I'm always amazed when I hear a really good indie album. While it shouldn't and doesn't matter which label distributes a record, I find myself contemplating the things being pushed from the mainstream out to the edges.
"There's so many people making really interesting albums," former Toad The Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips told me on the B-Sides Concept Album, and he's absolutely right. He continued the thought by saying "Indie music has never been better."
He didn't say the major labels are producing crap. He didn't have to. They are, and that which is understood need not be explained. Not everything coming from the majors is bad, but the ratio isn't something to be proud of. Indie music is flourishing, and it's in part because elements that once seemed vital are now something of a novelty.
Songwriting is what sets The Bittersweets apart from mainstream pop music. You don't hear these kinds of songs on pop radio, but you used to. As the hip hop sound becomes more and more a dominant force in the pop world, bands that used to work in that world have pushed into other genres. Darius Rucker of Hootie and The Blowfish fame actually has a major hit on country radio.
"Pop is so beat-oriented," Rucker said. "Country is where you can still get that song that makes you remember that old girlfriend or whatever. Country still has a story to it."
So does the music of The Bittersweets. These aren't folk narratives, but these songs are the residual effects of life experiences. These are the stories of a disappointed optimist. GNSF isn't a collection of lamentations nor is it all sunshine and roses. These songs are about people we know, inhabiting the same world most of us live in. It's a world where things don't often go according to plan. The weary wander the streets where hearts are broken and tears are cried, yet somewhere in the midst of despair is a faint glimmer of hope. It's in that contradiction — that struggle to stay above water when everything feels like its pulling downward – that the magic happens.
How do they do it? By putting Chris Meyers' words in Hannah Prater's mouth. Prater's sweet, natural voice — a hybrid of Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis and Sixpence None The Richer's Leigh Nash — is a perfect vehicle for these songs. Her phrasing conveys weariness and disillusionment without falling completely into resignation or despair.
Though San Francisco and Birmingham get namechecked in song titles, it's hard to imagine this record being born anywhere but Nashville. Goodnight, San Francisco isn't a paint-by-numbers country record nor is it the country-pop en vogue with the young glitterati, but the same things you'd find at the core of an authentic country album can be found here.
There are great stories. There are confessionals that don't make you feel like you're listening to or reading vapid high school breakup poetry. The music is built with acoustic guitars and pianos, accented by steel guitar, mandolin, and violin. Prater imbues her words with just enough twang to her give her vocals a little tang. In other words, she's no "Redneck Woman."
12 songs and 48 minutes doesn't seem too much for a band to ask of a listener or for a listener to ask of an album, but the thing about humble, unassuming records is they often run out of steam before they've run their course. Goodnight, San Francisco is a lovely record worth repeated listens, but it doesn't quite hold your attention from the opening notes of "Wreck" through the final notes of hidden track "Fortunate Wind."
Even if it does lag slightly, this is a smart, rewarding record for listeners willing to step out just a little bit. Much like Dan Wilson's 2007 gem Free Life, Goodnight San Francisco is D.O.A. in the mainstream pop world. That isn't what makes this album great, but it does explain a lot.
Download the first single "Wreck."