I’ve been listening to Guster‘s Easy Wonderful for almost a week at work, which is saying a lot. Not only is it a good enough album to stand up to 15-20 listens in rapid succession, it’s an album that keeps me interested and coming back to different tunes. I was originally obsessed with the folky stomp of “Stay With Me Jesus,” which rivals “Jesus on the Radio” as the best Guster track with the Christ in the title. I moved on to the almost Blue October-ish shuffle/murmurs of “On the Ocean” and then the bouncy “This Could All Be Yours.” Most recently I’ve been noshing on the ukulele-led “What You Call Love,” which has an absolutely arresting chorus.
If you hadn’t parsed the fact from the above paragraph, Easy Wonderful is pretty upbeat musically. But in true Guster style, the songs never tip over into the saccharine or the maudlin, riding the line where the two emotions mix. This dedication to the confluence of emotions does provide the album’s single low point, as “This Is How It Feels to Have a Broken Heart” would actually lead one to believe that it feels like disco, and not like dying. It’s a bit confusing.
After being lukewarm toward Ganging Up on the Sun, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself loving Easy Wonderful. Although it is extremely enjoyable, it continues Guster’s musical progression. They’re making unadulterated pop songs now, with the unconventional instrumentation of their early work all but disappeared. There’s no track that approaches the songwriting prowess of “Come Downstairs and Say Hello,” nor is the subtlety of “Backyard” attempted anywhere here. The dramatic power of Lost and Gone Forever is almost entirely gone, replaced with instantly accessible melodies and feel-good vibe. This is not a bad thing at all, but one must note that Guster of Easy Wonderful and Guster of Lost and Gone Forever have little in common but the voice.
One past the nostalgia (and “This Is How It Feels…”), Easy Wonderful is a glorious set of pop songs. Each of them are cheery, catchy tunes that will warm your cold heart or mellow your frantic one to a goofy grin and a high five. “Do you love me?” Adam Gardner belts out in the song of the same title, and the answer is undeniably yes. What other option is there?
Easy Wonderful is streaming at Whole Story, the Whole Foods official blog. Go pick it up.
I came into an appreciation of folk music at about the same time the folk revival was beginning to gain prominence (roughly four or five years ago). I was finally lucky enough to catch a thing at its peak; it seems I always go back and discover the goodness of a thing after the fact (point: I saw Death Cab for Cutie on their Plans tour, the Mountain Goats on their Get Lonely tour, Coldplay on its X&Y tour, and Guster on its Ganging up on the Sun tour; all of which were one album after their best album). But this time, I’m on the edge with the rest of the people rocking out to Mumford and Sons, because folk finally reclaimed energy.
La Strada’s New Home does Mumford and Sons one better. Instead of just being a folk band on speed (which, as M+S’s immense popularity shows, is quite alright), they’re a folk band on speed eating an indie band. It’s like gentler Beirut with a guy who can sing; it’s like Arcade Fire with acoustic guitars. This album is so incredibly hip and current that I’m afraid I’m not cool enough to review it. But I reject that notion, because the songs are brilliant. These songs aren’t just for the cool; they’re for people who like anything related to pop music.
“The Traveler” features a bouncy drum line, a mini-orchestra and a jaunty vocal line. The smooth quality of the vocals is immensely reassuring from the beginning of the album; he has the best elements of many different vocalists. His ability to convey emotion without oversinging recalls Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard; his effortless delivery recalls people with gifted voices like Novi Split’s David Jerkovich. The fact that he meshes so well with the band makes me think of the National, even though their voices seem separated by (several?) octaves.
The ragged yet gentle rhythms of “The Traveler,” plus the immensely reverbed guitar solo, strings, trumpets, tubas, and keys make for a richly ornamented, impossible-to-dislike song. There’s tons going on here, but as in an Anathallo song, it all works together. Even when they kill the beat, punch up the accordion and turn the song into a Parisian street waltz (not kidding), it sounds amazing.
Then they kick into “Wash On By,” which brings a indie-rock surge of energy to their still-instrument-heavy mix. This song will make you move, as well as yell and cheer with the band. The rhythms, which are distinctly foreign but not exactly easy to pin down, simply bring the house down. I wish I could be in the audience for a performance of “Wash on By.”
Then there’s the title track, which for once is appropriately chosen. I hate it when bands don’t choose the right title track, but this one is far and away the most memorable track of the album (and you thought I’d lavished all the exuberant praise I had in me? naaa). The song is sparse, but it’s not sparse in the lack of instruments; they use the instruments sparingly, locking them in together to pull a distinct and certain mood out of the tune. The word masterful is not an exaggeration of this tune’s quality.
The whole thing is held together by the vocals, again, which are glorious and command several beautiful melodies. The brass band and strings contribute significantly to this tune. You will be singing “Hello strange familiar, you’re my new home; oh, wha-o, wha-o wha-o.” Trust me, it looks goofy there, but you’ll know exactly what I mean when it happens. You will be powerless to resist it.
My highest praise for an album is “I could write a small book about this album.” And it is very, very true of New Home by La Strada. I didn’t even get to talk about the lyrics, the art, the rest of the tunes (and seriously, that’s a tragedy to me, because “Baptism” and “Where You Want to Go” and “Go Forward” are all wonderful and worthy of covering). All I can say is, for your own good, buy this album. It will improve your mood for weeks.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.