It’s about how I feel the country is going to shit and a hope for a better tomorrow…There are just a few lines here and there, but I wanted to make it an allegory, which is actually the only reason why I’d ever write a break-up record.
story by Justin Marciniak
When the wife of a German promoter experienced complications during labor, the husband played a song by The Appleseed Cast. He spun “The Immortal Soul of Mundo Cani” from 2000’s Mare Vitalis in repeat mode to survive the ordeal. Now, he and his wife say it’s their daughter’s song.
“Over in Europe, you sleep at the venue, and you have breakfast with the promoter and all the family,” vocalist and guitarist Christopher Crisci says. “And we were having breakfast, and here’s the little baby, and it was just amazing to think that somehow we helped this guy cope.” It’s just one of the unplanned results of being in The Appleseed Cast, the indie-rock quintet from Lawrence, Kansas, that keeps itself guessing.
When The Appleseed Cast began writing its sixth and latest record, the band envisioned a political album. But out came an album about relationships. While working on 2003’s Two Conversations, The Appleseed Cast set goals for itself but did not realize them. Instead, the band’s artistic ambition and its conscious choices to expand its sound and to experiment with songwriting techniques led The Appleseed Cast to unexpected outcomes.
Crisci tells Chicago Innerview that his band was anxious to record a “standard rock record”, but faced a songwriting drought. The songs Crisci and company had written were like The Strokes and Nigel Godrich: They would not work together on the same album. To end the slump, Crisci suggested telling a story on the album. He explained the premise to his band mates and even presented them with song titles that corresponded to parts of the story. “We started writing the songs to what the story was about” instead of jamming, Crisci says.
Crisci’s original story involved a relationship – actually a composite of several real and fictional relationships – disintegrating in the first five songs and ex-lovers becoming friends in the final five tracks. And all that appears on Two Conversations in appropriately conversational language. A couple learns “this is the end of you and me” in the standout fifth track, “Fight Song,” and three songs later, one nostalgic, regretful speaker says, “I want you to know that I’ll always love you / And always be your friend.”
The second story and Crisci’s real reason for basing an album on one of the most familiar scenarios in pop music, a break-up, is harder to grasp because it’s barely there. “There are little lines in there that have political connections,” Crisci says about the subtle second story. “And it’s about how I feel the country is going to shit and a hope for a better tomorrow…There are just a few lines here and there, but I wanted to make it an allegory, which is actually the only reason why I’d ever write a break-up record.”
Crisci’s memorable phrase “stripes on fire” creates an image of Old Glory in flames at protests, and it’s fair to interpret “Hanging Marionette” as criticism of the United States for alienating its allies. But at its core, The Appleseed Cast just is not a political band. “I wanted it to be a lot more political, but I can’t write like Rage [Against the Machine],” Crisci says. His lyrics embarrassed him. They felt forced.
“It seems like certain styles of music lend themselves to a certain subject matter, and it would be really cool if I could do it well – write a political record – but I don’t have that in me without making it sound really cheesy,” Crisci says. He offers a hasty generalization to illustrate his point: “Indie-rock bands like ours don’t sing about booty. But if you’re hip-hop, you sing about booty. I think it’d be an ingenious idea if an indie-rock band did sing about booty. If someone did it, I’m sure everyone would recognize it and love it.”
As The Appleseed Cast wrote more about relationships than politics, it revised its plans to make a typical rock record. Much of the music on Two Conversations feels like rock ‘n’ restraint. In “How Life Can Turn,” Josh Baruth’s drums are quiet enough to make him sound like he is leading a shy marching band. And Crisci’s guitar, Aaron Pillar’s guitar and Marc Young’s bass seem to huddle and whisper to each other. New keyboardist Jordan Geiger’s organ hums to itself on “A Dream for Us,” a nod to Spiritualized’s finer floating-in-space moments.
Although the first half of “Sinking” requires listeners to turn up the volume, the song eventually proves that The Appleseed Cast hasn’t taken the Low road. The track becomes a distorted dirge and ends with a feedback freak-out in the tradition of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” For better and for worse, songs such as “Hanging Marionette,” “Ice Heavy Branches” and “Fight Song” list The Appleseed Cast on the same family tree as Braid and Jimmy Eat World. “Innocent Vigilant Ordinary,” an upbeat, ringing pop-rock number, could appeal to indie-rock devotees and casual Goo Goo Dolls fans.
Even though Two Conversations is so dynamic, it remains cohesive. Writing to tell the story of the relationship, the band creates a consistent tone to complement the recurring themes. The phrase “stripes on fire” appears in the first two songs, and Crisci uses the word “end” a lot. Similarly, in the final track, the band reprises the vocal melody from the second song. Even if the stories are not clear after several listens, the album’s wholeness strengthens it.
“We have what I call a ‘default sound,’ and the more we can get away from that, the better,” Crisci says. “The default sound is the easiest thing to come upon for guys who get together to play music. It’ll all sound the same. We want to keep mixing up, expand how we play, keep it interesting.”
For a band that makes a textured album when it shoots for a rock record and writes about break-ups when it intends to be political, remaining interesting should come as no surprise.
The Appleseed Cast will play at Metro Jan. 24.