“Gleeson plays rock and roll you thought was dead.”
That’s the introductory sentence on Gleeson’s Facebook page and it’s strangely true. It’s strange to think that playing rock and roll or power-pop or [enter pop/rock algorithm here] would be an act of resuscitation, but Gleeson II, the band’s new album, breathes life into the Austin indie rock sound of roughly 1998-2008. The covers of Big Star (guest vocalist Jim Fredley slays “Blue Moon”) and Guided By Voices (“Smothered In Hugs”) aren’t anomalous, but rather two of the primary influences on this particular branch of the Austin underground. What’s most impressive is that G2 appropriates these influences in service of a unique vision, a credit to the songwriting of lead Gleeson, Ty Chandler.
I should state in full disclosure that Ty is a friend of mine, so if you think that compromises my ability to write coherently about his band, you might wanna exit here. Frankly, I don’t think it matters — a piece of writing either works or it doesn’t — but I’d feel worse if I wasn’t blown away by the record. Ty and I first met in spring 2006 after his label, Almost There Records, organized a Neil Young hoot night at Stubb’s. I eventually joined Almost There as writer, webmaster, and investor, positions I held until leaving Austin in November 2009. The label may not have been profitable, but we had a good time putting out a series of compilations — Turns 1-5 — that focused mostly on local rock bands ignored by labels (indie or otherwise), commercial radio, Austin City Limits, and other entities in ATX’s “less than rockin’ results” infrastructure. In addition to the comps, Almost There put on an annual hoot night similar to the Neil extravaganza (with homages to The Who, Kinks, and Big Star). So, not a huge footprint by any means, but ATR addressed an overlooked niche of Austin music.
* Rule #1: There are no rules. Rule #2: Never forget Rule #1.
As the label entered its “frozen in carbonite” phase in 2009-10, Ty put his energy into Gleeson, who first played out in 2008. The core of the band has remained consistent in the ensuing 5 years: Ty (vocals, guitar) and the father/son combo of Raul Vela III (lead guitar) and Raul Vela IV (drums). (If you’re a Grand Champeen fan, you might recognize the name “Raul Vela” from the song of the same name on Dial T For This. That was written for Raul IV.) Gleeson’s debut, ironically titled The Very Very Best Of Gleeson, came out in late 2009 and featured original bassist, James McCullough. (I actually profiled that album on Pretty Things Lying on the Floor.) He was later replaced by Zack Brin for about 6 months. Since then, bass duties have been handled by either Ty or Michael Crow of Champeen, but those duties are mostly a studio concern since the band doesn’t gig very often.
THE SOUND THAT MADE MY YEAR
Last year, Ty sent me the demos for his then-untitled sophomore album and I was impressed. Good songs, maybe not great, but for demos, good is good enough for me. Imagine my surprise when I got the completed album about 3 months ago, and it was MILES ahead of what I heard in 2012. Gleeson II is easily one of my favorite albums of 2013, an ambitious double vinyl/double CD epic that is also loosely conceptual. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a dark album, but it clearly chronicles the end of a relationship, with several songs immersed in self-hate, alcohol poisoning, and the frustrations of stupid love. Or, as I like to call it, Saturday. By the end of the album, the narrator — if the album could be said to have a narrator — learns that being alone is not only acceptable, he’s probably better off that way.
“You gotta find yourself
It’s right there all along.”
There’s another thematic conceit on Gleeson II, but it’s musical, not lyrical. The album is a perfect distillation of the Almost There aesthetic. I hear the melodic rock of Moonlight Towers, the angular nerd rock of Mandible, the orchestrated pop of Tammany Hall Machine, the slo-mo folk-rock of Milton Mapes, and above all, the Mats-inspired, Chilton-to-Bell kung fu fistpump that is Grand Champeen. These were all Austin bands that appeared on the Turn comps and it’s pretty awesome to see how Ty incorporated these various influences into his own songwriting. And by incorporated I mean filling out Gleeson’s core lineup of he and the Rauls with Crow and Channing Lewis from Champeen and Joel Mullins from Tammany Hall Machine.
In that sense, then, Gleeson II is a tribute to the Austin indie rock scene that emerged in the mid-to-late ’90s at venues like The Electric Lounge and Hole In The Wall, and was best typified by the late, great Prescott Curlywolf. This was the music scene that essentially gave birth to the Almost There roster of bands. By 2010, this same scene had run its course as bands broke up, musicians got full-time jobs and/or had kids, and as always happens, a new generation of indie rockers (and DJs) took over. While most of the album is relationship-driven, a couple songs on G2 (“Pro Tool” and “Heart Of Gold”) directly address, not a former lover, but half-ass musicians and sellouts, while “Thinking About The Song” is about music as a sanctuary:
“Needed a way out
The feeling gets old
I don’t know where I’ll be
Alone inside of me
Thinking about the song
I’ll be gone, I’ll be gone”
Ty Chandler – lead and backing vocals, guitar, piano, organ, bass
Raul Vela III – lead guitar
Michael Crow – strings, horns, pedal steel, bass, organ, guitar, backing vocals
Joel Mullins – piano, organ, backing vocals
Channing Lewis – lead and backing vocals
Raul Vela IV – drums
Channing Lewis — vocals
Ty Chandler — piano
The whirring sound of a film projector kicks things off and lends a cinematic flavor to what follows. A melancholy piano girds our hearts for sadness and Channing’s vocal delivers the killshot. Thanks guys. One minute into this album and I’m already shotgunning beers. Bonus points for echoing the start of my favorite Flaming Lips album, Clouds Taste Metallic (1995). [Check out “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” on YouTube.]
“Shades of fall
Are raining in the streets so bright
But my own life is night
It’s almost dawn”
These lyrics lay the foundation for the whole album, specifically the narrator’s eventual conversion to (relative) peace of mind. “Awake” can be literal, but it also suggests a state of consciousness. If it’s true that it’s always darkest before dawn, then “Fall” begins at that precise moment, when the weather starts getting cool and night is about to turn into light.
Ty Chandler — vocals, rhythm & lead guitar, acoustic guitar, bass
Raul Vela III — lead guitar
Michael Crow — pedal steel
Channing Lewis — backing vocals
Joel Mullins — piano
Raul Vela IV — drums
“Pro Tool” sounds like a classic, mid-’90s indie rock anthem a la Superchunk, Redd Kross, or Dinosaur Jr, with the Vela guitar-drums telepathy in strong form. Raul IV’s drums sound great throughout the album, but he drives the shit out of this song. Who does he think he is … Ned Stewart?!?! Love the contrast between the quiet meditation of “Fall” and this tune’s righteous dignity of action (see what I did there?).
Lyrically, “Pro Tool” is a rebuke of fake-ass bands who disguise their songwriting inadequacy with gear like ProTools and Auto Tune, with a sweet slingshot drive-by at rock critics (“Writers just pretend they have a stage”). At the heart of the song is a yearning for, well, heart.
“Sing something honest
Something straight from you
Heart open wide
Have the courage to play
What you want to say”
Ty Chandler — lead & backing vocals, rhythm & lead guitars, piano, bass
Michael Crow — violin, viola, cello, lead guitars, backing vocals
Joel Mullins — piano
Raul Vela IV — drums
“The Almost There Choir”: Greg Vanderpool (Milton Mapes), Mike Nicolai, James Stevens (Moonlight Towers), Ty Chandler, Joel Mullins, Michael Crow, Danny Dunlap (Fall Collection), Shannon Rierson (The Perilous Tide), Phillip McEachern (Mandible), Channing Lewis & Matt Devine — backing vocals
“Wasted In A Dream” revisits Austin via “The Almost There Choir,” so named because each of the backup singers either appeared on the Turn comps or played one of the Almost There record release parties/hoot nights. ATX references aside, Gleeson II occasionally sounds like what would’ve happened if Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett reconciled their personal differences and refined, rather than abandoned, the Wilco aesthetic of 1996-99. “Wasted” is posited between the ambitious roots-pop of Being There (“Red-Eyed And Blue”) and the Zoloft pop of Summerteeth (“She’s A Jar”). Or, maybe I hear this connection because I’m currently looking at my Jay Bennett bobblehead and feeling sad. STOP JUDGING!!!
“Wasted” is one of a handful of songs on G2 that remind me, in the best way, of Queen‘s heavily arranged, high concept pop. In fact, I’m convinced that the title, Gleeson II, is at least a slight nod to Queen II. It doesn’t hurt that Ty’s lead guitar has a poor man’s Brian May flavor. Fun fact: All of those cello, viola, and violin parts — and there’s around 80 string tracks — were individually played by Crow. 80! Synths, ProTools, and plug-ins are handy crutches to have in the studio, but it’s nice when you can fall back on good old fashioned genius. (BTW, for those who need less heady references, I think the piano part here could have been inspired, at least in part, by Mötley Crüe‘s 1985 epic, “Home Sweet Home.” Why you looking at me like that?)
Continuity fans, please note that by the time “Wasted In A Dream” appears on the album (track 18 of 22), the opening lyrics (“Awake, it’s almost dawn”) have given way to “Daylight, enters the day bright.” Surely, wisdom will follow this illuminating lyrical content. Indeed.
Ty Chandler — lead & backing vocals, rhythm & acoustic guitar
Michael Crow (pictured right) — lead guitar, bass, fiddle, percussion, backing vocals
Joel Mullins — piano, backing vocals
Channing Lewis — backing vocals
Raul Vela IV — drums, percussion
“Better On My Own” is the album’s thematic climax and a flat-out great rock song in the Champeen (by way of Soul Asylum) tradition. Crow’s deceptively brilliant guitar lead rides over the piano, bass, and drums in a way that echoes The Jayhawks circa Tomorrow The Green Grass (“Miss Williams Guitar”). Additionally, Crow also throws down a sweet fiddle solo from 2:09-2:23 that seems like it floated in from a Gourds record (“Ghosts Of Hallelujah”). All in all, a triumphant way to close out a killer record.
“It’s gonna take a lot to find someone better
It’s gonna take a lot to feel back at home
It’s gonna take a lot to find someone better
Until then though, I guess I’m better on my own”
Download Gleeson II at Bandcamp
Buy Gleeson II on double vinyl at Spank!
Download debut album, The Very Very Best Of Gleeson, at Bandcamp
Download Almost There comps (Turns 1-5) at Amazon
‘Like’ Gleeson on Facebook