“Sea Change” is a series that discusses album or albums in a band’s discography that signify a brief or career-long change in the group’s sound or style.
Note: The song “Anyhow” on this album contains strong language. Because of this, even though the song will be discussed, a link to the song will not be provided.
Punk rockers have always been known for playing a variety of genres on their albums. The Clash’s London Calling is a prime example. It’s rare, however, to see artists, especially punk artists, make a change as dramatic as Craig Brown.
Primarily working and living in Detroit, Brown has been wandering through life performing various odd jobs and playing in various bands.
Before the formation of his current band, Brown was part of a punk rock group known as The Terrible Twos. Listening to this groups two albums, the band seems like a fairly run-of-the-mill underground band; their music walks a fine line between noise and rock and doesn’t stray from the typical punk formula. Their only distinction, and primarily what they were known for, was their heavy usage of synthesizers.
A few years ago, however, inspired by the pedal steel on Neil Young’s records and the
twang and rhythm section on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Brown shifted gears and brought together a Detroit honky-tonk band that caught the attention of Jack White’s Third Man Records. This relationship would lead to the creation of the group’s debut album The Lucky Ones Forget, which combines country rhythms, melodies, and instrumentation with garage and alternative rock elements and mentality.
Throughout the entire work, though Brown aims to create a country album, the band maintains an edgier, harder rock sound that typically characterizes “Alt-Country.” Artists such as Sturgill Simpson and Wilco have included similar combinations but Brown’s approach is incredibly unique. His background is in punk rock, where the songs are heavy and not too complex, and garage rock, which incorporates distortion and unrestrained freedom in music production. These genres bleed into Brown’s version of modernized country rock.
So let’s talk about the album itself:
The first two tracks on the album, “I Wondered What” and “Planet Song,” act as an introduction to the group and their distinctive sound. Both tracks consist of a steady country rhythm section and twangy guitars as well as acoustic interludes and harmonica solos. They are not, however, as “tight” as country rock bands were in the 1970s. Though the songs aren’t chaotic and hard to listen to, they sound “off-the-cuff” and incredibly loose. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the sound is modern, young, and catchy.
These two songs in general also show the “jam” nature of the band; the songs sound as if they were recorded in a single take, adding to the unrestrained punk/garage mentality of the record and of the band as a whole.
Lyrically and musically, “I Wondered What” is Brown’s attempt at replicating the records that inspired him; the song is about traveling down the road and not having any cares. Though it’s clear that his songwriting is an emulation, he does a fairly good job at crafting a memorable tune.
Despite the country-esque aspects of the songs, such as slide and steel guitars, the level of distortion and lack of sophistication in Brown’s singing and the band’s playing illustrates their non-country influences.
“Planet Song” is meant to be more philosophical but the song as a whole maintains a level of playfulness that is characteristic of Brown and his band. With the help of an acoustic introduction and harmonica solo, one might think that Brown is imitating Neil Young.
“Overthinking,” the single on the album, “Glad You Came (Happy You Left)” and “Get This Money” are prime examples of the heavier, garage oriented side of the band. Even though country “motifs” come and go in the pieces, the music is loud, fuzzy, and fast.
In particular, “Glad You Came (Happy You Left)” almost feels like a country song at some points but doesn’t contain the same organization and sound of the rest of the album. It sounds more like a Grateful Dead country jam, blending together psychedelia and hard rock, rather than a Byrd’s country song, which combines 60s folk rock with pop music.
The lyrics for these songs aren’t complex and seem to have been written in a short period of time; the rhyming is nothing exceptional and the songs seem to follow a similar narrator, a guy driving in his van or sitting on a couch thinking about his life. They provide the album with a modern version of the classic country “sitting on the porch” motif.
My personal favorite song on the album is “Anyhow,” which perfectly bridges the gap between contemporary indie rock and the country rock sound that inspired Brown.
Though the song discusses a sudden breakup, Brown brings a kind of comedy to the situation, saying that it’s too early in the morning for her to be leaving. He also adds that the person leaving wasn’t that great anyways and should stop being so entitled. This song especially shows Brown’s dry wit and humor that continually appear on The Lucky Ones Forget.
The musical tone of the song, consisting of lush harmonies and emotional, light guitar playing, often clashes with the comedic lyrical tone, but it somehow works with the rest of the record’s composition.
A similar song is “Orange,” which incorporates strange, seemingly lazy lyrics with sophisticated instrumentation. When combined together, you get a strangely pleasing song that gets stuck in your head.
The third from the last track, “Lie Lust Lose Die,” is the most country sounding song on the album.
It effectively captures the essence of a great country song; there’s a solid-as-a-rock country shuffle in the rhythm section, jangling electric guitars, and harmonies that are as thick and sweet as maple syrup.
Brown’s vocals also add to the country feel of the piece. Though his voice is still nasally, he adds a southern twinge to his voice for this particular track, seemingly imitating Roger McGuinn’s voice from “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” Also, Brown’s guitar solo sounds like he’s imitating a mandolin, echoing the bluegrass influences of the 70s country rockers.
It’s just one of those songs that you have to hear yourself.
The Lucky Ones Forget certainly feels like a debut for the Craig Brown Band; it’s clear that the group has a lot of potential to create their own alt-rock sound but, when listening to this album multiple times, one sees that there’s still more work to be done.
Not to say that the album isn’t good. I quite enjoy it and find myself going back to it every now and then; however, it doesn’t quite contain the level of expertise and knowledge that Gram Parsons, The Byrds, Commander Cody, and others had.
These artists looked at the foundations of country music from the 20s through the 50s, understanding the fundamental elements of the genre and then bending the rules from there. Brown, however, is learning these elements through the eyes of the country rock crew, resulting in a sound that is very unique to his band but isn’t quite the country-fied rocking music that Brown attempts to emulate throughout the album.
Perhaps I’m taking the album too seriously. Observing the cover of this record, both outside and inside, it’s clear that Brown is not one who wants to be looked at as a sophisticated, high-class musician. He’s just an everyday guy traveling around in his van having fun with his friends. With this in mind, he has succeeded in making a darn fine freewheelin’ underground album.
It doesn’t, however, go much farther than that.
Thank you for reading this edition of “Sea Change.” If you have any album recommendations, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Written by: George LaBour ’17