Spirit Night - One Man Houses (2012)
Earlier this year, Derrick Shanholtzer from The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die unveiled Broken World Media, his boldly named new record label, and announced ambitious plans to release new music from his various bands in addition to other budding independent artists. Among the label’s very first releases comes One Man Houses, the new LP from the West Virginia/Brooklyn group Spirit Nights.
A project fronted by singer/songwriter Dylan Balliett, Spirit Nights has been kicking around for a while, but they’ve never made a record quite like this before. After releasing the moody, sonically disparate record What We Will Be in 2010, the group sought to craft a more focused and refined rock record. That’s exactly what they’ve done with One Man Houses, a visceral and direct punk album with forceful lyrics and an intensely coherent musical framework.
In a way, One Man Houses is reminiscent of Mountain Smashers, the 2011 record from New Jersey’s By Surprise — Both are jangly, straightforward, emo-tinged indie rock records, and both come from relatively unknown bands with heavily undervalued talent. The lyrical connections are pretty hard to deny as well — Try to find another pair of albums as sonically similar as these two that also bear explicitly stated references to the same American writers. For Spirit Night, it’s “Kerouac.” For By Surprise, it was Thoreau… and also Kerouac.
Like any great lo-fi indie rock record, One Man Houses boasts its share of ironic slacker sentiments. “I’m too busy reading Kerouac to drive my car cross country,” Balliett sings on one track. Overall though, One Man Houses leans more towards Pinkerton than Pavement on the indie rock lyrical spectrum. Balliett spends a great deal of his time oversharing about self-loathing and heartbreak, extolling the virtues of jerking off and taking pills to cope with “real pain” on “Better Off.” Elsewhere on “Living Room,” he reminds the lister that “[his] heart still breaks every month or so over little things.” You’ve heard this all before, of course, and many of the lyrics on this record unfortunately lack the individuality to separate Spirit Nights from their emotive peers.
Every once in a while, however, Balliett strikes a lyrical vein that indicates his true creative potential and sets a high standard for lyrical excellence that the rest of the album can’t quite measure up to. On the chilling penultimate track “The Last Time,” the album’s best and longest song, the band slows things down musically, allowing Balliett to explore disturbing and ambiguous lyrical territory to great effect. “I know where you keep your letters / And I know where you keep the bullets to your gun,” he sings with cold certainty, “I don’t want to have to kill you / I don’t want to have to kill anyone.” Although he offers hints throughout the song’s six minute length, its subject remains open to the listener’s interpretation. This kind of ‘anti-oversharing’ suits Balliett’s lyrical pen much better than the opposite style, which he stubbornly employs throughout most of the album.
The lyrics may be a little lacking in luster overall, but that shouldn’t discount the quality of the songwriting and musicianship throughout the record. One Man Houses shines with lo-fi luminescence and just enough grit to justify tagging this as “punk” in your iTunes. Tracks like the opener “Goodbye Jones” don’t straddle the line between indie rock and emo so much as they veer wildly and erratically between the two, taking the listener on a sonic joyride that’s actually a lot of fun, considering the singer is shouting about being along and miserable most of the time.
Among the highlights is the band’s version of “Rubberneck,” a cover of one of my favorite songs by David Bello, an enigmatic fellow West Virginian with a seemingly bottomless discography. They wrench the song out of its original acoustic context and mold it into a cathartic punk anthem, demonstrating not only the impressive malleability of Bello’s material but also the band’s remarkable talent as arrangers and interpreters. This is how covers should be done. After the “Rubberneck” cover, which comes in the middle of the record, Spirit Night goes on something of an experimental tear, flirting with earworm garage rock and even breaking out an acoustic guitar on “Living Room” before unveiling the previously mentioned masterpiece “The Last Time,” the second to last track.
The album ends on a less breathtaking note with a song called “Grasshoppers,” a straight up ripoff of Weezer’s beloved “Surf Wax America” from their 1994 debut — enjoyable, but frustrating nevertheless. In its least interesting form, revivalist indie rock is appealing only in its similarity to the music of past indie rock records. At its best, it reminds the listener of why people continue to rip off bands like Weezer, Sebadoh, and Pavement in the first place. On One Man Houses, Spirit Night falls into the latter camp most of the time, but not as consistently as they ought to.