarify something for all his metropolitan-area fans: the Garden State has the major purchase on his imagination. D’Agostino does mention Staten Island on LOSE— he takes a trip to Stapleton, cradle of the Wu-Tang Clan, to score drugs — but makes it clear that he feels like an outsider there. The rest of the album is heavy with Jersey place names and cultural references: Manalapan, Caldwell, Cape May, Pinelands High School, Wells Mills Road through the Pine Barrens, the Vintage Vinyl record store, the Wrens. “Jackson” recounts a trip to great adventure that’s no thrill ride. Above all things, Jersey writers love to write about Jersey, and by this sign shall ye know them. So while the national press may well continue to refer to Cymbals Eat Guitars as a New York band, D’Agostino is, like Brian Sella, William Carlos Williams and the Cake Boss, a Jersey voice.
Format: Full-length album — nine songs, three-quarters of an hour. Forty-five divided by nine does not exactly equal Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but D’Agostino does love to stretch out. Several of these songs wail way past the six-minute mark, including “Laramie,” which is the track most likely to be called an epic. Not saying I’m calling it that; I wouldn’t do that to them. I don’t even know them.
Genre: Guitar rock. Any other designation is just splitting hairs.
Arrangements and sound: LOSE was produced by John Agnello, who is not to be confused with Ron Aniello, even though they’ve both been employed by Bruce Springsteen. Aniello is responsible for Wrecking Ball, et. al., while Agnello pushes the faders for rock acts of a slightly lower profile. To make things more confusing, it was Agnello who helped the guys in the Hold Steady realize their Springsteen dreams on Boys and Girls in America. That’s instructive here, even though Cymbals Eat Guitars isn’t that much like the Hold Steady. Craig Finn is effortlessly funny, while D’Agostino *can* be funny but generally chooses not to be; the Hold Steady pointedly behave like the new wave never happened, while Cymbals Eat Guitars bounced out of the same vending machine that gave us Japandroids and the Cloud Nothings. What D’Agostino shares with Finn is a commitment to modern urban storytelling, and even though LOSE is burdened with the muscular-murky, midrange-heavy arrangements and EQ-ing that makes modern rock sound gray when compared to pop and hip-hop, Agnello rarely lets the band’s roar render D’Agostino’s verses unintelligible. Just like every other rock album of recent vintage, LOSE could have used more low-end thump and high-end sizzle. But Agnello understood what job No. 1 was.
What’s this record about? Last year, Agnello produced another album by a storytelling outfit: Okkervil River’s The Silver Gymnasium. Okkervil had signed to ATO Records — the Dave Matthews label — and adjusted its sound accordingly. Superficially, there’s not much similarity between Silver Gymnasium, with its deliberate nods to Tom Petty and Bob Seger, and the stormy LOSE. Yet the two albums have some striking similarities. Will Sheff spends much of Silver Gymnasium building and stripping down the myth of a dead childhood friend, and uses the enchanted landscape of his old New Hampshire hometown to examine how memory operates and malfunctions. Because he’s such a deliberate weaver of words, it never seems like Sheff’s wounds are bleeding; instead, he spends 50 minutes artfully itching at scabs. (Also, there’s that New England Puritan thing that prevents Yankees from getting too effusive.) D’Agostino won’t allow himself that luxury. He’s haunted by the loss of a friend and collaborator, and chased around the coastal plain by a ghost he cannot bring himself to exorcise — and not merely for sentimental reasons. Much of LOSE is told in flashbacks, but the story begins in the present with an uncomfortable trip to Six Flags with a former girlfriend of “the sainted dead”; though he tries to tell himself, in a characteristically vibrant image, that “he ain’t nothing but a prayer card/tacked up with my record jackets,” he doesn’t believe it, and the language he uses to describe the evening is that of a car crash. On “XR,” he compares the memory of his friend to tinnitus — a constant, maddening buzz that he clings to like a keepsake. “Laramie” is a reminiscent of a ride in a snowstorm with available heat dwindling inside the car and the light outside fading to spectral white; “Place Names” inverts that and asks why every story ends with a cut to black. After establishing that the loss of his friend has knocked D’Agostino’s narrator off his axis, he begins mapping the contours of his obsession onto other relationships: an earlier childhood acquaintance who disappears into brutality and crack addiction, an aging dog with cataracts, stoned classmates facing their inevitable dates with adulthood without confidence or joy. Like many of the new wave of Ocean County writers, D’Agostino uses the Pine Barrens to evoke the liminal space between the rational, freeze-dried grown-up world and the land of dreams. The Jersey pine forest is a repository for weird tales, but few get any darker than “2 Hip Soul,” in which a disturbed boy clubs ostriches at a zoo in the deep woods. These characters come from a land of material comfort, but there are monsters in the trees and demons in the alleys between suburban tracts. The characters are stumbling ashore after the long idle swim of childhood with bodies bruised, and with little hope of making it out of the scorching sun.
The singer: Doing his best. D’Agostino can be shrill, and when the band plays rough, he often adopts a Patrick Stickles-style bark that advances the anomie more reliably than the storytelling. But D’Agostino’s true guiding light on the mic is Charles Bissell of the Wrens — he even says so in a “Laramie” namecheck! — and he spends much of LOSE sending kisses (or trying to, anyway). If he can’t get his voice to break as convincingly and conspiratorially as Bissell does on The Meadowlands, he still recognizes that it takes a zero-to-60 dynamic performance to squeeze the maximum amount of drama out of his verses. So he pushes himself. He rarely begins with a roar — instead, he’ll give himself ample time to build to one. A slickster singing pro would probably tell him to rein it in, but the escalation works more often than it doesn’t, and I doubt you’ll be sick of his yelp by the end of the album.
The musicians: There’s a synth player in this band, but unless you’re in the midst of one of the few tender moments, you may have to rummage around to find him. Brian Hamilton is responsible for the poised piano intro to “Jackson” and the unfocused tinkling on “Child Bride” (which incorporates a string section), and likely for the Flaming Lips-like portamento figure that introduces “Laramie” and the Pink Floyd organ that decorates “2 Hip Soul” like a velvet drape. Too often, the band leaves him in the dust or drowns him out when the songs become intense. Bassist Matt Whipple and drummer Andrew Dole don’t tend to get too fancy — even during the not-insubstantial instrumental freakouts on the longer songs, they tend to keep their filling to a tasteful minimum. That leaves lots of room for D’Agostino’s guitar, and like Pollock, he sure does splatter himself across the canvas. “Laramie” concludes with a thunderhead of feedback and whammy pedal, effected six-string batters the windows of “2 Hip” like sleet, and things really get carried away on “Place Names,” which concludes with two minutes of unadulterated squeal and fuzz sweetened only by backing vocals. It generates excitement. It sounds cool. Some vintage wiseguys might even call it psychedelic. Yet D’Agostino is too good a writer — and his band is too respectful of his writing — for Cymbals Eat Guitars to privilege rave-ups over storytelling. Most groups that jam do so because they can’t write an affecting stanza. That’s not a problem for D’Agostino. The anxiety inherent in the band name notwithstanding, Cymbals Eat Guitars can afford to let that six-string do a little less talking.
The songs: The longer pieces build to climaxes, and sometimes arrive there more circuitously than the band’s songwriting models (mostly the Wrens) ever do. This isn’t a problem: D’Agostino’s writing almost demands digressive passages, and the composition never drifts into indiscipline or cliché. The members of Cymbals Eat Guitars also demonstrate that they can construct tight pop-rock songs: “Chambers,” which does sound like Okkervil River, is probably the most direct and catchy, and “XR,” which comes complete with wonderfully obnoxious harmonica, is the most abrasive and exuberant. As you’d expect from such a heady album, LOSE is shrewdly sequenced — “Child Bride,” the ballad, splits up “Place Names” and the multi-part “Laramie,” which stuffs several movements into its eight minutes. Both opener “Jackson” and closer “2 Hip Soul” make good use of 6/8 time, too. That might strike some as excessively dramatic and maybe cutely circular to boot. Then again, this is not designed to get you to check out or cut a rug. You’re supposed to listen to this album from beginning to end, notice the recurring elements — even the ones that crop up accidentally — and surrender to the mood.
What differentiates this record from others like it? A standard pop-rock song does not often inscribe a memorable image on the mind of the listener. Rock demands economy: writers are only going to get a few bars to nail their targets, so aims have to be true.D’Agostino is a sharpshooter who gets his mark. Every song on LOSE contains at least one succinct passage that reinforces the theme of the song and the themes of the album, too, and his vocabulary of associations is bound to be familiar to anybody who grew up in the Garden State suburbs. On “Warning,” he sings about the wind rustling the pennants hanging outside a car dealership, and anybody who has ever taken a cruise on a Jersey highway is right there in the busted backseat. Observations on LOSE are deeply human, and always at the eye level of a struggling young adult coping with adversity and destabilization. He catches a forlorn reflection in the mirror in the diamond made by the thighs of a naked woman on “LifeNet”; he describes the rubber mat that his sick pet splays himself across on “Chambers.” He notices the swastika carved in the tree in the deep Pinelands on “2 Hip Soul.” Okay, maybe the swastika is gilding the lily, especially since he also finds room for the mythical Jackson Whites in the kickoff song. Cut him a little slack: he’s sifting through details and choosing evocative ones, doing shorthand to establish a setting. Plenty of Jersey writers drop place names and leave it up to You the Listener to fill in the blanks. D’Agostino isn’t relying on your sense of nostalgia, or your Garden State pride, to carry the day for him. He makes sure that everything resonates.
What’s not so good? D’Agostino didn’t really need to call a friend’s mother the “Skeletor of the liquor store” in “Child Bride,” did he? That’s using his noteworthy pithiness to land a low blow. Apply your talents for good, not evil, D’Agostino.
Recommended? Even in wordy old New Jersey, good lyricists are in awfully short supply. Joseph D’Agostino’s prior albums with Cymbals Eat Guitars were nicely crafted and consistently intriguing, but didn’t have the cohesion or clarity that this one does. In a year when a few prominent Garden State writers have taken sidesteps, here’s a firm foot forward from a genuine storyteller. He’s got something to say about the perils of nostalgia, the class politics of the suburbs, the aimlessness of a downwardly mobile generation and the pure fear of growing up, and like many other Jersey rockers before him, he’s pulled the spectres of the pines and the great black rivers into his songs to help him generate a chill. The weather is changing; we’re about to have another spooky autumn. We need some music for the haunting to come. Best to get some real ghost stories from a local visionary, don’t you think? As the jack-o-lanterns come out and the phantoms drift in, I expect to keep this in heavy rotation. And the next time I’m taking a drive through the Pine Barrens … well, there’s no other possibility.
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