Guster essentials

Haven’t posted in a while, and it might be a few days before I post again, so I figured I’d knock out an easy one — or at least the one that’s been knocking around in my head.

If I were to explain Guster to someone who had not heard them, which songs would I pick, bearing in mind that I don’t actually have their sporadically distributed debut and have not yet picked up the new one (it’s in the mail)?

Here goes, in chronological order (links are to an unofficial site):

1. Fall in Two. The only song I have — and the only song I know — from Parachute. It’s more blustery than typical Guster these days, with Adam Gardner handling lead vocals and sounding more gruff (no, not the crime dog) than he does later on. It’s a fun song and a good starting point — less sophisticated than their later efforts. I should get Parachute, though, in part because it was produced by Mike Denneen, ace Boston producer and Jennifer Trynin’s husband.

2. Great Escape. I’m limiting myself to two from Goldfly, which means I’ll need to omit the gorgeous Demons. This one is driven by a quirky guitar riff that resolves into a chorus that begs you to sing along. Brian Rosenworcel’s percussion, still very much in the “look, ma, no sticks” phase, sounds like he’s using three or four hands. I’d say it’s overdubbing, but I’ve seen him do it live. (Not this past time, though — I believe the only Goldfly songs were Demon and …)

3. Airport Song. A menacing guitar riff, then Adam’s matter-of-fact delivery welcoming the listener … to a cult. Not conventional territory here. In a sense, Adam and Ryan Miller play bad cop-good cop here, with Ryan delivering all the comforting promises — “I will keep you warm and safe / you’ll be better off this way.” The guitars and bongos pound out 16th notes like they’re auditioning for Motorhead. It’s a classic, one they’re not likely to remove from the set list anytime soon.

Incidentally — between the examination of evil in Demons, the cult saga of Airport Song and several songs that could be taken as calls for spiritual renewal and positive thinking, there arose an interesting rumor about Guster. The response on their site is classic:

Q: Are you guys a Christian band?

A:Rather than answer this one with a simple yes/no, we suggest you check the following sources for clues: 1) Brian’s last name — “Rosenworcel.” 2) Any photo of Ryan where you can see his profile. 3) The Guster Backstage Contract Rider, where we stipify that “the dressing room must be furnished with plenty of borscht, noodle kugels, potato latkes, gefilte fish and homemade rugulah for dessert.”

4. What You Wish For. The first song on Lost and Gone Forever, a contender for best album of the past 10 years. The title is deceiving. This is a relatively happy Guster. Even at their most morose, they don’t wallow in despair — they’re more likely to urge someone to rise above it or adopt a defiant stance in bad circumstances, an attitude that sets them apart from the whiners who came to dominate alternative radio around this time. What You Wish For is a classic song of optimism, not necessarily offering a fairy-tale ending but suggesting than anything’s possible if you just open the curtains and look outside.

5. Barrel of A Gun. The creepy celebrity stalker song, set to a barrage of Brian’s bongos, congas and cymbals (he tapes his hands and hits with abandon) behind some triplet riffs from both guitars. Possibly the peak of what’s possible in the original Guster sound — two guitars, Brian’s battering and friendly harmony from Ryan and Adam.

6. Fa Fa. Not one of the most straightforward Guster lyrics. It seems to be addressed to someone who’s dealing with a recent tragedy, but it’s hard to tell what type or what scope. A breakup caused by some careless words? A blow to the self-esteem? Something worse? Hard to tell. The lyrics by themselves could easily be turned into a festival of pity by some lesser band, but Ryan conveys some sympathy in his vocals. Besides, what pityfests have such cool horn breaks? (Live, they just thrash it out with the guitars. This was another one I don’t think they played this time.)

7. Center of Attention. I’m torn between this and Happier, a pleasant-sounding song that raises the question of whether you’re really better off ditching those friends you think are dragging you down. This one always struck me as a “hit,” and yet they didn’t play it this time. It has one of their most memorable guitar riffs, and it’s a fun singalong. The lyrics apply to almost any toddler and, sadly, a few adults.

8. Careful. The heart and soul of Keep it Together, which came along a few years after L&LF and had a more traditional indie-pop feel with more musical complexity. This one is a gentle reminder to keep an eye out for all the things that can hurt you. The swirling guitars are terrific.

9. Amsterdam. Best breakup song ever, built on a neat harmonics-driven riff (which, I didn’t realize until seeing them live, was played on bass rather than guitar). It’s not really mean, just matter-of-fact. It’s perhaps the most conventional “rock” song they’ve ever played, but it’s still uniquely Guster. (Incidentally, the lyrics in that link are a little off. I’m guessing much of Guster’s audience is too young to have heard of The Shaggs.)

10. Come Downstairs and Say Hello. This may be controversial. I’m leaving off Keep it Together‘s excellent titletrack, a simple and eloquent plea for a post-9/11 world. I’m omitting Backyard, which uses overgrown grass and weeds as a metaphor for losing interest. (And I try to avoid singing it every time I pull weeds.) But this one is too good, a song that shifts tempo, mood and instrumentation to portray a pothead who’s trying to snap out of it and get back to normal life. The opening lines alone beautifully paint the image: “Dorothy moves to click her ruby shoes / right in tune with Dark Side of the Moon.” (I’ve always wanted to try that, but who has the time? And I really don’t like the film.

So that’s it — 10 songs to introduce you to Guster if you’re over 25 and haven’t heard of them. Then you’ll be ready for the new one.


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