From southern popsters Seven Simons to a stint with The The and an almost-stint with the Church, guitarist Keith Joyner has always been about taste and restraint. His latest outfit should be the one to bring him to wide acclaim.
BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE
In an alternate universe Keith Joyner is an acknowledged guitar hero, positioned somewhere between Nels Cline and Johnny Marr on the greatness continuum; in ours he remains largely unknown, though he has had a few tantalizing stabs at broader recognition.
His first band, Seven Simons, shared a manager with R.E.M. (Mr. Jefferson Holt) but, despite releasing two excellent albums—Clockwork (1988) and Four Twenty-Four (1991)—and touring with The Fixx, they failed to gain traction outside their native Southeast. In 1993, in what must have seemed a massive coup for the young musician, Joyner replaced Johnny Marr in the touring lineup of The The, hopscotching the globe in support of the hugely successful Dusk album. Unfortunately, this incarnation of the band never made it into the studio. A couple years later he was tapped by Marty Willson-Piper of The Church to serve as a live replacement for that band’s other guitarist, Peter Koppes, who had recently quit. Joyner and Willson-Piper rehearsed rigorously, but the proposed tour was scrapped and Koppes returned to the fold shortly thereafter. Mr. Joyner returned to his semi-obscurity.
If there is any justice in the world, The Sound of Leaving—Joyner’s latest release with multi-instrumentalist Chris Candelaria under the Twinstar moniker, and released on their own Commercial Suicide Recordings imprint—ought to finally raise the profile of this unsung virtuoso. The album’s qualitative improvement over its predecessors owes much to the duo’s maturing songcraft, yet I would be remiss in not giving some credit to the impressive supporting cast, which includes David Newton of The Mighty Lemon Drops, Joe Higgins of AM Radio, Chris Carmichael (a sometime collaborator with Allison Krauss), David Roland, and Erin Barnes. Sonically this dream team aims for a sweet spot between the baroque pomp of Tears for Fears and the loping groove of Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac. (The current touring band lineup, as listed on their Facebook page, inclues Joe Higgins, Johnny Joyner and Michael Ashton.)
To these ears, that is pure win. (Below, “The Man They Came For” video, directed by Sean Fawcett and Joyner.)
Twinstar seem drawn to the quiet spaces these days. Apart from a few notable “rock” moments, the album generally forsakes distortion and bombast in favor of strings, layered guitars, and exquisitely crafted melodies. This musical warmth adds color and shape to lyrics that are, at their best, evocative and alluringly open-ended. A general theme of ambivalence—particularly of the spiritual variety—pervades throughout, as exemplified by the following snapshots: “What will ensue will endure / all the more reason not to choose” (from “Can You Walk Away with Nothing?”); “I’m still not sure what I know” (“Nowhere); “Curse on the heart, Belief in the lie / These are the myths you’ll seek to defy” (“A Shadow Path”); “Lucifer could never invent this mess for the rest of us… I’ll die wishing I knew where the answers were” (“Young Junk”); “So I took a torch to the fiction that follows the truth” (“The Traveler’s Dream”); “So much for truth and honesty / I’ve found my illusion” (“Sold”).
You get the drift. He’s losing his religion, and finding it, and losing it, and so on. That’s a fairly universal sentiment and, married with the music, it comes across beautifully here. But Joyner’s writing is not without its weak spots: occasionally the sublime gives way to the cold and stilted. Those moments are fleeting, however, and even when they occur, the earnest and soulful musicianship (along with Joyner’s newly confident singing) keeps the wings from icing over.
This current iteration of Twinstar anachronistically places craftsmanship and melody at the forefront. Their songs are pop of the best sort: superficially buoyant yet also, for those listeners who wish to dig deeper, emotionally and intellectually engaging. Additionally, the production has a pleasingly organic feel—though this may in fact be an illusion; according to Joyner, the album was recorded entirely “at home,” so it’s likely it was tracked digitally in ProTools or some similar application. Yet perhaps because of the talent of the musicians involved as well as the intimate setting of its creation, the album channels the analog warmth of a bygone era. The Fleetwood Mac comparison seems apt here; like that band’s pivotal records from the ‘70s, The Sound of Leaving will almost surely continue to sound great decades after its creation. But will anyone be listening? Perhaps that’s beside the point. Beauty loses none of its splendor if shared by only a few.