This is a review of Guster’s Ganging up on the Sun, written after an interview with Ryan Miller just prior to the release of the album in June, 2006. It was never published.
The only fact not drawn either from Guster’s website, or directly from my interview with Ryan Miller, is about the Walmart ban, which I got from the band’s concert at Holy Cross College onApril 2, 2006, where they held a “Fuck” chant in protest of Walmart’s ban on their CD for the word’s inclusion on the single “Manifest Destiny.”
Prepare for Something New
“I am so unapologetic,” says Ryan Miller, Guster’s gangly, Texas-bred, Tufts-educated lead singer – with more than a hint of frustration, and a tinge of impatience – about moving on from the band’s old material and potentially alienating legions of faithful early followers.
June 20th marks the release of Guster’s latest, Ganging up on the Sun, an album that might leave some behind, but shouldn’t shock fans who’ve stuck around through 1999’s Lost and Gone Forever and, more so, 2003’s Keep it Together, from which Ganging seems a logical progression.
“The older records have less dynamics and nuances,” he says before settling the matter: “our new records are better.” To be fair, Guster’s earlier work is excellent (and dynamic), an impressive collection of quirky pop gems with lots of sonic ingenuity, at once thoroughly modern and deeply allusive to pre-Pepper’s ‘60s and skinny tie ‘80s.
But Ryan remains unsentimental. “The new record is my favorite,” he says, adding, “early reviews are supporting it. And we produced it ourselves.”
Many of those former trademark elements are evident on recent work, too, such as on Keep it Together’s “Careful” and “Ramona,” each of which implies huge influence by ‘60s-era harmony and structure, as well as pre-punk innocence. But the times they are a changin’ and the band has a lusher sound with more instruments competing for sonic airspace, and a full drumset where pseudo-beatnik hand percussion used to roam the aural landscape, or create the frenetic meter.
Those fans who prefer to live in the halcyon days of the band’s Tufts years, will find the new CD lacking the unique voicings of the original trio, Brian Rosenworcel’s infamous hand percussion (“I’ve gone from being an innovative and special percussionist to a mediocre kit drummer,” he said to VH1.), and songs dominated by acoustic guitars. The band no longer embraces these underpinnings that once helped to distinguish them (as on 1994’s Parachute and 1996’s Goldfly), and now explores the sonic space of a full trap drum kit, multi-instrumentalist (and studio wizard) Joe Pisapia’s array of sounds and textures, electric guitars, and a heavier, brooding atmosphere.
Not that Guster itself has ever looked back. Since the beginning they’ve “always look[ed] up, never look[ed] down” (“All the Way up to Heaven”), declared that the “past is passed” (“Great Escape”), and scorned anyone who lived on memories of dubious former glories (“Homecoming King”).
With over a decade behind them since graduation (the three matriculated together in 1994 fromTuftsUniversity, where they met as freshmen) and the launch of their career, though, the group allows itself an occasional glance in the rearview mirror. As in the new single “One Man Wrecking Machine,” in which Ryan ironically dreams of using a time machine to visit the homecoming queen and his high school friends, to “get in her pants,” and, in general, to “relive all his adolescent dreams inspired by true events on movie screens.” The past, still alluring, offers valuable lessons about stagnation and living vicariously, and Ryan remains healthily skeptical of its value.
“Our sights are on making a classic record,” he says. The band’s idea of a classic record might surprise many of their fans, though. “Radiohead and Wilco are where we want to be,” he says, citing them as bands that have charted tremendous musical growth and forged livelihoods that thrive independently of the media machine. “Their music comes from a place of integrity.”
And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then perhaps it’s not just imagination that hears faint strains of Wilco’s “Radio Cure” in the dire churn and discordant melody of “Empire State”; and “Hummingbird” in the decidedly anti-rock staccato piano intro to “Manifest Destiny”; and the Woody Guthrie sessions in the syncopated jangle and banjo of “The Captain.”
No apologies, then, is a promise for bold innovations and personal challenges. The road they’ve chosen is not an easy one, and trades flavor-of-the-month hype and grandiosity for the slow steady climb. In such a career, patience is key, as is learning to recognize the merits of albums that might be simply passing tones en route to, or downwind from, a masterpiece. And, perhaps, that’s where Ganging up on the Sun fits in: not as Guster’s piece de résistance, but as a great mid-career addition along a discography that will reward the fans who stuck around long after the “Fa Fa’s” and the “Airport Songs” they bopped along to in college. The band members themselves have aged, after all.
The rewards for the band include a loyal fan base and freedom from mass media dependence to ensure the success of a record or a tour. And, of course, they include the rare pleasures of recording something beautiful. Ryan points to a personal favorite on the new record, “RubyFalls.”
“It has a heartbreaking trumpet solo at the end of a seven-minute song,” he says, savoring the personal milestone. The trumpet solo quietly resurrects Miles Davis’ tone and provides an outro for one of the disk’s centerpieces. In fact, “RubyFalls” has stumped the band, who withheld performing it this spring for lack of a trumpeter. Ryan seems to enjoy these challenges, however, preferring to embrace them and to locate positives in every situation. Perhaps a timely solution will allow for the song’s inclusion in the summer tour.
And while changes in the lineup may leave the band sounding a little less original, the songs pack depth, withstand repeat listening, and possess a maturity befitting the 30-something bandmates – a tempered, guarded cheerfulness. While addressing the darker issues, the band forever looks ahead, scorning the past and the trap it represents.
Those who dismiss the band as lightweight or cartoonish haven’t heard the earnest intellect of Ryan Miller and haven’t listened hard enough to the band’s impressive repertoire of musically and lyrically sophisticated pop masterpieces. Though jaded as all in this generation (“How did everything get so fucked up,” Ryan sings on “Manifest Destiny,” meriting the band a ban from Walmart), Guster nevertheless exudes hope. And that’s nothing to apologize for.