The first two 500 Miles to Memphis releases I reviewed reveled in their country-punk genre elements. Fiddle, pedal steel, and frantic tempos all clashed and meshed and bashed and had a party. In Stand There and Bleed, the band has matured into itself, making fewer overt gestures to the genres they’re inhabiting or bending. This results in expert songwriting that is both incredibly situated and widely diverse.
First things first: frontman and songwriter Ryan Malott has expanded his lyrical repertoire. Sure, there are still a number of collapsed-or-collapsing relationship tunes on this record (including one simply titled “Alone”), but “Medication” is a touring song, “You’ll Get Around” is a song of advice to a sister, and “Takes Some Time” is – get this – almost a love song. If there’s change, it starts at the root, and the root of 500 Miles to Memphis is its lyrics.
From there, the sound has gotten more comfortable in places and expanded in others. “Medication” still falls squarely in the country-punk genre, with supercharged tempos, galloping drums, and wild lead guitar meeting for an excellent take on the country-punk genre. “How Would I Know” is one of the most torrential salvos of punk anger and energy I’ve heard 500MTM release–there are references to the chugga-chugga of hardcore punk in the bridge. It all sounds supremely assured: nothing is out of place in these tunes, but nothing sounds overpolished either.
The polish is saved for a later collection of tunes. In the same way that Blink-182 tempered some of their snottiness for the power-pop gems of their self-titled record, Malott has channeled his pop inclinations into a trio of tunes: “Bethel, OH,” “Easy Come & Easy Go,” and “Takes Some Time.” “Bethel, OH” is a gleeful rumination on the follies and foibles of youth steered by an effervescent, memorable chorus. The ’80s guitar-pop vibes of “Easy Come & Easy Go” make me think of Cheap Trick at its finest, while the staccato opening riff of “Takes Some Time” pleasantly shocked me in its relationship to those of classic rock mainstays Styx. (As a person who has purposefully attended a latter-day Styx concert, this is a positive reference, I swear.) The band rocks along perfectly in each of these tunes, not sounding out of their element in the least.
That’s not even the most compelling switcheroo the listener is privy to on the record: the last quarter of the record consists of three straight-up country tunes. “You’ll Get Around” is touching in its earnest pleas for a sister to make something of her life, sold beautifully by Malott’s excellent vocal performance and the band’s striking ease at back-porch banjo-pickin’. “Easy Way Out” is more ominous in tone, but it’s perhaps even more impressive in its arrangment. But the piece de resistance of their roots revival is the six-minute “Alone,” which starts off as a swooning lullaby before building to a pounding, towering, full-band crescendo full of frantic drums, searing organ, and overall band theatrics. If it’s not the closer of the live show, it totally should be. It doesn’t beat the 9-minute “Everybody Needs an Enemy” off We’ve Built Up to NOTHING in scope, but it trounces it in terms of impression.
Stand There and Bleed is, to me, an unlikely title for this record–especially considering that there is no title track. The lyrics do have more sturdiness to them, more recognition of the realities of pain and more appreciation for the joys of life. But the music covers so much ground that there is no time to stand still as a band or a listener. Stand There may not be the release that’s heaviest on the country-punk genre markers, but as a musical effort, it’s an impressive, diverse, striking record. Highly recommended.
I had a strange life of music in the early 2000s; my listening habits tied together the fringes of the pop-punk, emo, pop-rock and acoustic scenes. Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good covers the general sound, but I listened to stuff that never made it to the radar. So my nostalgia is not for any particular band, but a sound, and City Reign has churning, yearning, melodic yelp of a sound.
Because I was (and still am) obsessed with Appleseed Cast’s “Fishing the Sky,” Deep Elm Records was a staple of my listening in the early 2000s. They’re offering their whole catalog of releases for $5 each for the rest of the year. Top picks: Too Young to Die sampler, There Should Be More Dancing by Free Diamonds, Mare Vitalis by Appleseed Cast, We’ve Built Up to NOTHING by 500 Miles to Memphis. But there are literally dozens of gems in their catalog, so you should just go nuts.
Autumn Owls’ video for “Byways of the Lifeless” caused me to realize that by the mid-2000s, most videos stopped having their credits in the bottom left corner at the beginning. The fact that this one does was a blast from the past in the best way. Also, the hectic sense of motion is reminiscent of early 2000s videos.
1. Sever Your Roots — The Felix Culpa. Hands down the best album of the year; nothing else even came close to approaching its masterful take on post-hardcore. The brilliant lyrics pushed it over the top.
So, I took a week off from Independent Clauses. I was having a monster of a week, so I just mailed it in for a couple days. Compared to the eight-month hiatus that one time, this was nothin’.
But, it nicely coincided with the end of the quarter, so I thought I’d put a little list up of my top releases from the first three months (since I listened to more music in this quarter than I think I have at any other time in Independent Clauses’ existence). It’s been an awesome year for music so far, and I’m stoked that there are three more quarters yet.
1. Sever Your Roots – The Felix Culpa. This post-hardcore masterpiece has not yet ceased to amaze me. Every song reveals new gems with each listen, whether it be a buried guitar line, a line of lyrics I hadn’t yet caught, or something else. “Escape to the Mountain” is one of my favorite tracks of the year.
2. Hours From It – Holy Fiction. Jumped up my list in the last week or so, as “More than Ever,” “Song 10” and “Two Small Bodies” inserted themselves in my life and would not let go. Passionate, melodic, lush indie-rock that doesn’t brook any cliches, resulting in occasionally challenging listening. But it’s worth it to hear the vocalist holler out “I neeeeeed you moooore than everrrr…”
3. Mt. Chimaera – Brasstronaut. Any band that’s got the guts to eschew choruses for an entire album, send down trumpet solos like it’s nobody’s business, and write the equivalent of an indie-rock symphony deserves all the props they can get. The fact that clarinet-led klezmer also happens in there makes it jump my list.
4. Of the Blue Color of the Sky – OK GO. I heard that their new video has several million hits and their album has sold just over 25,000 copies. This is a freakin’ shame. It’s their best work yet, mature in ways that “Here it Goes Again”-era OK GO can’t understand, much less imitate. If you pardon the horrible autotune experiment, the whole thing is solid, with “Needing/Getting” being the fist-pumping, shout-it-out anthem.
5. We’ve Built Up to NOTHING – 500 Miles to Memphis. This is country-punk at its finest, displaying both its country and punk roots, while extending out into places I’d never thought they’d go (full orchestras? really?). Standout track “Everybody Needs an Enemy” is outlandishly good in its nearly-ten-minutes-long-ness.
500 Miles to Memphis‘ last album Sunshine in a Shot Glass was a wild country-punk album dedicated to what seemed to be the nastiest break-up ever. Lead singer Ryan Malott, in his attempts to improve in all aspects upon the last album, went out and had another friggin’ breakup (or, God forbid, it’s the same breakup still happening) that seems even more brutal than the last. Thus, we have We’ve Built Up to NOTHING, which is one of the only titles I’ve ever seen that manages to yell.
I feel straight-up awful for Ryan Malott if these tunes are all autobiographical, but I’m thankful that he’s so good at getting his angst down on tape. If the first one was a great break-up album, this is an epic breakup album. Where Sunshine in a Shot Glass reveled in the country/punk dichotomy, We’ve Built Up to NOTHING sees it as a fact of life and gets on with writing great songs. This allows the band to expand its sound out in great ways, like the Avett Brothers-esque piano-country-punk of “Let it Go,” instrumental interludes “…” and “dejas,” the nine-minute-long kiss-off “Everybody Needs an Enemy,” and the 3-minutes-exactly adrenaline blast that is “Shots.” There are marching bands, strings, organs, pianos, banjos, and more. The title track closes out the album with a tuba-led strings and brass orchestra, and Malott pulls off the guitar-less song with such slick expertise you’d think he’s been doing it forever.
Some parts he has been doing forever. There are two-steppin’ country-punk songs like the frantic “It’s Alright” and “East Texas Angel” that have nothing distinctive in them but Malott’s trademark vocals, solid melodies, and a punk strum. And that’s enough to turn out a great song all on its own. But it’s experiments like the relatively mellow, heart-rending “You Loved Me Once” and the organ-soaked romance of “Moonlight” have little to do with punk and more to do with emotion-tugging country and pop which make this album so infectious.
This isn’t just a rage-tastic break-up middle finger in musical form. This is a thoughtful evaluation of all the emotions that come along with a breakup, as filtered through Ryan Malott’s singer/songwriter idiom. As a result, the tempos, styles and sounds of the album are incredibly varied. I mean, “Moonlight” could be on country radio right now and no one would know that 500 Miles to Memphis is mostly a punk band. And that’s awesome.
If you’ve gotten your heart broken, We’ve Built Up to NOTHING is a therapy session and a half. If you like country-punk, these guys are the reigning kings. If you like adrenaline-fueled punk albums, you’ll still like this album. And, amazingly, if you like hot country, you’ll find treats for your ears here. 500 Miles to Memphis has pushed their sound out to new areas and conquered them thoroughly. An amazing release.
P.S. Someone love Ryan Malott. Please.
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.