Keep it Together Label: Reprise / Wea
They were one of the feel good stories of 1999; Guster, a Boston trio who play fun, clever folk-pop, not to mention a drummer who prefers to use his bare hands instead of sticks, gets to cut an album with the legendary producer Steve Lillywhite. The result, Lost and Gone Forever, is a gem, a rock solid pop album that expanded their scope and remained true to the band's roots as well. Even though it was their third album, it was their debut in terms of mass-market awareness, which means it's their debut in terms of expectations as well. Keep It Together, their fourth album, will therefore likely be judged as a sophomore effort. Most unfair, but right on par in terms of all of the things about the music business right now that make no sense whatsoever.
Thankfully, Guster avoids their second sophomore slump. Keep It Together strays farther from their humble beginnings, even going so far as to include, horrors, a drum kit. But the songwriting more than makes up for the band's occasionally misguided forays into new territory.
The decision to move to a more conventional sound was a gutsy one, and the first listen is admittedly a little jarring: "Red Oyster Cult" downright rocks, or at least rocks as much as Guster can, with drummer Brian Rosenworcel going to town on nearly every beat in the song. "Careful" sounds more like Sister Hazel than Guster, though it's still open to debate whether that is actually a good thing. It doesn't help that the song also steals a big lick from Lost and Gone's semi-hit "Fa Fa," either. In fact, the band cribs from its past a couple of times: the ending of "Amsterdam," for example, is a dead ringer for the ending of "Center of Attention."
Keep It Together fares best on the songs where they're clearly most comfortable. "Jesus on the Radio," a banjo-driven folk tune with some superb harmonies between guitarist Ryan Miller and bassist Adam Gardner, is the album's crown jewel, and will definitely come to a coffeehouse open mic night near you very soon. "Backyard" is a hushed piece with Rosenworcel's trademark hot bongo action and a nifty flanged harmonica solo. The title track starts off with a slinky, Zombies vibe, until the sunny chorus turns it into a singalong. Leadoff track "Diane" builds in much the same way as Gone's opener "What You Wish For."
Guster isn't going to change the world. In fact, they'd likely hand the job to Eddie Vedder if it were given to them. But in a business dominated by foul mouthed, ill tempered, petulant little crybabies and sexed up teenagers talking dirty, it's refreshing to see a band who's clean, clever and, rarest of all, nice. Keep It Together may not be their best, but it's a good effort from a band that's getting better.
And now, a rant.
If Reprise (Guster's new label, after Sire went under, again) knows what's good for them, they'll market these guys the old fashioned way. You know, where you let bands develop over the course of a couple albums and gain a slow building but dedicated fan base? If Billy Joel had come out five years ago, he'd be making The Stranger for an indie label, and never would have gotten a song on the radio, because his label couldn't afford the payola it would take to make "Only the Good Die Young" a hit.
This needs to end now. Time to stop plugging 20 half-baked, sorry ass bands and instead develop five good bands. Five good bands will create back catalogs that will stand the test of time, which will guarantee future sales. Instead of going full bore on the we-need-a-hit-NOW approach, why don't you go back to what made you so much money up to this point, which is building a solid portfolio of good albums instead of a who's who of one hit wonders? Do you think anyone is buying albums from the Ataris six months from now, never mind six weeks? No.
So try showing your revenue stream some respect. You never know, they might actually start showing you some in return.