November 26, 2009

Review: Varsity Drag | Night Owls [MP3]

It neither sounds like it was recorded in a metal shipping container, nor does Night Owls completely hew to the straight pop-punk for which Varsity Drag fronter Ben Deily has long been known. But beyond the fully actualized production and more thoughtful compositions, fans of Mr. Deily's music will recognize a more subtle difference between the 2006 set For Crying Out Loud and his reconfigured Cambridge, Mass.-based trio's new collection. Simply put, For Crying Out Loud was an "if" record, but Night Owls is a "then" record. The former's biggest tune "Summertime" commences with the line "if you'd be mine, I'd find the time..." That record's opening anthem "Skinny Ties" is entirely predicated on supposition: "I'd give up all of my skinny ties, give up cheese omelets and curly fries..." Where Deily does not yearn on For Crying Out Loud ("the place just ain't the same without Billy Ruane..."), he cracks wise, sending up the last decade with "1999." Throughout Deily maintains a wish or a laugh's distance, stays to the left side of the comma.

Night Owls, by contrast, opens with the lyric "And so the years went crashing by..." and then examines various crashes one after another. And with that declaration Deily steps over the comma into the hindsight of unenumerated mornings after (or, more likely for a night owl, afternoons after) and confronts his emotions straight on. Calling Varsity Drag's new record introspective doesn't go far enough to describe some of the psychic scab-ripping herein. While Deily doesn't name names or proffer genesis stories, the meaning of lyrics including "I let you down to save myself... like an animal" is not cloudy. That said, it isn't all fear and (self-)loathing: the title track describes the phosphorescent glow of a new relationship with sentiments so positive they approach a giddy serenity. What does this difference between Deily's "if" and "then" worlds signify? Maturity? Personal peace? We'll leave that for individual listeners to ponder.

As we stated supra, the differences between the aforementioned sets are not limited to more intense lyrical themes. On Night Owls Mr. Deily -- now abetted by Lisa Marie Deily on bass guitar and Joshua Pickering detonating the cans -- reveals musical ambitions that fans were likely unaware that the punk statesman harbored. Old timers will recall Deily's affecting acoustic ballad "Postcard" from the latter days of Lemonheads Mach 1 (and featured on last summer's live release from Varsity Drag). On Night Owls Deily offers "Postscript," a Bacharach-esque and lush guy-piano-strings number. It is apparent that Mr. Deily has been thinking about making these songs nearly as long as he has been feeling them, and while he selected former Lemonheads producer Tom Hamilton to mind the faders and the knobs, Night Owls is a significant sonic step forward for Deily. The smart chord and key changes, keen production details and more orchestrated compositions make that plain. The vocals buried in the background of "Animal" are genius (particularly at the line "I know I failed my darling"), the layered acoustic and electric guitars of "Richard's Gone" deliver a completely satisfying, crystalline crunch, the aggressive attack of "In This World" (whose guitars recall Rush's "Fly By Night" in brief moments) entirely gratifying. Varsity Drag recently returned from two weeks in another country (namely the U.K.) and -- although there are no pending live dates currently listed at the band's MySpace dojo -- the trio is presumably now plotting the promotion of Night Owls to fans in the States.

Varsity Drag -- "Animal" -- Night Owls
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[buy Night Owls from the band right here]

Varsity Drag: Internerds | Bandcamp | YouTube | Flickr

Previous Varsity Drag Coverage:
Be Prepared: Varsity Drag | Night Owls | Date TBD
And Then This Happened: Varsity Drag | Middle East Rock Club | 8/7/09
Remarks: Varsity Drag, Grownup Noise, Winterpills
Review: Varsity Drag | Rock and Roll Is Such A Hassle: Live in Europe
Varsity Drag @ Cantab Lounge, March 2009
Varsity Drag @ O'Brien's, August 2008
Varsity Drag @ Cantab Lounge, February 2008
Free Range Music: Varsity Drag, May 2006

1 comment:

Brian said...

Night Owls is an outstanding album, and I can't top the words above, so I won't try. This review is probably the best record review I've every read, and is a reminder why, although I thoroughly enjoy *listening* to music, I don't often *write* about it. It's spot-on in its description of Night Owls, and appealing to me as both a music nerd and grammar nerd. To steal from Alexander Pope, "True wit is nature to advantage dressed, / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." If you don't own this album yet, go out and buy it now.