Issue #147: The Astorian by Side Saddle

January 28, 2018

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The Astorian by Side Saddle
Released On September 15, 2014
Released By Cedar Lodge Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Kira Grunenberg

It’s one thing to be a long time follower and fan of a band that is steadfast in who you find them to be from the day of your first listening experience to the last day a group might disband. It’s another thing, when you stumble upon a new group that’s simultaneously brand new but ignites curious expectations because as it turns out, “new” is at least one part spin-off.

Side Saddle snuck up on me when it was already one EP into existence because I was still busy saying goodbye to This Old Ghost, the band that pre-dated this side project of lead singer, Ian McGuiness. Despite This Old Ghost being a ghost itself when I finally realized Ian’s side project was up and running — come to think of it, I never did ask if the project’s name was a play on it initially being a solo side project — my timing couldn’t have been better. Right when I went for a dive into Side Saddle’s music, the finishing touches had just been put on debut full length, The Astorian, and Side Saddle had evolved from a solo side project to a full-fledged band all its own.

Initially, there was that brief, inescapable period of questioning what would await behind the play button, knowing Ian had been in more than one band before now. However, the songwriting that emerged on this LP was nothing short of beautifully clever and emotionally piercing. The latter doesn’t just pertain to instrumental veracity or dynamic intensity but more so to the sheer introspective vulnerability presented by Ian, for the listener. The romantically inclined narratives that insulate each song seem tried and true enough but, just the same as no one’s coupling, fight, uncertainty, break up, or sad reflection are ever exactly the same, the picture Side Saddle paints with what’s happening or what the story wants you to feel, is all about turning the expected image or outcome on its head.

Right from the very first track, if I tell you the album at hand is strewn with relationship-minded songs, one would think, even if The Astorian isn’t a through line concept album, that optimism, or reveling in infatuation and lust, would be the bright dawn on the horizon before everything starts to crumble. No, instead we’re greeted with a galloping acoustic guitar and a crisp, harmonized vocal that has the protagonist singing an immediately disconcerting sentiment: “I’ve been carrying this weight around.” The opener, “When It’s All Done,” wastes no time plunging Side Saddle neck deep into a relationship gone fully awry that’s full of resentment and regret (“You wish me unwell / you damned me to hell / and when it’s all done you will know why I did what I did”), but the band does nothing except plant the idea of promising potential going forward, thanks to instrumental parts like a continuous, upbeat kick drum pulse, fast and isolated snare rolls, and the eventual influx of trumpets playing loud but softly edged tones. The whole first song gives this sense of excited build up, which is the last thing most would expect after an imploded relationship. Not to mention it’s a bold move for a first track on a first album by a band.

Contrasting with the twists of the album’s lyrics, when looking at the bones of Side Saddle on paper, the six gentlemen and their arsenal of instruments don’t seem all that departed from the tools of any indie rock outfit. And while this is true, it is recording choices, part prioritization, and playing technique that made The Astorian shine with the assuredness of any high profile indie folk, over indie rock, band out there. From the various kinds of stick hits applied on the opening hook of “Honey” — which play off the lightness of a surprising accordion — to the open-spaced, almost raw recording style of the title track‘s piano interlude; alongside the subtle, but crucial, sonic characterizing touches of percussion like tambourine and egg shaker on “Something I Said” and “Only Time” respectively: it’s aspects like these that placed the album in a sweet spot between immediately appealing, clear alternative rock production and boasting a melodic makeup that wasn’t all about the omnipresent interplay of standard kit patterns and chord driven guitar strums. Ian’s acoustic finger style partners with Eric Tait Jr.’s delicate single line piano melodies behind a somber and pleading but slowly futile vocal on “On The Road In A Storm,” for example, to the result of a dead-on, unplugged folk bullseye that’s as lyrically relatable as any pop ballad out there but comes to you in a box that’s nowhere nearby that same old Top 40 (“Surrounded by these strangers who swear they know my plight / but I’ve never felt the distance more than I do here tonight”). What you heard was different but you got to hear it with the sheen and professional care of things not as common for new, independent, DIY groups.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t step away from the more formal praise of The Astorian to simply make a space for applauding the inarguably best track on the album: “Don’t Wait For Him.” I know what you’re thinking: “Is it about not waiting around for a guy?” The answer is yes! Sure, we all probably know someone who has been let down or generally just left in a semi-comatose relationship with a boy because he hasn’t called in days, keeps cancelling that next date, or because he always has to do that (insert fixating hobby here) while he feigns participating in a conversation with you. But how often do we hear catchy singles written that advocate for ditching the guy because he’s not ready for the commitment, as sung by a guy himself? Taylor Swift’s early candid cuts like “Fifteen” come to mind, but that’s Taylor Swift. It was like having your best girlfriend or older sister tell you about boys. Not quite the same refreshing effect.

Even though the song isn’t sung in first person, it almost feels like Ian volunteered to be the messenger for an uncommon PSA that’s not only a guy calling out the shortcomings of other guys, but is also telling girls not to stop being awesome while guys take their time catching up. Honesty about guys and encouragement for girls? This is the kind of song teens need to hear on the radio two times an hour and get stuck in their heads — not dime a dozen dance tracks about getting drunk, getting a piece of ass or, at best, seeking solace only from other womxn when a guy disconnects or ghosts them. It’s funny and almost ironic that while the story is relatable to masses of girls everywhere and the narrative like a rare unicorn of lyricism, it’s also written to be an incredibly strong single — the kind that is woefully not spinning on those same Top 40 stations mentioned above.

The Astorian is an incredibly decisive, confidently executed, and impressively assembled record that felt oddly out of place against the reality of being Side Saddle’s first album because of just how unwaveringly good it was all around.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

Melodically driven and emotionally steered folk rock that’s endlessly irresistible.

Addition by subtraction isn’t just a cringe-worthy business cliché. It’s real, and The Astorian contains a quietly brilliant example. “On The Road In A Storm” stood out to me right away, and it took a second listen through the album to realize why. The first three tracks set up an expectation related to the vocals — that you’ll hear two-part harmony across long stretches of verses and choruses alike, performed so precisely that the two tones often register as a single sound. (The possibly overused descriptor “honeyed” comes to mind, but it fits so perfectly here, and not just because track three is literally called “Honey.”) The verses in “On The Road In A Storm” subtract that second harmonizing voice, allowing the lyrics to stand alone in an especially stark way, and lending extra credence to lyrics like “I’ve never felt the distance more than I do here tonight.” That feeling of being where you’re not supposed to be really soaks in. Did Side Saddle have this in mind when they sequenced the songs on The Astorian? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s a case of the stars aligning for a particular listener. I will say that I’m also a fan of how the drums are portioned out on the album — where they are and where they aren’t. And the passage that follows “On The Road In A Storm,” with the title track’s quick, pastoral interlude flowing into the heavy percussion at the start of “Something I Said?” Dynamics at their best.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

Tempernillo, my friend from Puerto Rico told me, means sex in the morning. No wonder we like it, I joked with her, laughing. Recently a friend who is super into high-end wines and I were talking about weekday wine, the kind of bottle you can open and have a glass of and leave for a day or two or five, the kind you can take to anyone’s house and it’s guaranteed they’ll like it more than the $10 tag would tell you. There is value in that, finding a middle ground where disparate people will all nod and sip along, tasting this with you and loving it in their own way. Sipping one of those very wines, listening yet again to The Astorian, I can’t help but draw a comparison between this tempernillo and this pleasing album. Ian McGuinness’s driving, uplifting vocals bring a brightness to every track, even those near the end of the album that float downward into a sparity of sound. The first four or so tracks have a more layered, complicated sound, a melancholy undertone given the stiff upper lip by involved drums and tight, plinky guitar pushing it ever upward to the surface. Nods to The Decemberists, Death Cab For Cutie, and even Green Day on “Don’t Wait For Him” provide an easy gateway for those unfamiliar with the band, but honestly the engaging vocals lend an easy enough avenue for falling into the album.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

This is one of those “warm” records. It’s best on a gray, wintry day. Exceedingly good if you have a fireplace and happen to make chili. I think the best word for The Astorian is “cozy.” The soothing harmonies of the opening “When It’s All Done” are so inviting that you can’t help but invest into the rest of the record. I could say the same for the inclusion of accordion on “Honey.” There’s something about accordion chords, outside of polka, that serve as almost an audio hug. I’ve never been able to figure it out, but it’s an instrument far underutilized in many genres. Maybe it’s because the accordion is so closely identified with polka that musicians are scared to search for a new context? Anyway, enough about the accordion. Let’s get to the songwriting. There are three records that really stand out on this album for their lyrical depth. “On The Road In A Storm” carries on the coziness: “Can I just sleep until we’re where we need to go / well, it’s coming down so hard I can’t make out that stretch of road.” Plus, we’ve all been on that road trip with a significant other and impending doom — somehow, Side Saddle make it worth revisiting. “Only Time” is another gem, packed with a charming self-awareness, or lack thereof: ” Do you wish you were in my shoes? / Don’t assume I know who I am.” And then there’s just something so soulful in the way the lead sings “oh how luck am I” on “Watch The Boats Go By.” Just that one little phrase brought me right back to listening to classic Neil Young albums with my dad on summer road trips. What’s more cozy than that?

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Click here to watch the comforting and inspiring video for “Don’t Wait For Him.”

Because sometimes, you find the reassurance you so desire housed perfectly within a captivating melody.

Years ago, I had an office job at a marketing company as an SEO copywriter. I remember a discussion that occurred via email within the SEO team regarding some nerdy grammar and what it meant in the context of verbal expression. The person who (by accident) started the discussion inquired as to whether or not ending a sentence with an exclamation point would be the equivalent of yelling the statement. I joined in, arguing that the text equivalent of that would not be the use of said punctuation mark, but instead the use of all caps. An exclamation point, I argued, would be giving the statement in an excited manner, whereas using all caps would be yelling or screaming it. I was reminded of this discussion the first time I heard the final track of The Astorian. More specifically, it was the moment when Ian McGuinness — who, pardon the side note, sounds a lot like James Mercer — sings the word “shit”. After an entire album of “clean” language (except for a “hell” and a “damn”), the use of a word like “shit” could be seen an exclamation point of sorts, or maybe even an underline. Language, and certainly in its coarsest form, can be (and mostly is) more effective when employed with a “less is more” mentality, after all. And I think that was the point in using an expletive in “Lush.” Following that line of thought, then, the final third of the song musically could be seen as all caps, with the band rocking out the hardest anywhere on the album, and one of the few places where the band rocks out at all. It definitely grabbed my attention, and they didn’t even have to yell or scream to do it.

Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That

Indie rock is a broad definition. It borders on meaningless in much the same way “alternative” did in the ’90s. More than anything, it simply draws a line between established rock acts that tend to fall into a predictable genre and those who attempt to do something a little more fresh and haven’t yet reached mainstream levels of success. Side Saddle’s The Astorian sounds like a record that ought to have made it to mainstream levels of success. The tight harmonies built into the vocals, the melodic hooks which dip into accessible pop music just enough sincerity and power to raise the music up from simple pop to something greater. Before there was fun. on every daytime radio, there was The Format, which laid the foundations for Nate Ruess’s unique falsetto and witty narrative-style songwriting. The Astorian offers a similar sound to those early records by The Format. The band incorporates some folk influence but then also explores more pop-rock territory on “Halcyon” and “Something I Said.” The guitars ring out in arpeggios which lend an air of melancholy but more than anything it’s the smooth and entertaining vocal style of Ian McGuiness — who’s songwriting the band was built around. Having been originally a solo project under which to perform his songs, it eventually became six-piece which explores similar musical territory to The Shins or Hey Rosetta!. The real standout track on the record is “Don’t Wait For Him.” With a fast boxcar rhythm and a strong melody, this is the track that I found myself repeating over and over again. In fact, the latter half of the record is overall its strongest and rewards repeat listens. On “Lush,” there is some particularly clever songwriting on display. Mention of the metaphor of a parade at the moment a trumpet enters and somehow manages to avoid being brash and sticks to subtle and appropriate. It’s a really nice touch. Despite the level of quality from production to musicianship, this 2014 record was well-received but never really found the audience it might have. As so often happens on Off Your Radar, it’s a joy to give this one the boost it deserves.

Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage

Though driven by its canny frontman, it’s the relationship between every member & moving part here that makes this music truly soar.

This is nice. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Side Saddle at first. I’ve spent the past week listening to the entire Alkaline Trio discography almost exclusively and I’d be lying if there wasn’t at least a small part of me that looked at the cover of The Astorian and thought it looked similar to Alkaline Trio’s Is This Thing Cursed? (This cover features a piano, theirs has a phone, but both are a deep red surrounded by a black background). Of course, I know better than to judge an album by its cover, and even though Side Saddle sounds nothing like Alkaline Trio, I wasn’t disappointed either. This is the kind of album I need to listen to both before and after a stressful day at work. Back in 2008, there was a band promoting their upcoming album who made some comments about how the new songs he’d written were feel good songs that he’d want to hear on the radio after a long day at work. At the time I understood the words, but I didn’t truly understand that sentiment until much later, and now those “post work” songs are something I enjoy coming across. (That band was Panic! At the Disco, and I’m hesitant to relate Side Saddle to yet another overly theatrical pop punk band in the span of a single paragraph, but here we are.) The chorus of “you couldn’t bring me down if you tried” in the album’s title track is exactly how I feel after I hear customers shrieking at my employees for things way beyond their control (my company recently decided to cease all use of plastic bags and rich New Yorkers have had a very difficult time reconciling with that). And even though I found myself having to change subway cars twice on my way home — first to move away from the smell of cat piss and again at the very next stop to avoid getting caught in between a yelling match between a homeless man and a drunk twenty-something brat — I was still tapping my foot along to “Don’t Wait For Him.” If a song can still worm its way into my ears while all of that is happening, there’s gotta be something pretty special about it.

Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie

For all of my mom’s faults, she will at least listen to me when I tell her she’ll like something, because I know her and I’m always right about these things. She says she loves music, but is content listening to her local Oldies station, and her music collection is mostly full of Greatest Hits and the sorts of compilations that Time-Life used to advertise during Sally Jessy Raphael. You know the comps I’m talking about, I’m sure. Anything she likes that was released in the last 30ish years is because I played it for her, hoping she’d branch out of her “I like three genres: Classic Rock, Oldies, and Outlaw Country” bubble. (Yes, “Oldies” is a genre to her. We had a huge argument a few years ago where she refused to acknowledge that it is a format and not a genre.) I put on Side Saddle’s The Astorian today while doing dishes and making pancakes, and immediately thought “my mom would dig this.” And I had the same thought at the beginning of each track. I think I’ll buy her the CD. She’s going to love it, I’m sure of it.

SJ Lebowski
50 Foot Pop Queenie

Of all the intriguing and thoughtful lyrics on this record, it’s this repeated line from “Something I Said” that really illustrates my love of this record: “You couldn’t bring me down (if you tried).” Don’t understand what I mean? Step outside, Look to the clouds. See that bobbing figure? That’s me. I’ve been there since the first gorgeously layered line of this record kicked in. And I’m not coming down anytime soon, folks. This isn’t hyperbole either. I’ve often gushed about my love of intricate harmonies and ornate compositions and Side Saddle lifts me off my feet with both right at the onset of The Astorian with “When It’s All Done.” It’s the work of Brian Wilson, transported from the peak of pop greatness and assimilated into a modern folk-rock sound. It’s not just the harmonies either that bring me back to the sunny, pre-Smile days, but the inflection in words too. When Ian McGuiness sings “I’ve been carrying this weight around,” just the simple draw in the space between “a” and “round” in the last word drops me completely into the sensation of Shut Down Vol. 1. Two things strike me most about this comparison to a band and style I love so much. One, it’s not trying to remake the magic in the way bands like The Explorers Club did — instead, they from it what they need in order to take their sound to the next level. More importantly, the comparison doesn’t last throughout the record. There’s bits of Wilson and his compositional prowess throughout the record too, but you also get feelings of The Shins (“Something I Said”), Death Cab For Cutie (“Watch The Boats Go By“), Band Of Horses (“Only Time“), and even some Mamas and Papas (“Halcyon“) to show that Wilson and co. are not the only ’60s icons they’re borrowing from here. But even those connections are fleeting by nature in this record, and as the mammoth closing track “Lush” rolls in, you can feel the band performing in a style wholly of their own creation, sharpened by what they’ve heard and studied before and enlarged by their hope for what’s to come. It’s truly spectacular and hits in on what so many folk-rock bands are missing from today, as well as bands who so clearly and proudly wear their influences on their sleeves. This is the prototype for those bands looking to hit the next level in their music. With unavoidable great melodies, ornate harmonies, intriguing instrumentation, and surprising structures, it’s a record that’s just as suited for a radio listen in rush hour traffic as it is in the basement of some record store playing you peculiar bands you’ll never hear otherwise. “I’ve waited you for all this time,” McGuinness sings in one of the band’s strongest moments, “On The Road In A Storm,” with a yearning in his voice that just can’t be taught. I can tell my yearning’s completely different from his, but it’s still nice to have it fulfilled today with this exquisite folk-rock album.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Pictures by The Len Price 3
Chosen By Steve Lampiris

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Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: Laura Burroughs, Erin Calvert, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Chelsea Kostrey, Steve Lampiris, SJ Lebowski, David Munro, Drew Necci, Jeremy Shatan, & Darryl Wright

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