That would be case-sensitive GospelbeacH, and they’re an American Band. They might not be quite ready to come to your town simply to party it down until there’s nothing left but groupie debris, but as the album title suggests, they’re not above proposing multiple strategies, either, of coping with this cultural shithole we call 2019. Plus, it kicks out da jams, period.
BY FRED MILLS
We’ve sung the praises of Brent Rademaker (late of Beachwood Sparks) and his band GospelbeacH plenty of times to date: just do a search on the site. The band has always seemed simpatico with both my personal musical tastes – it’s never been a stretch to propose some, uh, stray Neil Young and Tom Petty influences being traced in the sand of this particular SoCal beacH – as well as those among the core BLURT braintrust.
But this time around, with Let It Burn, I’m so gobsmacked, and have been for several months (I received the CD in the mail and subsequently ponied up for the limited edition, eye-candy colored vinyl edition), I risk being accused of blatant hype with anything I might scribble down here.
Screw it. Let It Burn – ya had me with your title. Hype mode on.
Per that name, one cannot escape what I’ll call the proverbial “album title echo” function at play (think about it). But there’s far more going on here than just an obvious record collector who happens to have a band and is playing some sort of clever insider game. This album is the product of a rock ’n’ roll lifer.
See, some artists simply get it. The “it” being how to take a stash of newly-recorded songs and assemble them into a coherent whole, something with a compelling narrative and sonic consistency, which of course involves having at least a tentative grasp of sequencing and flow. You might think, well, how hard can that be; you just set the album in motion – or get your producer in motion – and make sure it has plenty of variety while avoiding jarring stylistic juxtapositions and silly, off-putting segues, and lay the tunes on the table, because if you have faith in your own music, you will prevail, regardless of commercial and critical vicissitudes, right?
Uh-uh. Rademaker and his compatriots have both the savvy and the experience to understand the difference between aspiration and inspiration.
Let It Burn kicks off with a kind of reverie, the gently confessional piano-powered ballad “Bad Habits,” a deliberate stylistic choice aimed at setting the listener up for the sucker punch of second track “Dark Angel,” a riff-descending slice of TP & the Heartbreakers (if you can’t hear echoes of keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell in there, you’ve clearly sat out the past 40 years of rock history) boasting both a chordal and a lyrical hook (“Say goodbye Dark Angel/ Sorry that it had to end”) that you will be hearing in your head during those early morning, 4AM random wake-ups we all get. Good luck tuning it out.
And then the hits just pour forth, from the chugging, insistent power pop of “I’m So High” (do I hear a subtle Peter Perrett/Only Ones influence coming through here?) and the dreamy Young/Springfield-esque orchestral pop of “Get It Back,” to the cynical-yet-buoyant raveup “Nothing Ever Changes” (a meta-meditation which has so many cool/classic R&R references in it you can practically hear the GospelbeacH lawyers hollering in the background, “But Brent, we’re gonna get sued over this…”) and the devastating closing track, “Let It Burn,” a sweeping Crazy Horse-meets-Ryan Adams-meets-Bob-Welch-era-Fleetwood Mac number destined to be remembered as one of THE great indie rock anthems. For me, the tune just may wind up defining the decade we are about to leave behind – and, hopefully, may help play a part in finally saying goodbye to the current sorry era we find ourselves mired in.
Indeed, per the comment above about sequencing, there’s a subtle, thematic through-line to the album as well, one of endings and farewells, of being mindful of certain doors closing and feeling frustratingly uncertain as to which new ones might open in the future. The aforementioned “Dark Angel” is clearly of this sentiment, what with lyrics like, “I don’t know what I could’ve done different/ I don’t know what I could’ve said/ I keep my ideas on my phone/ I should’ve kept them in my head… So, say goodbye, Dark Angel/ I hope you finally found a friend/ Say goodbye, Dark Angel/ I’m sorry that it had to end.”
There’s so much to speculatively unpack in those lines – was there a death? a breakup? a betrayal? worse? Is this a self-soliloquy delivered by the singer to himself? – that, given the knowledge of a series of personal losses on the part of Rademacher’s over the past few years, I probably shouldn’t venture a guess as to specifics, although my hunch is that there’s something deeply existential going on here that the songwriter’s working through. And I do view the song as possibly intended to offer the listener the proverbial shoulder to lean; as true artists know that’s their mandate as regards their friends and fans. We depend on our artists, after all, to alert us to how they’ve been through some shit, and how we might take courage when it comes to going through our own shit.
Fast forward to the end: Ditto with “Let It Burn,” – which also could have been titled “Let It Go,” in fact, given the palpable sense of resignation and remorse infusing lines such as, “Heavy is the head/ That wears the crown/ You can build it up/ But they’re gonna knock it down/ I ain’t some king/ No, I’ve never been/ I’m on the outside, honey/ I’m looking in.”
Yet, earlier in the song, Rademaker subtly suggested that there’s the eternal optimism of a sunshine-drenched heart/mind behind those sober sentiments when he sings, “I’ve waited so long/ For something to change/ I’ve waited on a feeling/ I can’t explain,” and taken in the broader context, you get the sense that this guy’s not going to quit. Not on us, not on himself. After all, you don’t write a song about giving up – you might write a song about a negative, but then you’re gonna flip it around because, yeah, things have sucked lately, so fuck you, I’m moving on, come along with me for the ride, too, if you dare.
The fact that this album also represents some of the final recordings of one of indiedom’s most beloved artists, collaborators (to Ryan Adams and Chris Robinson, among others), utility players, and just plain inspirational forces – the late Neal Casal, who took his own life in August – puts a sad but relevant coda to things as well. That’s Casal’s gorgeous fretboard peals swirling throughout the title track, and Rademaker and the other band members have openly mourned their losing of Casal in interviews. Rademaker has even suggested that the album title comes from an offhand comment that Casal made during the sessions about bearing down and not overthinking the music.
While I’ve never lived the proverbial “band experience” myself, anyone who can’t identify with that type of loss clearly lacks a heart… maybe a soul as well. So, again, you come away from Let It Burn with a definitive sense of celebration, as in, we got through this, and the rest of you can, too.
This album, then, is also about all us folks who might have a chance to recover some things we thought we’d lost. Man, is this ever drenched in heart and soul. The first time I heard it, several months ago, I muttered to myself, “Think this gonna be in my top 10 of 2019.”
‘deed it is, folks.
Oh, did I mention that GospelbeacH is a band that gets it?
‘deed they do, folks.
TRACKS TO TRACK DOWN: “Let it Burn,” “Dark Angel,” “Get It Back”