Review Summary: We don't have happiness. Or a dad.
Dan Campbell is a figure that is quickly gaining success and recognition in the music scene. His main project The Wonder Years are a fantastic pop-punk group that seem to be able to play faster, stronger, and more heartfelt than all their contemporaries. Their last album The Greatest Generation was a very powerful effort that helped cement them as one of my favorite bands. Campbell wanted to expand his musical horizons, which gave birth to his side project, Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties. Their first record "We Don't Have Each Other" features instrumentation from several current and former Wonder Years members, and all the music was written by Campbell. The album shows promise, but very rarely capitalizes on all that it has going for it.
The band description for Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties states that Campbell desired to form the group "after he learned to play guitar". This already sets some strict limitations on what the music will sound like. Campbell is obviously not as gifted a guitarist as he could be if he decided to release this album at a later date. This translates into the album, where just about every song revolves around a very simple acoustic progression that doesn't change much throughout each piece's 3-5 minute runtime. Sometimes this works, such as on album highlight "Divorce And The American South" where there are other things keeping the listener's attention, like the beautiful trumpet motif toward the song's conclusion. Other times, this causes the album to fall flat on its face. Take for example "Get Me Out Of Here Alive". Dan plays a very simple progression on his guitar. Dan sings. The tempo is slow. The lack of change in the song's structure causes the listener to become bored, but they need not worry because Dan had the courtesy to add 45 seconds of an even simpler drum beat. End of song.
The album's greatest weakness comes in Campbell's own weaknesses when arranging music. Whether nothing happens, or things pop in and out at inappropriate times, a lot of transitions on this record simply feel awkward and out of place. The most glaring example of this comes from the album's second single, "You Ain't No Saint". The song starts off with a ton of energy, which quickly helps it stand out from the rest of the album. Mike Kennedy's drums really propel the first half of the song into greatness, especially that amazing chorus with that ripping saxophone, and for a while it looks like it will be the album highlight. But then, IT happens. As the band is transitioning into the bridge, a guitar amp gives off some rather loud feedback, causing Dan's vocal delivery to become horribly off-key. Why he kept this blatant error in the finished product instead of recording another take is beyond me. If the album really meant that much to him, he would have made sure that everything was recorded the way it was supposed to sound for his fans. A lot of the time, this is the impression that We Don't Have Each Other gives me: the feeling that it is rushed, sloppily arranged, and would have benefited from more time on the drawing board.
Thankfully, Campbell's amazing ability to tell a story has not been changed a bit. Campbell's lyrics are as top-notch as ever, and the concept he came up with for the record is not the most original idea, but it still works for this type of music. Based on how the music sounds at times, I honestly think this would have made a better book than an album. The album revolves around the character of Aaron West, and what is supposedly the worst year of his life so far. Things are quickly going downhill for Aaron, as he's having trouble with the girlfriend, that girlfriend had a miscarriage, and his father has recently passed. All of these events cause Aaron to drastically rethink his life and what it means. There are times when I would rather just read the amazing lyrics and captivating story for this album than actually listen to the album, which doesn't bode well for the music itself, but says all it needs to about how great Dan's lyricism is.
Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties has the potential to be a great project. The lyrics on We Don't Have Each Other are phenomenal. The story is phenomenal. The structure and instrumentation need work. Dan needs to take his time instead of rushing to finish his work in a desperate attempt to show it to the world as soon as possible. If these problems are remedied, then the project's next record could be a brilliant, tight and focused effort. Let's hope that happens.