Release date: February 22, 2019
The deal. I love so much about The Replacements but my favorite thing is how hard they tried. They really wanted to sound tight, polished, and professional. It’s something they strove for. They just couldn’t get out of their own way to make it happen. There’s something great about a band who’s really trying but eventually hits a ceiling. That ceiling, and how an artist deals with it, is what makes an album compelling. More specifically, it’s what makes Forever, the Vandoliers third album, so enjoyable.
The band, out of Dallas-Fort Worth, is cow-punk with hardcore country touches, like a dedicated fiddle player and delicate piano work, but also with Texas touches like Mariachi horns. It’s all contained within an unkempt rock and roll package. Everyone is playing their butts off, so even though every song has a lot going on, the tracks are pushed and enhanced by a group of six artists trying to show off what they can do, while also listening to each other. It’s not a given with any genre of music and it prevents the album from sounding like six talent shows that were overlaid over each other.
The album also draws a lot of strength from singer Joshua Fleming, who has a wonderfully hoarse voice (which, as dedicated readers might remember, I really like). Fleming’s vocals are a little bratty, a little manic, and all heart. It’s almost like he knows what he’s up against, in terms of the talent of the band, and he’s using volume and intensity to hold his colleagues at bay.
“Troublemaker” encapsulates the band perfectly. It begins with a drum beat and bass, sounding like the recorder flipped on milliseconds before the band started playing. And then, Cory Graves’ trumpet kicks in, and you realize they’re doing a “Ring of Fire,” thing. But who’s expecting the trumpet? This isn’t ska or jazz. Fleming’s vocals enter next, with Dustin Fleming’s guitar right under him, alternating between country licks and rock distortion. The song is perfect until Travis Curry slides in with a fiddle solo you didn’t even realize you needed, until you heard it, and you now see you could never have really lived without it. And then Fleming returns, once again driving the song.
I also feel like I should mention “Cigarettes in the Rain,” a quiet acoustic song with a chorus that might explain how Fleming’s voice got so raspy: “Holding on to them good old days / Is like smoking cigarettes in the rain.” But it’s also a sweet rock ballad, complete with a country-rock solo from Dustin. And that hyphen between country and rock is significant, because the solo has a rock tone and country licks, unlike many country rock artists, who choose one or the other.
Straight talk. This is a great band. The performances are tight. The lyrics are solid. And the emotion is all out there. I viscerally loved the album the first time I heard it but it took me a while to articulate why. Because on paper the band doesn’t make sense. The singer has a wonderfully weird voice and the instrumentation is almost distractingly Texas. The track that crystalized things for me was “Nowhere Fast,” a power pop tune that took me to the Goo Goo Dolls circa Superstar Car Wash, which then legally obligated me to next think about the Replacements.
The Vandoliers are much more sophisticated than either band in terms of their instrumentation and songwriting, but the comparison holds. Where a lot of bands feel like they’re either working to hide their talent or are ripping through scales like they’re trying to win some sort of Olympic medal for music, the Vandoliers, like the Replacements and Goo Goo Dolls, are playing as hard as they can and topping out at a song-centered level.
The confession. No guilt here. This got included with some information for another review I wrote, in a timely manner no less, not to brag. But I liked this a lot, so I saved it for here. So this is the rare edition of Heard Lately where I get to keep my head held up proudly. Don’t get too used to it.
Closing arguments. Energy is such an important ingredient in music. Forever features a band going for the throat on every track. There’s no saved energy. There’s no playing it cool. It’s just a shaken can of soda full of thoughtful country licks and instrumentation. Country and rock lovers are going to really enjoy Forever and its impressively high ceiling.
So much amazing music comes out all of the time. I review what I can as quickly as I can, working my physical and digital piles as efficiently as possible, but things fall between the cracks. Rather than giving up on things that are a little past their prime, contemporary-review-standards-wise, I’m going back for the overflow that deserves to be heard — even if it’s a little late.