Unknown Pleasure: A Review of Growing Season by The Gardenheads

I still get music in the mail.

Oh, it’s not like the old days when more than a dozen manila envelopes per week stuffed with CDs and assorted junk would end up stacked atop my in-box. I opened every one of them. And if they came from bands or record labels I was familiar with, they got the full treatment. If they were completely unknown but the packaging and one-sheet were interesting, they might get a cursory play and more if the music was good. If they looked cheap and homemade or the art was poorly done (or in bad taste) they wound up stacked in the out-box, where they sat unlistened to.

These days, almost all music submitted for review comes in the form of digital downloads delivered via email with a passcode. No bells and whistles. No doo-dads enclosed. Just music files and a patient, sometimes yearning letter asking for an hour of time to download and listen and consider. Most encoded downloads do get a listen. However, links to SoundCloud or Bandcamp or YouTube videos from unknown bands on unknown labels (and I get lots of those) generally don’t. No one has the time or interest to check out every unknown home-made music video crowding up YouTube and Vimeo.

Needless to say, a lot of diamonds are getting lost in the mammoth digital pile of internet coal dust.

Still, on rare occasions, a manila envelope arrives at my doorstep via the United States Postal Service. Some are rather large. Some are cardboard boxes that contain good old-fashioned vinyl records. When those arrive, I feel obligated to listen to their contents because vinyl ain’t cheap (and sending vinyl ain’t cheap, either). If a band invested that kind of money (not to mention time) to send me -- a perfect stranger -- a piece of expensive plastic that incorporates their life’s dreams, I have an absolute moral imperative to listen to it.

A few weeks ago, such a package arrived containing a copy of the new album by The Gardenheads called Growing Season. First thought: Gardenheads -- lousy band name. The hand-drawn artwork on the LP cover was of flowering vines, each flower bud containing a small human skull. Weird. Probably a jam band, I figured. On back, a drawing of a sparrow on a naked tree branch smoking... something. Hippies? The label was Wee Rock Records of Springfield, Missouri. Never heard of it. Never heard of the band.

Look, I didn’t expect much. But... hey, they spent the time and money to get it to me, why not give it a spin?

Maybe it was because I’d just seen the Big Star movie, Nothing Can Hurt Me, but the band’s music immediately recalled Chilton, Bell and Co. The Beatles also came to mind, as did Matthew Sweet and The dBs and Wilco and the finer pop moments from the Titan! label.

On the surface, The Gardenheads are your basic midwestern four-piece playing traditional straight-ahead rock. I guess you could call it Americana. A lot of bands try to do Americana. A lot of bands are boring. And some might say The Gardenheads' music is “by the numbers,” but there’s something more here, something infectious in its simplicity.

The opening track, “Headin’ Out,” summarizes everything good about this record. Stomping guitar riffs, hand claps, sunset harmonies, cow bell. “I always thought I was in the clear / I always thought that we could disappear / I always thought that I’d be fine if I held on tight.” Nice.

Track two is a race-car of an anthem called “We Are Fucked Up Kids,” (charmingly using the abbreviation “F’d up” on the album sleeve so as not to offend, I suppose). Track three, “The Dishwashers Union,” betrays the band’s love for early Beatles. It's followed by “Starlings & Sparrows" -- two blazing guitars and a cowbell and a vocal melody that Matthew Sweet would kill for.

Lyrically, the album is honest drawings of dreary everyday existence, voiced without complaint. Middle class doldrums of middle class lives. You get a sense these guys are just trying to get by, until the next band practice.

That desperation is encapsulated in the album’s centerpiece, “Adderall,” which is as close to Big Star as you’re going to get in these modern times. Acoustic guitar opens with the lines, “‘I’m full-grown mad / I’m getting crazier / And crazier by the pitfall / And all my friends are on Adderall / To stay awake / To stay awake for the duration.” And then the band comes in. Boom.

The record ends with a 15-minute-long love song masquerading as an environmental opus called “Silent Spring.” I've got a feeling it's their set closer. A Neil Young jam song it isn’t. Instead, it's 15 minutes of full-throttle dark rural rock bound by a series of blistering riffs.

Here’s the kicker -- while the record was playing the wife came in and asked who it was and if she could get a copy to play in her truck. That never happens.

Stan Fick, lead vocals, guitar; Aaron Hamilton, guitar, vocals; Cory King, bass, vocals; Chris Bivens, drums. A bunch of nobodies (just like me). They don’t even have a proper website. Their Facebook page has 361 likes. They have 61 fans on their ReverbNation page. In their band photo they look like they just rolled out of bed after a long night drinking whatever they drink in Springfield, Missouri; each wearing a different color of wrinkled flannel. Bad hair, bad posture. As if they don't give a damn. I have a feeling they don’t know how good they are.

One the best records I’ve heard this year. Certainly one of my favorites. I don't know why you sent it to me (or even how you got my address), but thanks, fellas.


Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 08:24 am
on Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

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