Ode To The High Strung.

May 18, 2009 at 5:59 pm (Uncategorized)

2009 is shaping up to be the best year for new music (for me anyway) since 2006 or so. Too much great music, too little time! Still, there’s a record out now that has simply chucked every other record off my playlist, and it occupies my senses. When you’re hearing songs from a record in your dreams, waking up with them running through your mind, and generally just totally possessed by these songs…well, something’s up.

Before I get to the record and band here, I want to put them in a larger context. I want to talk about something I call “Muttfactor”. Back when Creem was still semi-readable, they did a story on the Replacements and referred to them as the most lovable mutts playing rock and roll–and it’s always the mutts who have the real staying power over the purebreds; mutts never let you down, and they’re wise, wise, wise beyond their years, and so gloriously easy to love and embrace and cheer for.

My 1990’s-era Mutt band was the glorious (and now seemingly quietly defunct) Liquor Giants. With the LG’s–like the ‘Mats–you’d get nothing fancy, just great rock and roll played straight from the heart. If the band seemed to be playing up their own self-deprecating goofy-ness a bit, one spin through an album revealed a depth and heaviness that few other artists could challenge. I miss the Liquor Giants, dammit.

But now I’ve got a new mutt band to hold on to and never let go of. They’re an unlikely group of guys who are clearly dorks in the most affectionate method of applying that term. They’re called The High Strung–which is a GREAT name for a band–and I first heard of them on the basis of their wonderful debut album These Are Good Times. That first record was shambolic, messy, lo-fi, loud, and even occasionally obnoxious. It was wonderful. It sounded like the very teen rebel spirit of rock distilled into pure essence and poured into a compact disc. Songs of ragged genius like “Wretched Boy” or “Show A Sign Of Life” (with the memorable chorus of “Come on Loretta/Lemme put my free hand up yer sweater”) come along rarely in rock, and plenty of bands would kill to get one of those; that those are just two of about a dozen ripping rock anthems on that debut is a small miracle. Have a taste:

Yeah, right? “Wretched Boy” is right there with “Can’t Explain”, “Teenage Kicks”, “I Wanna Be Sedated” and any other teen anthem you’d care to bring up.

After that debut, The High Strung went from being a 4-piece to being a 3-piece. They had some trouble getting their follow-up out (I remember at the time it was listed as “released”–but then wasn’t available for order) before ending up on the artist-friendly Park The Van label. They recorded a third album that came out about a year ago. I’ve gotta come clean now: I listened to the second album, Moxie Bravo, exactly twice before walking away in disappointment. I listened to their third album, Get The Guests a little more, but still kind of wondered: what happened to the noisy, funny, geeky brats who put out These Are Good Times?

I guess I’m too young to have been around when Replacements fans picked up Let It Be or Hootenanny and shook their heads in confusion, wondering what had become of the band who recorded Sorry Ma, but I think I went through the same sort of thing with The High Strung. See, they weren’t interested in painting themselves into a musical corner; they’re too creative for that. So when they began to develop a more fully-rounded sound, began to bring to the fore the pop creativity that is clearly under the rough-hewn surface of the debut, I sort of missed that.

The High Strung weren’t sitting around waiting for me or anyone else to catch up to them. No, these guys were out touring. I mean really touring. I mean playing more gigs in a year than any band I’ve ever heard tell of. They became literary celebrities of a sort by playing libraries to promote libraries as cool places for younger adults to hang out at. Now I know what you’re thinking “Oh yeah! Like that band that re-enacts Harry Potter stuff!” No, not like that. You go see the High Strung play at a library and you’re gonna see them play a show just like they’d play at a bar (ok, maybe with their onstage banter a little more age-appropriate), as loud and freeform as they’d play a basement dive. They know kids aren’t stupid–play down to them and the library remains uncool. Kick out the jams, though and that’s something else entirely. Here they are at the Des Plaines Public Library:

Stuff like that couldn’t possibly be any more endearing, right? There’s more to The High Strung legend though. See, for nearly 2 years they were most likely what you’d describe as “homeless”, since every day in that span was spent either playing a gig somewhere, or traveling in their beatup van to get to somewhere to play another gig. Through little towns in Oklahoma and Idaho, The High Strung would play tiny shows in towns that never really got to see a real live (and very talented) rock and roll band come through. They put up over 300,000 miles on their first van, and then–realizing it was on its last legs–took the plunge and bought a new one. But what of the old van? It was a legend in its own right, a veritable bulletin board where fans were allowed to spraypaint whatever on the sides, the band’s only home for a few years of road life. Seems as if the band hit on total inspiration: they drove it to Cleveland and then up the massive set of concrete steps that lead to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame

leaving it at the front doors with a plaque that read as follows:

“This is a 1988 Chevy G30 used by The High Strung. Although the odometer reads 18,621 miles, it is actually 318,621 miles. The spray painting was done by various people all over the country but never by anyone in the van. The van contains countless notes, photos and song ideas inspired by those met along the way.”

they also attached the following note:

“Dear Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, We believe rock and roll can make man heroic, make man Superman, can make giants out of the audience and artists alike … The High Strung’s donation to you is a wild multicolored beast of a vehicle that, despite its age and demand placed upon it, carried us to 500 shows across America without asking us to cancel one. Oh, yeah, and don’t you worry about any potential towing costs, the keys are in the ignition.”

“We believe rock and roll can make man heroic…” Jeez. They should’ve put that under glass and carved it into the very steel and glass of the Hall Of Fame building–and those words should be displayed at any bar, club, auditorium, music studio, or record store on the planet. Hell yeah.

So yeah at this point, if you’re not a fan of at least the idea of The High Strung, if not the band and their music itself, there’s something seriously wrong with you. Get out, heathen.

For the rest of you, please do yourselves a favor and check out that new High Strung album I’ve been meaning to write about for this entire blog post and am finally getting around to doing. The album is called Ode To The Inverse Of The Dude, and for production they’ve come full circle now, enlisting David Newfeld, hot producer du jour (Los Campesinos!, Broken Social Scene, Super Furry Animals among others). The album is gorgeous and lovely, with only a few peeks at the band’s more raucous side. Instead, guitarist/vocalist Josh Malerman has written some of his most personal material here (“I Got Your Back” and “Rope” are stunners and should-be cuddlecore classics). They take a stab at good old fashioned soul music on “Out Of Character” and “Guilt Is How I’m Built”, and then deliver the incredible, all-over-the-map sort-of instrumental “House Party” to finish off the record. With nary a song going over 3:30 in length, this small miracle joy of a record speeds by without ever being breakneck, and by the time “House Party” is over you’ll be instantly nostalgic for spinning the whole thing again. Not only is Malerman fully on his game here with the songwriting, but the rhythm section of Chad Stocker and Derek Berk demonstrate why they may be the best bass and drum duo you’ve never heard of by keeping everything moving at snappy pace that manages to be unhurried when its supposed to be. (Stocker is simply a bass guitar god; if you dig the bass, meet your new favorite bassist.) The other neat trick this record turned for me: I’m re-visiting those 2nd and 3rd albums I’d dismissed before, listening to them in an entirely new light and totally, totally falling in love with them too now. Crazy, right? No one is supposed to take 2 years to “get” a record.

What Ode To The Inverse Of The Dude really is is a triumph of feeling and heart over anything else. You can feel the emotion and sweat and tears and joy that went into recording this amazing disc. They poured it all out here, and you can hear that. The High Strung are rapidly becoming my favorite band; they’re the mutts of rock, waiting for you to dismiss them as silly or ugly or inconsequential, and then able to spring a song like “Anyone” or “Real Stone” on you to confound every expectation you had of them. They make the heart glad and the world a better place for them being in it and making music.

Here, let’s have some damn music from the new disc:

“Real Stone”
“Standing At The Door Of Self-Discovery”
“The Lifestyle That Got Away”


  1. Anonymous said,

    Derek! Derek Berk.

  2. Jessica said,

    Wow. I have loved The High Strung for years and have never read anything that sums up so beautifully the magic that this band posseses and the journey they’ve traveled to make that magic happen. “sniff, sniff” a single tear streams down my cheek.

    Thanks, man!

  3. Anonymous said,

    Wow wonderful piece on an amazing and inspiring band! This is aj btw!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: