Friday, January 24, 2014

Howling At the Moon


Back in March last year, Jon Peter Lewis and Ryan Hayes got all four judges to turn around and root for them with their rendition of "Folsom Prison Blues" on NBC's "The Voice." They made it through to the 11th episode, when they were eliminated during the first "Knockout" round. But they created a huge fan base who were soon clamoring for an album, and in February of this year, through the generosity of Kickstarter backers, Midas Whale fans' dreams are coming true.

Their first album "Sugar House" is set to be officially released in February. (I don't have any links to places you can buy it, so just keep an eye on their Facebook page.) But Kickstarter backers get first listen. Jacob and I are Kickstarter backers, so we got to listen to the album this week. And I loved it enough to do a review of it.

I'm trying really hard to not reduce these tracks to the things they remind me of, but sometimes the homage is worth talking about. Midas Whale is grounded in all kinds of influences--I can hear everything from Johnny Cash to Simon & Garfunkle, but Midas Whale is mostly just themselves. As well they should be. Here's a track-by-track breakdown of my thoughts.

Track 1 - Before I Leave
Groovy guitar riffs that are grounded in surfer rock, played excellently by Robbie Connolly, to whom I tip my hat. And that uptempo change in rhythm on the chorus? Try to NOT move to it. And here's the awesome thing about Midas Whale and their producers. They know when and how to utilize a trumpet.

Track 2 - Howling At the Moon
This is a track that Jon and Ryan played on a television spot a few months back. I liked it then and I like it now. That howly pedal steel is just what this tune needed. There's also a great music video to this one.

Track 3 - A Good Wind (Get A-Going)
I hear a lot of Elvis Presley in this one. Maybe a little Johnny Cash, too? The clip-cloppy percussion is whimsical and exactly right.

Track 4 - My Father's Son
A driving, slightly darker tune* that Jon KILLS. I love the deep bassy backup vocals. This tune kind of reminded me of "Ghost Riders" from the 1980 Blues Brothers film. The main selling point on this track is Jon's total vocal commitment. That boy can sing. Oh, and the other selling point is the righteous organ.
* It's actually not that dark, but it's one of the darker songs on the album. 

Track 5 - Bright and Early
A sleepy, delightful tune with KILLER HARMONIES! Jon's built up some fame as a singer over the years, but Ryan's got pipes too, and he can hold his own alongside Jon any day. This song proves it beautifully.

Track 6 - Pacific Way
This song fills me with an insanely huge urge to go on a spontaneous road trip. I can practically see the slideshow/short film rolling in the background...jumping into rivers in the sunshine, riding down the highways with bare feet outside of the rolled down windows, sitting around a campfire. Ugh. This is killing me. I need summer. Right now. Because that's what this song is. Summer.

Track 7 - A Little More
See? Ryan's an awesome singer. Probably the "quirkiest" song on this album...think Fiona Apple's 2005 album "Extraordinary Machine." Musical enough to be palatable, and odd and distorted enough to make you shift in your seat a little, in the very best way.

Track 8 - Thanks A Lot
The lyrics of this song are a satisfying mixture of affection and sarcasm. I like that. And it's set against this great upbeat "That Thing You Do!"-esque tune and arrangement. I like that too.

Track 9 - What Might Be
This is one of the most beautiful songs on the album. I want to learn it and sing it as a lullaby to my children. And I mean that. I don't know how to say that in such a way that conveys my deep and tender love for this little song. I'm given to hyperbole so when I really mean something sometimes it's hard to convey how I feel. Jon and Ryan's harmonies are lovely, and the simple guitar picking is lovely, and the lyrics are the loveliest part of all.

Track 10 - Into the Unknown
This song is based on a poem by James Best. We all know I'm a huge James Best fan, and this arrangement of his words gives musical life to some already darn great writing. And Jon and Ryan rock those harmonies. Sometimes art doesn't translate well between genres, but this is one time that setting a poem to music worked BEAUTIFULLY.

Track 11 - Rise and Shine
I'm shy to admit this, but I had a sort of transcendent experience the first time I heard this song. I was listening to the album while driving along some back roads outside of Idaho Falls, on my way to look at a used car Jacob and I were thinking about buying. And when this song came on, I pulled over and looked out over the snowy fields and just felt glad to be alive. I felt hopeful about my life and proud of my friends for creating this art and filled with gratitude for everything I have. So for this song alone, I thank Midas Whale for this album.

Track 12 - Sweet Dreams
I don't know if Ryan would call himself a hopeless romantic, but I say that this song proves that he is. Think "slow dancing in the moonlight" kind of romance. Ideally in 1950s prom attire, with romantic string lights overhead. It's late and everyone is sleepily leaning their heads on each other's shoulders, and it's summer and all the stars are out and you can feel the grass beneath your bare feet. In that situation, this is the song that would be playing in the background.

Here's my only non-glowing thought about the album. "Rise and Shine" FEELS like a closing track. It feels like the note the album should end on. But "Sweet Dreams" sort of does, too. Maybe it's because of my powerful experience hearing "Rise and Shine" for the first time, but it felt strange to hear another song afterwards. But "Sweet Dreams" is so good that it does NEED to be on the album. I just don't know where it should be. Maybe between "Thanks A Lot" and "What Might Be"? "Sweet Dreams" is a good note to end on, but it doesn't feel quite as final as "Rise and Shine." I ain't no record producer, so my opinion can be totally disregarded. And my track order issue here isn't so glaring that it distracts me from adoring the album.

Closing thoughts:
This album is summery and folksy and wonderful. Part of my love for it is deeply tied to my affection for Jon and Ryan as people, I admit. But even that affection aside, this album stands on its own two feet. I'm a huge fan of Midas Whale, and when "Sugar House" comes out, do yourself a favor and buy it. Then put it in your car and drive around on a few back roads as you listen to it, and look out across the snowy fields and be grateful for wonderful music.

**I met Jon years and years ago, when he visited the Playmill in 2006. At one point, we were talking and his gum fell out of his mouth and landed on my shoe and he looked at me and said, "Well, we're friends forever now." We lost touch for a few years until Deep Love was born, and our friendship was renewed. I met Ryan because of Deep Love, I think? He did a songwriting workshop with Garrett Sherwood that Jacob set up, and Jacob and I were in a rock opera that his sister wrote, and I've helped out with Deep Love for the past few years. We've just sort of been in briefly intersecting circles for years, but I'm a big Ryan fan. 

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