May 15, 2017
Released On August 27, 2010
Released By Lemon Lot Records
I spent a better part of the last decade covering Richmond, Virginia’s music scene, which I chronicled in the now-defunct music blog RVA Playlist. (Editor’s Note: He left out highly celebrated and beloved.) I did my best to cover everything that was coming to the area that I felt was underrepresented, no matter what the style. I always felt that local music was always undervalued by the general public and had the stigma of not being as good as the mainstream and I really wanted to change that perception by sharing the best that RVA had to offer. In 2010, I came across Long Arms To Hold You randomly and knew there was something to this group that everyone else had to hear too. In that vein, it’s only fitting that I choose this piece of work as my final contribution to Off Your Radar.
If there was one album that I listened to over and over again the years, it was this one. With elements of the country artists of yesterday mixed with the punk rock of today, Long Arms To Hold You still holds up as one of my favorite albums. From the opening notes of “Every All The Time,” I knew this was going to be a fun ride. These guys know how to make a rock song that leaves you begging for more. This was, hands down, my favorite Richmond band to listen to and the album quickly became my favorite release of everything that came out that stacked year. The album is full of pop rock country energy that’s complimented by soul filled somber tracks. For every “Waiting To Be Reborn” to dance along to, there’s a lighter note with tracks like “Strung Out On You” and “Downtown Dreams.” The introspective lyrics from lead singer James Menefee are very fresh and sincere, which only adds to my enjoyment of this record, something that’s only grown in the years since its release. Hopefully it will for you as well.
Stylish and charismatic much like the songwriting and production effort abound on their debut.
Always fun to have a friend’s band come up in this kind of context. Long Arms frontman James Menefee and I have known each other since we were teenagers and everyone called him “James FunSize” (I still call him that about half the time — hey, Fun Size are back together, so it’s cool, right?). He’s done a lot musically over the time I’ve known him, all of it worthwhile. Long Arms To Hold You was definitely a step in a more mature direction after the dissolution of River City High, and showed a new assurance after the way his previous project ended with a whimper. I’m especially a fan of the more upbeat tunes here — “Every All The Time” is a hell of an opener, with a memorable chorus that inspires wistful feelings of love and desire. If that makes sense. “Kiss The Bottle” is not a Jawbreaker cover, but its countryish instrumental flourishes helps give Menefee’s balladry some weight. “So Long And Thanks For The Toothbrush” reminds me of the way the Goo Goo Dolls sounded when they would do sad, sweet ballads back in the day, when they were still sounded more like The Replacements than Matchbox 20. “Second Place” has some of that mid-period Replacements bite as well; it’d fit right in on a mixtape between “Bastards Of Young” and “Gun” by Uncle Tupelo. Figures I’d end up invoking the names of Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar before the end of this — Long Arms To Hold You is somewhat of a piece with those killer first two Uncle Tupelo albums, the ones that were saturated with country and folk influences but still fundamentally rocked. The same is true of this album, so it’s a great listen, regardless of whether you’ve known James Menefee for 20 years or whether you’ve never heard of him before you read this newsletter.
Today is my birthday. On my birthday I like to buy myself something too, something I don’t really do super often because part of what I worry about is money, and oh god now I’m worried I sound narcissistic, telling all you people it’s my birthday, but I needed to tell you so you would understand why I would willingly go shopping in Carytown on a Saturday. Weekends in Carytown are for tourists, people who migrate in from the suburbs for cute shopping and Mellow Mushroom and oohing and aahing at every single store window. And while they walk, their teenagers get free reign from Kroger down to the Boulevard. As I shopped around, thumbing through consignment dresses and little gold necklaces, I felt little hints of nostalgia flickering at the edges of my awareness. What are these chokers everywhere? Am I seeing short-alls on these racks? Round sunglasses with colored lens? Stretchy ribbed mock turtlenecks? Walking home with a new black dress, I realized the ’90s were back, dudes, something I have to smile at. Continuing this trend was this week’s album, Long Arms To Hold You. From the first track, I was taken back to high school with this poppy sound. Something in the vocal affect, the harmonica wailing over the drums, pulls me back past the 2010 release date to the rooftop of Empire Records. This music has the plaintive edge that puberty gives to any emotion, even the happy romantic ones. Maybe a little proggy in the sweet sounds of violin, strings, or harmonica that play over the generally upbeat album, but really these tracks are purely pop, never actually that sad, but music for a BBQ, a road trip with the windows down, or a day before your birthday spent mostly alone, on the couch, while your cat tries to lie down on your book.
About seven years ago all of my favorite artists were directly influenced by at least one, if not all, of the following three artists: Bruce Springsteen, The Replacements, and Jawbreaker. These artists wove tales about apathetic and/or jaded blue collar protagonists facing the hardships of heartbreak and economic distress, lacking a sense of belonging and of self. It was exactly the type of thing I needed as a recent post-grad. I had never heard of Long Arms before, but before “Every All The Time” was even halfway through, I was immediately flooded with memories of listening to We Don’t Stand a Chance, Sweet Saint Me, and Find Me A Drink Home while sitting in my parents’ basement, sending e-mail after e-mail with resumes and cover letters all specifically tailored for positions I clearly wasn’t qualified to hold. It was kind of weird, but listening to Long Arms To Hold You made me miss those days of finding hopeful music in a hopeless time. In fact, it took me back to being 22 in a big way. When I listen to this album, I can picture putting “Waiting To Be Reborn” on a mixtape for my girlfriend, quietly singing “So Long And Thanks For The Toothbrush” in my room a million times, and casually playing “The Ballad Of Joni And James” for strangers on Turntable.FM. I will admit that it was a little bit of a letdown to find out that
“Kiss The Bottle” wasn’t a cover of the Jawbreaker song. But hey, it’s learning to get over the little disappointments in life that albums like this one were made for.
A look at brazen frontman James Menefee from the CD release show back in 2010.
Driving back home from spending a weekend with my BFF, I knew there was one thing I should listen to: Long Arms’ Long Arms To Hold You. Its blend of punk and country is definitely a style of music that has been perfected here in Richmond (see: Horsehead). I can’t separate the band from Richmond in my head; for one, I’ve known frontman James Menefee since I was a high schooler going to pop punk shows, and I associate his voice so strongly with the city. But when I listen to the songs, like “Downtown Dreams,” I picture Richmond and all the adventures I’ve had here. “Waiting To Be Reborn,” which James said is one of the first songs he wrote for his then-unnamed solo project (now a full band), is the jewel of the album: it rocks back and forth over a lap steel, with him singing about the crossroads of your late 20s. I had no idea my friend Tracy Keats Wilson contributed to duet “Strung Out On You,” until I heard her sweet voice in the first line, “I need you, here beside me.” I am forever grateful to James for getting Tracy to sing on a country song — the melody and instruments really sound great with her voice and I now eagerly await the Positive No country album. Throughout the record, James proves he has a Billie Joe Armstrong-esque ear for vocal melody: some of the hooks are so good that I skip back to listen to them again. Long Arms To Hold You ends with a song genre James probably always wanted to write: the story-song about two lovers. In “The Ballad Of Joni And James,” Joni is “freezing cold” in Canada, and he’s “the other name” who is “in a rock and roll band.” The lyrics sometimes feel like a satire of these types of rock ballads (“he’s gonna to give her the key to his heart / and they ain’t ever gonna be apart”) but it comes off as romantic and genuine due to James’ delivery. Thanks, Andrew, for all your contributions to Off Your Radar and for making your last pick a Richmond record. It is the perfect thing for you to end on…
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
I’m going to avoid making any comparisons to a certain style of music from the ’90s because either it’s so obvious that no one else is going to make the comparison either, or enough people have made the comparison that it would be redundant for me to do the same. I love this album and I was pretty much hooked from the first blast of harmonica on the first track, but I was delighted to discover all of the flavors that were explored on this album. In a similar vein, I really enjoyed how it kept zigging and zagging on me as I tried to get a handle on what genre I was dealing with. That is truly the sign of a memorable and relistenable album: you know that it all belongs together but it’s diverse enough to keep things interesting. If this had been on my radar in high school (if I had been in high school at a time when this existed), I would have been all over it and it probably would have been in regular rotation.
I had a very hard time believing this album is from only 2010. Why, do you ask? The moderate rock tempo, major key, and blaring harmonica at the start of “Every All The Time,” combined with the chugging chords on a brightly toned lead guitar, and pretty universal lyrics about wanting “to be your everything,” instantly brought me to thoughts of Blues Traveler, Hootie and the Blowfish, and at least five seconds of early 2000 pop punk flashbacks (thanks to lead vocalist, James Menefee’s mildly gruff, but thankfully not stereotypically nasally, voice). None of the aforementioned things are signatures of the dawn to the second 2000s decade but rather, from more than a decade, and more than one trending genre, earlier. Move onto “Waiting To Be Reborn” however, and suddenly the sound has shifted on its heels: rapid but lightly bouncing snare, piano, and mandolin? What’s going on here?? The wheel turns again, though not as drastically, at “Strung Out On You.” A slow ballad strolling definitively in the county lane with some very pleasant lap steel, the duet between Menefee and a delicately voiced female counterpart fits with the “structure” of the kind of song we’re given but, I may have been wishing for a mild vocal “recasting” in this love story because between the instrumental cohesion and the varying vocal character, things felt mismatched at times. Through the rest of Long Arms To Hold You, Long Arms seems to have gotten a firmer and more assured grip how they want to be taken in: a band with relatively easy going melodies that drift between country, folk, rock and roll, and power pop (the latter makes more sense once you see the “Big Star” influence on the group’s Facebook page). After the answers were in front of me, the album made sonic sense. Furthermore, by 2010, the industry was already well into having conversations about the dissolving of genres and the reduction of apprehension around seemingly unlike styles co-habituating on the same album or same song. Still, there’s something that feels inherently odd about this particular pairing of power pop and country dreams. It’s perfectly well allowed but like the thought of an old school cowboy getting sent into space, even though you can picture it in your head, and it is technically doable, something about it just makes you turn your head; needing that extra minute to get conceptually acclimated.
Combining punk energy, southern sound, & classic songwriting into a streamlined product, one equally dissociative and unforgettable.
Long Arms To Hold You from Richmond, VA’s Long Arms is an impressive amount of tracks from the band’s 2010 debut. The production is rich and textured, gracefully moving from anthems to ballads to raging roots and rock rhythm, and while the band certainly wear their influences on their sleeves (Big Star, Replacements, Drive-By Truckers, Wilco, Old 97s), there is still an unspoken quality to their sound that is unquestionably their own. There’s a wandering and dream-like quality (“Your Own Terms“) to these tracks that makes it reminiscent of blue-collar towns and dusty old roads traveled by the every-man looking for his every-gal, (I can’t stop thinking of the final track, “The Ballad Of Joni And James,” which reminds me of my love for the clever and bittersweet songwriting of Tim Rogers from the band You Am I). I’m not saying that it’s a songwriting style that’s for everyone per se, but there’s certainly something comforting and warm in the occasional sweeping hammond organ and open guitar style that makes tracks like these sink in easy while they’re going down. These are songs to daydream to, songs to bob your head and tap your feet, or drive anywhere, to. Sometimes it’s an album like this that can make a day go all right — and sometimes, the simplest songs can be the truest ones to wrap your arms around.
Twenty years ago, an album like Long Arms To Hold You would have required the services of a high-priced studio, a high-priced producer (Scott Litt, anyone?), and a conference room full of marketing geniuses to get the word out. And it would have been a huge hit. Now, results comparable to all but the last part of the equation are completely achievable by a regional band like Long Arms with no major label support. It’s the last part, the marketing, that they can’t quite solve. Hell, Long Arms can’t even get a review on AllMusic and are currently ranked over 2.7 million below the number one spot on Amazon. And that’s a damned shame, as this is a collection of gleaming, richly produced rock songs with all the guitar hooks, keyboard fills, energetic rhythms, and melodies you could want. Is it all a little Dawson’s Creek? Are they a band slightly out of time? Yes and yes — but it’s all so completely sincere and natural that you barely notice. And if they don’t quite hit the brilliant peaks of their heroes Big Star and The Replacements, let’s be honest: Who does? If Soul Asylum decides to reform again, however, Dave Pirner better watch his back. As their imaginary A&R man, my only suggestion might be to rethink the duet format of “Strung Out On You,” or maybe bring in a more convincing partner for James Menefee, but that’s really the only misstep. So major kudos to Long Arms for carrying the torch for purebred and rootsy power pop, which never really goes out of style. They really do write, play, and produce them like they used to — and here’s Off Your Radar with a marketing plan that will blow their minds…
Most of us have been there. “What is your greatest weakness,” an interviewer asks. Inside, we’re all shaking our heads. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do– “I guess that I just work too hard.” Damn it. It’s too easy to fall into, but hey, some people really eat that stuff up. Who knows, maybe they’re just dead inside or maybe they like that you took a gamble with such a cliche answer. An interesting point to consider, what if it’s true? What if your greatest weakness was in fact a compliment, a strong suit? Not in the way of “I’m super attentive” which really just means you’re super anal and no one likes to be around you, but an actual, bonafide strength that hinders you a bit. I bring this up because going through Long Arms’ debut, I’m convinced that the band’s greatest shortcoming is that James Menefee is just too good a songwriter. It’s not just that he knows how to write a compelling and infectious hook (“Every All The Time“). It’s not just that he can almost enhance that Mellencamp story-time style with modern precision (“The Ballad Of Joni And James“). He’s also somehow able to make the mundane grand and imposing. Look at “Your Own Terms“. Plain White T’s put their kids through college with this sound, but Menefee takes it a step further, separating the song into sections that subtly enhance the previous part before leaving you with something far removed from empty-room strumming, and much more memorable. (Also shout-out to the first line of that song — Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches!) But how is this bad? Honestly, this strength as a songwriter gives him the confidence and inclination to hop across genre lines and mix a variety of styles into one. To be clear, this isn’t a misstep, but for a band with such clear power pop and pop punk leanings, it can be a turn-off for first-time listeners who lack patience and tolerance. Inherently, this will hold the music back a bit, but it is clear that this confidence is perhaps the record’s saving grace. I mean, how else could you explain a song like “So Long And Thanks For The Toothbrush” with the ballsy decision to include mandolin, pedal steel, and an electric solo? I know tons of people who would get a kick out of the concept, let alone execution, but in the same vein, there are an equal number ready to dismiss it for being too ambitious, which might be the most apt way to describe Long Arms’ debut. Too ambitious. Again, this comes from Menefee being too good a songwriter. But in being too ambitious, all the songs here still hit their mark, transporting your mind to a smoky venue that accidentally and improbably booked The Jayhawks and SR-71 on the same night. Sure, it’s going to be great, fun, and unforgettable, but it’s not something you’re going to write off as normal occurrence or even one that should happen all the time. And that’s exactly how we should view Long Arms To Hold You.
Brittle Stars by Brittle Stars
Chosen By Carly Green