I'm sorry, I guess I'm just an old fart, (although on most days I feel like I'm still only about 14 but I guess that's normal for most men, even ones closer to 50 than 40), but I just don't get this indie/alt rock thing. I've heard, I don't know how many bands that fall into that category, and quite frankly I can't really see what makes them so different from the main stream rock and roll I've been hearing on FM radio stations for 30 years.
I hate to break it to people but loud guitars and feedback have been around since the '60s and it sure as hell doesn't make you alternative. The only reason I can think of why these guitar bands have been called alternative is because there's been such a paucity of anybody playing music with actual instruments on the pop charts that people with no memory of what music sounds like get all excited. Okay so that really does sound like the rant of an old fart doesn't it – well I don't apologize- nobody's forcing you to read this anyway.
Of course, when you do finally hear something that's a real alternative it sticks out and makes you realize just how bad everything else really is. To be honest the first time I listened to The Places We Lived, Backyard Tire Fire's forthcoming release on Hyena Records (August 26, 2008) I was ready to toss it on the pile of just another band not worth listening to rejects as it sounded far too much like every other so called alternative band. Yet something about them niggled at the back of my mind, and I decided to give them another listen.
It's a good thing I did, because otherwise I would have done these three guys (Ed Anderson guitar, keyboards, and vocals; Matt Anderson bass; and Tim Kramp drums) from the Midwest a huge disservice by ignoring what they were doing. Instead of being just another collection of guitar driven, middle of the road rock music full of stolen riffs from some of the worst excesses of the 1970's, these guys know how to write and arrange songs and understand what melody means. What held my attention on that first listen had been their vocal arrangements on the first couple of songs, especially track two "Shoulda Shut It".
Instead of sticking to the mid-range, where most vocalists tend to perch safely, Ed Anderson pushes his voice an octave higher. The whole song was then pitched to suit the vocals, with the result being a piece of music that has a tinge of soul to it, as the music sways underneath it instead of pulsing like a rock song normally would. While there was a slightly disconcerting resemblance to some of the sappier white soul of the seventies, it was saved from that because of the slightly harsher underpinnings they allowed to happen musically. The contrast between the rock attitude and the soulful voice went a long way towards making this a genuinely alternative offering.
In contrast to this was the very next offering on the disc "Everybody's Down", a nice, solid blues based rock song reminiscent of late '60s early '70s Rolling Stones, which is a harder sound to create than people think. It's easy to do boring blues-based rock, but it's difficult to write a song in that mode and make it interesting. While both those songs were interesting it's the fourth song on the disc where their originality really comes through.
On "Time With You" they take the very big risk of deliberately creating discordance between the keyboards and guitar. My ear isn't good enough to tell exactly what they were doing, juggling pitch or playing in different keys, but there was something wonderfully jarring about the song that made you pay more attention to it than you would have otherwise. I think what I especially like about it was the fact it was interesting to listen to, without sounding like they set out to make it "interesting." There was nothing about there music anywhere that indicated pretence or artifice, instead they were obviously looking for ways to make their music more expressive and willing to take chances to do so.
In my mind that's what an alternative band should do; take chances and be willing to make mistakes. Not that these guys seem to make many mistakes. Each time I listened to the disc it kept getting better. Most of the time you listen to a disc a couple of times and there's nothing new left to discover. Backyard Tire Fire's The Places We Lived on the other hand keeps offering up little gems of adventure with each new listen. The mix of strings and keyboard on "Rainy Day Don't Go Away," juxtaposed with the seemingly straight ahead rocker of the previous cut, "How The Hell Did We Get Back Here," is just one example of their willingness to experiment with styles of music. Instead of worrying about what they are "supposed" to be playing, they seem more concerned with figuring out what's appropriate to the nature of the song they have written.
Every time you turn around there seems to be another alternative band out there that sounds just like every other alternative band until you get to the point of wondering who they think they are an alternative too. So it's a real pleasure to find a band like Backyard Tire Fire that really is an alternative to the usual dreck that passes for different. Some of the songs don't work as well as others on their latest disc, The Places We Lived, but that's only because their not afraid to take real risks with their music. If they're allowed to maintain this level of freedom of expression they will definitely be a band to watch for in the future.