Astoria. The Shys
2006, Sire. Producer: Dave Cobb
Purchased: ca. 2007.
IN A NUTSHELL – Driving, poppy guitar rock by a band with a knack for melodies, sung by a singer with just the right amount of desperation and sneer in his voice. Sometimes the songs border on formulaic, but excellent performances save them.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – More of the songs were as good as the very best ones on the record.
Pretty dang hip enough to write a sentence like “I used to be pretty dang hip,” immediately indicating that I probably wasn’t all that hip, as nobody since 1870s-era Colorado prospectors has said “pretty dang” anything in earnest (likewise the term “hip,” but substituting 1940s-era Bebop royalty for Old West claim-jumpers), yet leaves open the possibility that perhaps I was rather “hip” after all, since I am savvy enough to state it in such a preposterous way.
Having been a nerd my whole life, I’ve written a lot about the idea of “coolness” in this blog.
Having never been cool, I’ve been forever obsessed with the notion, much like sports announcers who’ve never played sports can seem to be over-the-top loony about dudes playing with balls.
However, although they’re often conflated, “Hipness” is a different quality than “coolness.” Being cool is being cool. But staying “hip” is all about knowing what’s new and not missing what’s coming down the pike.
Being very hip is like being very good at that hot-for-a-moment video game, Guitar Hero, in that you are aware of what’s ahead, and you’ve got it covered at exactly the right moment.1 When that hot new director/writer/musician is becoming all the rage, the hip folks2 out there were already familiar with them, and are already eying who’s on their tails. This is much different than being “cool.”
A “hip” person can be very uncool – for example, the music nerd who has rarely spoken to another human, but who’s just downloaded the latest tunes by Sauce Twinz and Silver Matter onto his phone in his parents’ basement. And a cool person can be quite un-hip – for example that popular girl in my high school in the 80s who sometimes wore a Barry Manilow t-shirt.
In my twenties I tried to stay on top of the music scene and keep abreast of what new stuff was out there. I subscribed to Rolling Stone and Spin magazines, and later on Blender. I watched MTV 120 Minutes, and later, when MTV stopped showing videos altogether, MTV2. I frequented record stores and paid close attention to their “New Arrivals” shelves, and their chalkboards with funkily-calligraphed “Upcoming Release Dates” listed. I went to see concerts, and paid attention to the openers, and took the Xeroxed music ‘zines handed to me by shaggy, good-natured dirtbags while I waited in line and tried not to inhale their patchouli oil and BO.
I was Billy Idol, “Eyes Without a Face” personified; I was on a bus, on a psychedelic trip, reading murder books …
As I moved through my thirties, my quest for hipness took on the subtle acridity of desperation. It was no longer about the music, but it was about me – and the inescapable, quickening pace of middle age. It became imperative that my musical tastes NOT recede into the realm of oldies. I hoped to will myself to remain “young”3 by frequently scouring away the inactivity-induced gunk in my brain’s music-processing gears with sonic blasts of new guitar rock. I introduced new music as often as possible. I kept those gears spinning on fresh blasts of White Stripes, The Hold Steady, The Hives, Franz Ferdinand …
I believed I was staying hip …
I maintained my machinery in this way into my forties – perhaps not as diligently, but always with the intention of staying hip and warding off “Oldies.” Like a young, 60s
housewife in the swelling tide of the Women’s Liberation movement desperately trying to ward off feelings of personal discontent by fervently cleaning her house, I kept seeking out guitar-based rock to stay young. It was challenging work keeping those gears clean – work for which a father of active, free-time-sucking elementary school age kids is ill equipped – but I did my best.
But as I approach 504 I’ve come to realize this: the level of griminess of my mental musical gears plays no role whatsoever in my hipness. And in fact, I’m not even equipped to stay “hip” – musically, anyway. My music-appreciation machinery works perfectly well for guitar-based rock music, and it always will. But guitar-based rock music isn’t the kind of music that makes one “hip” in 2015. I can clean and polish and lubricate my gears all I want, but the fact of the matter is that they aren’t connected to the proper chains and pulleys to stay musically hip. In fact, the gears, chains and pulleys performing the tasks of popular music comprehension and appreciation were long ago replaced by software, fiber optics and WiFi. The transition started in earnest right around 1985, when “Axel F.” topped the charts. Even then it didn’t seem like much of an upgrade to me.5 My apparatus worked fine! Why change?
My machinery can still be used to comprehend and appreciate parts of some new non-guitar rock music. My 16-year-old son will at times say, “Dad, listen to this! I think you’ll like it!” Then he’ll play me some hip hop song by Kendrick Lamar or Tyler the Creator or someone else, and I’ll say, honestly, “This sounds pretty cool!” and I’ll bop my head along to it for a while. Just like how old cordless home telephones used to sometimes pick up snippets of local radio stations, somehow my mind’s appreciation apparatus can decipher enough of the song to make some sense of it. But it is fleeting, and I quickly find myself looking for a melody to hum. And then it goes away.
My dad, in the 70s and 80s, would every now and again hear one of his kids’ songs and ask, in a certain way that indicated he may begin whistling along to it at any moment6, “Hey, who’s this playing?”
But the songs he noticed always had some connection to the music he understood, if not enjoyed. It may have been a Lynyrd Skynyrd honky-tonk or a mellow jazz throwback, but it was always something that his own apparatus could decipher. (He was also keenly interested in all things Blondie, but I suspect Debbie Harry may have triggered different apparatus within him than music appreciation.) However, let’s be clear: whistling along to Chuck Mangione in no way made my dad “hip.”
I am now 48 years old, the age my dad was when Jane’s Addiction released Nothing’s Shocking. I think he had as much ability to appreciate “The Mountain Song” as I do the latest by 31 Grammy.
He wasn’t hip, and neither am I.
The fact is, being a fan of guitar rock is simply no longer a method of staying hip. Rock music has become like jazz was when I was a kid. There were some folks who liked it back in the 70s and 80s, and some folks who were awesome playing it, some folks who still listened to it – even a few kids my age, mostly the band geeks who I associated with – but Miles, Coltrane, Thelonious, Dizzy … their most popular stuff had been made decades before and they weren’t going to be replaced. Everyone new was just rehashing their old stuff.7
And really, that’s where we stand with rock music in 2015. Since the heyday of the late 60s and early 70s, everyone’s been rehashing the Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, James Brown, Janis Joplin, The Ramones, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan.8 Or they’ve been combining elements of those artists. Everything that’s new in rock music isn’t really “new” – at least not in a way that’s keeping me hip. And nothing is going to keep my favorites from becoming oldies, either.
There’s new stuff out there – as there always must be – and folks from newer generations than mine are making it, using instruments I don’t recognize as such, and assembling the apparatus to appreciate it. And it sounds better to them than guitar rock, just as guitar rock sounded better to me than The Dorsey Brothers9.
“Rock and Roll Will Never Die!!” we all used to say, and I guess the music hasn’t really died. But my son told me recently, “Rock music is good because it’s the music that everybody likes.” This statement reveals that indeed the music hasn’t died, but the spirit has. Rock music was never supposed to be the music everybody likes. It was supposed to scare you. Oh well. Time marches on. I keep marching in place.
Luckily for me, while I was sitting around trying to will my music to remain relevant, there were artists out there who didn’t care what was popular or hip or making money. They just wanted to play their guitars loud and shout some melodies into a mike. And I found a great place to hear them sometime around 2006 – Satellite Radio.
As a longtime fan of Howard Stern, I rushed out and bought a Sirius receiver when he moved his show there. Howard and his gang of weirdoes remained funny, but just as good were all the channels of music available. One of the best channels for new (and old) music that is right in my wheelhouse is Little Steven’s Underground Garage, programmed by Bruce Springsteen’s Mobster-playing sidekick, Steven Van Zandt.
It features “Garage Rock,” which is a term that casts a wide musical net to encompass everything from 50s Rock and Roll, to old Stones and Beatles to unknown 70s proto-punk, to 80s throwback bands, and grunge and new guitar acts. It was on this channel that I first heard – while driving in my hip Saturn station wagon – a song that immediately knocked my socks off 10
The song was The Shys’ “Never Gonna Die, and was featured as one of the “Coolest Songs in the World This Week” on The Underground Garage, so it got played quite a bit. The song has everything I like in a guitar rock song. It opens with a guitar call like an alarm ringing, drums that kick in to support it, then the whole band plays the riff and a desperate-voiced, coolly straining singer shouts a salute to youth, young love, and having enough fun to be stupid about it. I heard this song a couple times on Sirius, then got on the Amazon machine and ordered a copy of the album, Astoria, immediately.
I was hooked on the album from the start, particularly the song “Two Cent Facts,” my favorite on the record.
It’s got a lead guitar line throughout, behind the vocals, a feature that I almost always take to, and a pretty awesome guitar solo at 2:00. The drums drive it along, and it has a catchy, sing-along melody. The vocalist, Kyle Krone – also the main songwriter and guitarist in the band (with help on songwriting by keyboardist Alex Kweskin) – is one of those rock singers who infuses his take on a song with much emotion. It’s a style that makes me feel young and emotional myself. He also hesitates a little bit on a few lines, and all together, his style is slightly reminiscent of Roger Daltry’s voice in “My Generation.”
As shown in both “Never Gonna Die” and “Two Cent Facts,” the band has a serious knack for catchiness. Krone knows what he’s doing as a rock songwriter. On “Call In the Cavalry,” he turns a simple little riff into the basis for a pub rock shouter.
It’s a simple song, with snotty brit-punk vocals 11 Krone’s raspy voice always sounds good to me, especially singing these teenage fun-seeker songs, just a tad out of control, perhaps, but it seems to always suit the song. The band plays loud guitar pop songs that are fun to sing along to. It’s this way throughout Astoria – seemingly one fun rock song after another. However, songs like “Call In the Cavalry,” and the rocker “Having it Large,” also serve to demonstrate the inherent problem in a songwriter who can so easily deliver catchy hooks: the songs can sound a little like a beer commercial. I could easily hear a voice over either song …
“The nighttime is calling you. Are you ready to answer? New from Budweiser! Your favorite cocktail flavors in a light beer!! Apple-tini! Cosmopolitian! Sex-on-the-Beach! Each in a satisfying light beer! It’s new BUD LIGHT BARF!”
There’s a fine line between a great, catchy song and a beer jingle. To me, Astoria stays on the great-fun-song side of that line. This album is in some ways the flip side to Album #76, Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. My appreciation for that album was all about the emotional and spiritual connection I feel for it, a connection that at times I’m just not in the frame of mind to indulge. I appreciate Astoria for its raucous fun and mindless joy, which is also something for which I have to be in the mood.
But not all the songs are mindless. Astoria features an honest-to-goodness “protest song,” a rally-the-people, Spirit-of-1969 call to action, called “The Resistance.”
It’s got a cool little backward guitar section in there, that as a Beatles fan I greatly appreciate. I also like the subtle reference to The Beatles’ own protest song, “Revolution,” in the lyrics “Count me out, count me in.” The song’s guitar riff is very cool, and the whole song has a rock and roll spirit that I really appreciate. But is it a formulaic “protest song?” In a way, you can almost hear the boys at rehearsal saying, “Hey! Let’s write a protest song!” Maybe it is out of a can, but I think the band does it really well and I love the result.
They also move away from the pub rock thing in the bluesy, classic rock-sounding “Waiting on the Sun.”
There’s lots of great little lead guitar doodles behind the vocals. The guitar has that Gibson sound, a rock and roll sound that always connects with me. Once again, Krone’s voice carries the song. He puts his all into it, singing lyrics that offer the Morning After response to all those previous Happy Party songs. He’s a talented guy who’s released a couple solo albums, and at least one pretty great solo Summer Pop Song.
On Astoria, he also composed the multi-part punk/pop epic “Open Up the Sky,” which closes the album. This song features a slow section, a fast section, some gibberish sounds reminiscent of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus,” and an extended guitar solo (about 4:30 to the end) by Krone to close out the song.
But I like his punk/pop rockers the best. The album title track is a particularly good one.
I’m a sucker for a song with a bouncy bass line. And when a little bit of organ is thrown over the top, I’m typically going to stick around to hear more. It’s all put together well here, and Krone uses his desperation voice, warning a girl that “the spotlight is fucking contagious,” and reminding her that she’s his “Astoria.” The neighborhood in Queens? Maybe. The US’s early 19th century Pacific Coast colony attempt in northern Oregon, which failed miserably? Possible, I guess.
But what does it all mean? I don’t know. The great thing about rock and roll is that it doesn’t have to make sense. With a good rock song, you can sing along and dance and shake and that’s enough. If you have the correct apparatus in your head, it will always sound good, even when you’re so old you shake and dance without meaning to. The music will take you right back to what made you feel so good in the first place. I’ve realized now that finding the music that keeps you young is NOT accomplished by staying hip and updating your apparatus. The music that keeps you young is the music that turns the gears you’ve had all along.
Never Gonna Die
Call In the Cavalry
Waiting On the Sun
Having It Large
Two Cent Facts
Madly In Action
Open Up the Sky