October 22, 2018
Released On January 20, 2015
Released By Epitaph Records
When I think about the dollar — as in a literal $1 bill, not the abstract idea of American currency — I feel like I often value its worth based on things that can be consumed, usually with relative ease with little-to-no lasting effects. The McDonald’s dollar menu. Happy Hour oysters. Arizona Iced Tea. Dollar pizza. I’m not knocking any of the aforementioned things- I drink Arizona far more often than I should, and dollar slices have probably saved me from more hangovers than I can count, but what I often forget is that I have used a dollar to buy things that have brought continuous joy into my life as well.
If you haven’t guessed where I’m going with this by now, I bought Runners In The Nerved World by The Sidekicks for a dollar. I don’t know if it was a promotional sale to celebrate the album’s release or if it was an Epitaph intern accidentally punching in the wrong price on Bandcamp, but as someone who liked their last album, I thought it was worth buying before listening. Even if I didn’t like it — it was only a dollar so no big loss. I gave it a couple of listens, thought to myself “well, it’s no Awkward Breeds but it sounds nice” and then, as the year progressed, all but forgot about it as more and more albums came out — Jeff Rosenstock, War On Women, Frank Turner, and the previously covered Daddy Issues were among the names that inadvertently buried Runners In The Nerved World. That’s not unusual for January releases, though by the end of the year I re-visited it and realized what a mistake I had made by forgetting it.
Ever since it came out in 2012, I had kind of assumed that the Sidekicks’ third album, Awkward Breeds, would always be my favorite by them. I have a lot of friends who might take issue with me saying this, but at this point in time, I can comfortably say that Runners In The Nerved World is my favorite Sidekicks record. Hey, sometimes our favorites sneak up on us unexpectedly, and that’s exactly what happened to me in this case.
While it may be lacking in the loud, bombastic moments like “The Whale And Jonah” or “Daisy” that made Awkward Breeds so thrilling, I feel like Runners has more consistency in its tone and delivery. Even in its peppier moments, like “Everything In Twos” and “Blissfield, MI,” the energy feels more relaxed to me. (If this album had come out just ten years sooner, it would have been a bit confusing as to how this album was their Epitaph Records debut, especially compared to their actual debut, the rough and rowdy So Long, Soggy Dog). I have this idea in my head that this change in songwriting was due to Runners being written during a period of recovery and that primary songwriter Steve Ciolek wrote less aggressive songs because of physical restraints, but then I realize that I don’t actually know if “The Kid Who Broke His Wrist” is autobiographical and maybe he didn’t actually write this album while his wrist was healing. But when I listen to this album, I hear songs for the broken, looking to recover, and I double down on this idea that the songs were written while he was literally broken.
Regardless of how the songs came to be, what I love is the flow from track to track. Sure, The Sidekicks released at least one single to support the album (“Everything in Twos” got the music video treatment, and while there were other pre-release songs, I don’t think they were officially “singles” so to speak), and there are a lot of great individual songs that would be perfect for various mixtapes, but I think that Runners In The Nerved World is an album that’s best experienced as a whole. These songs complement and connect to each other so well that it would be crazy to listen to it any way other than starting from the beginning. The most obvious line that connects these songs is the lyric “write a song called ‘Summer Brings You Closer to Satan'” from “The Kid Who Broke His Wrist,” when four songs later on the album there is, in fact, a song called “Summer Brings You Closer To Satan,” but that one is very on-the-nose, and there are a lot more lyrical nuggets to dig up. I’ve read some cynical interpretations of “Blissfield, MI,” but ever the optimist, I prefer to think that at least the first verse is about being happy: “I feel like how the Bulls felt in 1993 / I felt like how my head felt the last time you kissed me” is, to me at least, the best way to describe an indescribable high from being with someone special. And how do The Sidekicks follow that up? With “Deer,” in my opinion, the album’s literal and metaphorical centerpiece. Its chorus of “call me your dear, but darling it isn’t clear if I’m the one in the headlights or the one on the side of the road” is already heartbreaking as it is, but when you realize it throws the narrator of the previous song crashing down to the highway? That’s just devastating. The parallels between “Hell Is Warm” and “Blissfield, MI” (“How do we not get lost? How, if you’re just a touch, and I’m just a touch too certain?” and “I wasn’t getting touched except by my own hand” respectively) have made me wonder if they’re about different perspectives of the same relationship. See? Songs for the broken! It’s that kind of emotional roller coaster that keeps me hooked.
On a final note, I think it’s worth mentioning that I could have sworn that Runners was released in 2014, but all evidence points to it being released in 2015. I think my confusion was caused by the fact that I saw The Sidekicks in January 2014 opening for Against Me!, and it’s wild to think that an entire year passed before I got to hear studio versions of the then-new songs they played that night. It’s also wild that I’ve listened to this album so many times in the last two and a half years that I assumed it had been out for longer. My sense of time might be warped, but at least I can say that I certainly got my money’s worth.
Take a good look at the album cover to Runners In The Nerved World. I mean, really look at it. What do you notice? You see someone alone, watching the world — in this case, an amusement park — happening over there. That is, away from this person. The world is occurring without them. It’s the perfect visual representation of Steve Ciolek’s observations on being and/or feeling alienated from society, of (probably) being an introvert. The cover is best portrayed lyrically by these lines: “Not quite a recluse / I’m spending money on the real / But all that’s gonna get / Is some more internet / Somehow I feel obsolete”. He’s trying to be social and trying to relate to others, but only in a digital medium. And it seems he best relates to not being able to relate: “All that humans are doing is just being uncomfortably human”. As a brilliant compliment, the guitars poke and prod and itch throughout, as if to demonstrate the discomfort of being in public for an introvert. For much of the record, Ciolek seems trapped in his own world (his own head?), even going as far as having one of the album’s songs directly reference another from that same album. And because he’s trapped in his own head, Ciolek utters one of the singularly loneliest lines I’ve ever heard: “I wasn’t getting touched except for my own hand.” That’s likely why I connected with this album: I’m so introverted that I debated pointing it out.
There is something to be said for falling back into the emotions that go the way of young love. Plaintive need, that necessary nail biting that happens after a first fight, or the rollercoaster dip of elation that comes from a first glance, first date, first kiss, falls into a steady warm rhythm when you’ve been in love for a longer while. Wistful lust after those emotions drives the whole industry of bachelor parties, lures mothers into investigating their teenagers’ crushes, and leads me to watch ’90s teen movies when I’m sick or sad or too tired to adult for a couple of hours. Remembering when things revolved around the undulating ellipses of an unanswered text can be a relief in this economy and political atmosphere. Straight from the opening notes of Steve Ciolek’s voice, my raw teenage heart found a home. With the same splintered effect as Band Of Horses and The Shins, it’s probably not a coincidence that the same producer who worked with those bands, Phil Ek, produced this album as well. Upbeat rhythms and moody breaks only bolster that voice, driving home the need we have to feel vulnerable amidst the push and shove of late early adulthood, of early middle age. Ciolek’s voice soars out from the accessible, steady drum of indie rock, with musicians clearly capable of more complexity than the pre-algebraic mathy sound here, but in their restraint they provide this foot-tapping platform to let their listeners feel rather than dissect.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Listening to this 2015 album as a kid who was very into whatever the pop-punk, emo, and alternative genres were doing in the early 2000s was very exciting to me. It has the right layers of guitars and drums and harmonies that cut directly to my core. I literally found myself catching my breath when listening to “Everything In Twos” because it made me feel like I was 15 years younger and finding lyrics to put in away messages and on the backs of envelopes of letters to girl friends and girlfriends. Steve Ciolek’s vocals are perfect for what I was looking for back then, and continue to look for to this day: They can be the lightest, prettiest, softest things in the song and then suddenly they’re razor sharp and cutting you in half. Put this one in the pile of albums that I’m actually kind of pissed off to not have heard about at the time, since it is so my thing. This is a classic album. It’s the kind of album that, as I’m writing this, I’m in the middle of listening to, but I’m also incredibly excited to start again. This is very possibly my favorite of the albums we’ve covered in this newsletter. We’ve covered albums that opened my eyes more, but this album feels like a missing piece of my life. This may sound dramatic, but this album unlocks a part of me. The part of me that drove hundreds of miles to see Taking Back Sunday in North Carolina when I’d already seen them twice early that year. It’s not a part of me that gets unlocked by music much anymore, but I love it and I love this album for reminding me of it. Favorite tracks include: Every goddamn one of them.
Epitaph Records’ artist roster is diverse in the same way bits of Apple within a pie or diverse. You could argue that they all look, feel, and taste a little different, but for all practical purposes they’re still apples. They’re going to appeal to those who like apples, cinnamon, and the nostalgic delight that comes from everything cognitively associated with the apple pie experience. Obviously, I am talking about punk rock here, not apple pie. But as soon as I get back from the kitchen, I am going to make my point… The Sidekicks are not apples and 2014’s Runners In the Nerved World, though sweet, tastes nothing like pie and sounds nothing like Rancid or anything Bad Religion. Sure, there are loud guitars and some abrupt chord changes, but vocalist Steve Ciolek is so similar to Band Of Horses’ Ben Bridwell in both sound and style that I wondered at first if it were a pseudonym. Underlying his pained melodic wail, there’s a deep, jangly musicality that has a certain sophistication in its songwriting. The album is a catchy, familiar cross-section of easy pop-rock songs which exude a bright, shimmering charm. “Satellite Words And Me” — gentle guitar meandering, keys, and lyrics about dreams, emotional fatigue, and greeting card sentiments. “The Kid Who Broke His Wrist” is joyful and breezy. I believe at one point they began as a punk band and like all punk bands who grow up and find it increasingly difficult to be angry all the time, they’re still given the cred they’re due for how pissed off they used to be. Even Millencolin is making music about beer now. But let’s get back to the pie. I mean hey — good music is good music, right? Epitaph didn’t sign Tom Waits for his punchy three chord anthems either. What part of the pie is Tom Waits? Nevermind… I guess Epitaph can diversify a little bit, especially if they’ve found in The Sidekicks’ Runners In The Nerved World a bit of apple that makes for a particularly warm and syrupy pie.
Can we all agree that albums have weathered the great .mp3 scare? While it’s true that the ability to download and share individual songs irreversibly changed the music industry — and made earning a living as a musician way harder than it should be — I’m happy that not all the doom-and-gloom predictions from the early 2000s came to pass, especially the one about the impending obsolescence of the LP format. Who knows what the age of streaming holds, but I’m happy that, at least for now, full-length albums are still the norm. Runners In The Nerved World had me feeling especially thankful this week. That’s because the album exhibits two of my favorite traits of the LP format: quiet opening moments and outlier closing tracks. I love the way “Hell Is Warm” slowly ramps up over the course of its first minute. I actually started thinking along these lines last week, when I was listening to “On The Wrong Side Of Relaxation” from Barry Adamson’s Moss Side Story. You really have to listen closely to discern what’s happening at first, and I found myself turning up my car stereo in much the same way this week during the beginning of “Hell Is Warm.” Something subliminal happens in those situations — there’s something about needing to lean in and the intrigue that builds. And with “All Things Run,” you have a classic case where the last song on the album offers a sparser and somewhat divergent version of what came before. Steve Ciolek’s voice climbs with ease throughout Runners, but “All Things Run” pushes even further into the stratosphere via sustained, ethereal falsetto, pairing nicely with the more spacious, stripped-down arrangement. There are a zillion ways you can compellingly start and finish an album, but these two are easily my favorites. Many thanks to The Sidekicks for bringing that into focus for me.
Echoing guitar and gently sung, harmonized “ohhh” vocals? Wait, this is the same band that’s known for its do-it-yourself, gruff, Columbus punk roots? Ah, I see. Runners In The Nerved World is that pivotal shift in sound. If you’ve never approached The Sidekicks before now, don’t go digging into the past to get a sense of this closer-to-the-present album. This is not a dirty or rough cut garage punk LP. It’s big on sound, yes, but not big in the blow-you-away-with-sheer-volume kind of way. The whole record is draped in tonal shaping more aligned with misfit indie rock. The love of delay and reverb on everything from rhythm guitar strums, to tom hits and, of course, Steve Ciolek’s lead vocals, creates a large sound stage without abusing listener ears like what might happen with feedback and shout laden garage punk. But, even with a cleaner overall tone and more melodic hooks (there is no overlooking the use of classic third interval sung harmonies throughout the record — see “Hell Is Warm,” “Jesus Christ Supermalls,” and “Deer,” for example), this isn’t the kind of indie rock that one would find in a record bin with similarly labeled bands like The Killers, Foster The People, or Interpol. The Sidekicks maintain an air that hovers around the fringe of straightforward mainstream, despite the plain numerical success of the band. Think instead, more in orbit with American Football, Modern Baseball, and Cymbals Eat Guitars. The more deliberately thought out arrangements, transitions in dynamics, and attention paid to the outright diversity of sounds are what best make the case for seeing The Sidekicks as a sensitive and emotional band but one that’s aiming to express those emotions in a more universally digestible, mature fashion and not one that simply got quieter and turned into a strictly emo band. There’s enough punch provided by front-positioned drums, (the introduction to “Century Schoolbook Grown-Ups” has some satisfying percussive bite to it) and densely packed rhythm guitar chords, to keep the mostly unwavering vocal style Ciolek feels most comfortable using much of the time, from making the individual songs run together. The emo / pop-punk leaning nasal quality might not be everyone’s cup of tea but if that’s not a factor of bother here, there is much to soak up and relish about this record. It gets harder and harder not to keep checking the 2015 release year as the songs go from one to the next because hallmark nuances of early 2000s indie, emo, and alternative keep peeking through. The almost honky-tonk tinged, reverb dusted, see-sawing piano part on “Satellite Words And Me” play a unison hook with the guitar and the slow, heavier-footed tempo give the track a dual share of Shins and Death Cab For Cutie vibes. Yet, if there is any lingering doubt over the direction of The Sidekicks sonic intentions that far into a play through, the conclusion insists on leaving things on a lighter, over more reckless note, thanks to falsetto vocals offsetting the contrast of a low end, delayed, jagged tone, arpeggiating guitar. The fact that the last song is written so minimally and pits opposing tones and dynamics against one another but relegates the more intense of the pair to a foundational support role, could almost act like a metaphor for showing how The Sidekicks do still keep their edginess in mind but have chosen with Runners In The Nerved World, to give other forms of musical execution a chance in the spotlight this time around.
A few years ago, we were living outside of Richmond, and a medium sized storm did some big damage that took out our power for about 16 hours. Our house was in a heavily wooded area, and I stayed up very late drinking most of a bottle of wine and reading a terrible splatterpunk novella about giant worms that came up from the sewer. I mean, objectively it was terrible. I know this. And yet, sitting there in the dark with a bottle of wine, listening to the trees falling down outside and my husband occasionally swearing softly at whatever game he was playing on his phone, it was pretty fucking perfect. So, sometimes, your reaction to things can change based on your surroundings, yes? That happened to me this week with Runners In The Nerved World, and the circumstances were hilariously similar. See, I didn’t care much for it the first few times I listened. My notes for “Jesus Christ Supermalls” were particularly unflattering. But last night, we had another lengthy power outage, so I listened to The Sidekicks by candlelight. It was a much better experience, with only the darkness for company and the wind providing some haunting harmonies to Steve Ciolek’s vocals — especially on “The Kid Who Broke His Wrist,” which I also didn’t care much for the first few times around. It made me wonder what else I’ve easily dismissed that could benefit from a change of perspective?
50 Foot Pop Queenie
If I could just sit and listen to some of the guitar parts on this album by The Sidekicks over and over, I would be a happy man. Steve Ciolek and Brandon Petrick know just how to combine dry chords with shimmering and lead parts, or how to marry those sparkling notes with arpeggiated patterns to create song intros that I wish would go on forever. A budding guitarist could learn a lot about all the different ways their instrument of choice can churn, soar, and scream by listening to The Sidekicks. The fact that I’m having trouble finding traction with the rest of the record doesn’t reflect on their abilities; it’s simply a matter of that most elusive elucidator of the art with which we want to spend time: taste. Would I be getting more deeply into the songwriting and singing if I was attracted to them through the lineage they share with their label-mates on Epitaph Records? Not sure — since I never liked any of the bands they hold as their heroes that heritage is of no help. But I can easily imagine that being a tributary that flows both ways, with young fans discovering So-Cal punk via The Sidekicks or old heads cheered by the way they’re carrying the legacy forward. But damn, even if you’re in neither group, fast forward to the last 30 seconds of “Summer Brings You Closer To Satan” for a six-string apotheosis for the ages. It even ends with a bit of amplifier crackle and hum for extra electric goodness. Maybe the rest of Runners In The Nerved World will add up for you and The Sidekicks will become your new favorite rock band — just tell them Off Your Radar sent you!
As we descend into fall, I find myself craving all things cosy. If you’re already rolling your eyes then you just don’t get it. Look, it’s getting colder, darker, and it’s soon to be full of draining social commitments. I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty daunting so I’m going to take every opportunity to wrap up warm and take it easy. For me, that means piling on the flannel shirts, consuming as many controversial flavoured lattes as I can, and finding chilled out indie albums to play while I enjoy what’s left of the long summer nights. Ideally this album would be something easy, nothing too over the top, and poignant in all the right places. I can’t think of a better album to recommend to you than Runners In The Nerved World by The Sidekicks. This album is the epitome of easy and it goes so good with the fall ambiance. Its meaningful lyrics paired with lingering guitar swells and swaying rhythms are just what I need right now. I may not have showcased myself in the best light before with my beyond basic confessions, but I need you to just ignore that and trust me when I say you have to listen to this album. Perfect for long drives, deep meaningful chats, and all the regrettable lattes you consume in secrecy.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
The opening track hooked me right away, I found the intro to be very captivating and I love where the song goes — how it started slow and somewhat melancholy, but then builds into a really substantial opening track. I was slightly put off at first by some of the track titles before listening to the album, just mainly because I didn’t know what to expect, but I know better than to judge a song by its title. This album has a really great sound overall, and I found it to be almost nostalgic at times. Nostalgic in the sense that it sounds more like an album that is a byproduct of the ’90s boom (coming out between late ’90s and early ’00s). I guess with fall really setting in at this point, I’m pretty much always in the mood for a chill album to play while drinking tea and reading a book and this has that vibe. Especially on the track “Pet” — it just has a great guitar sound and the melody of the song just spoke to me in a way that I can’t quite explain. I’m very happy to have heard this album. I needed it this weekend.
This record feels like home to me. It’s not necessarily the style I’ve grown up on, or a sound I seek out… but it just sounds like home. Specifically that one special band from your hometown. I think every town has at least one in some shape or form. It’s that band that people always try to go out and see live, no matter how many times they’ve seen them previously. It’s that band that people of oddly separate backgrounds can quote as ubiquitously as something like Jurassic Park or E.T.. It’s that band that still finds ways to surprise you, even if they’re in their 20th year. My hometown definitely has bands like this, and I’ve written about one of them here (Carbon Leaf in issue #114). Part of the homey appeal is in how the band changes over time, yet still retains their distinct spirit. If the fact that this came out on Epitaph doesn’t give you any indication, throw their name into YouTube and listen to a few random songs. You’ll quickly find out that the band occupies that 2000s sound that’s the triangulation core of pop punk, emo, and post-hardcore. This record… is not that. It sounds like it should have been a big release from Sub Pop or Merge, something you can take away from the vocals themselves that are eerily familiar of Band Of Horses, but also have very tangible threads of Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie) and James Mercer (The Shins). It’s almost like this is the successor to that vocal style, one that’s a lot easier to simulate thus making it infinitely more relatable and impactful. The overall sound here is definitely in a separate space compared to their earlier records, but it also still contains very distinct parts of its personality. If anything, the band has just gotten better here. Instead of loud, blazing melodies for an entire record, the band looks to fill in themes and moods with expository guitar parts. Instead of songs just placed together because they sound good, the band focused on making songs that exist with one another, breathing together as one entity with threads that bind each of them to the other. Of course, there’s still the elements of that angsty punk band that pokes its head out in nearly every track here… and in that sense, it does feel exactly like home. Whether you still live there or come back a few times a year for holidays, you can very noticeable see the things that have changed over the years or maybe decades. But you can also still find the spirit of the town subtly showing itself to you, reminding you that this is still home despite any type of change. Just like The Sidekicks.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Spinnerette by Spinnerette
Chosen By Erin Calvert