Review Summary: Our hearts guide our minds to make greed obsolete.
Most of the so-called musical discussion and criticism that takes place on the internet is too concerned with immediately placing certain artists or albums into specific genres. It’s a lazy way to categorize music that caters to people that can’t be bothered to actually discuss the details of the music itself, or the deeper meaning that the artist may be trying to convey. It is definitely understandable why this happens, and I myself have certainly been guilty of this sort of over-simplification in the past, but truly great music transcends this shallow talking point and demands a more intelligent discussion. Old Man Markley is exactly that sort of band, and their second full-length album Down Side Up
is a remarkable example of music that rises above pigeonholing.
This is a distinct album in many ways, but it is most noticeable for the fierce punk attitude that permeates every aspect of the songs. Musically, it comes from a much more complex and varied place than that, but this is still punk at its core (their current contract with Fat Wreck Chords could help to back that point up). John Carey’s lead vocals cry out to the disillusioned public and ask us if we are still willing to fight for what we know is right, or if we are willing to let evil, corrupt men control our lives. It is a desperate shout, a frustrated scream, to the millions of so-called idealists who, less than a decade ago, believed in creating genuine positive change in the world, but that are now returning to state of dismal apathy. On ‘America’s Dreaming’ Carey wonders, and theorizes: If crooks are in charge, should we let them pick our pockets? If we don’t want trouble, should we not try to stop it? (…) They think they’ve got us trained so we’ll think we’re living free if we’ve got time and money for junk food and TV. But it’s plain [that] honest people never stand a chance of winning elections. They just let us pick which liars take our rights away “for our own protection.”
This practice of feeling disenfranchised by “the man” through a vaguely punk-rock kind of vehicle is hardly a new approach, but this album is something more than that. It is both a battle-cry, a call to action, and at the same time, a pessimistic analysis of the greater American public in the year 2013. “Change we can believe in” was the five-word mantra that was meant to usher forward this new, glorious Utopia of basic human rights and political transparency, but it has been years since anyone has actually believed in that concept enough to see it through. This is hardly a complaint letter though, or an instance of someone simply playing the blame game, as the lyrics also present a kind of self-aware acceptance of the general public’s failure to really take all this rhetoric to heart, themselves included (the first song ‘Blood on our Hands’ is a great example of this).
Even though the album is overflowing with jubilant emotion and seemingly celebratory choruses from a musical standpoint, there is still a dark, almost cynical edge to it all due in large part to the gloomy lyrical content. The various members of this band are all practitioners of the marvelous art of bluegrass, a musical style known for its upbeat melodies and jaunty rhythms. Putting the lyrics aside for a moment, this album creates the sort of atmosphere that could get an entire room dancing a jig in a burst of euphoric emotional expression. At virtually any given moment during this album, the listener will find themselves surrounded by the distinctly bubbly instrumentation of Old Man Markley – the fiddles saw away majestically as a knee-slapper of a banjo line breaks through the simple percussion and open chords of an acoustic guitar. All of this glorious sound is wonderfully restrained though, to the point that it only goes as far as setting the stage for the bleak lyrical content, rather than overshadowing it.
Down Side Up
is a very impressive album for a number of reasons. Not only is it a wonderfully poignant piece of lyricism, but also a distinctly fresh piece of music in the way that it marries punk sensibilities with a bluegrass approach to instrumentation and song-writing. It is an album rooted in the general punk-rock attitude that this generation is, by this point, all too familiar with, but at the same time it is a fresh look at a somewhat clichéd topic. There are literally thousands of albums that direct anger towards “the establishment” and raise intriguing or inspiring political questions. But this album is much deeper than that, and so much more than just a jumble of misguided anger. It is also unique, in that it could have only come out in this specific period of time, in the way that it specifically speaks to the general trends towards back towards apathy that society as a whole seems to be currently swept up in. Old Man Markley wants you to know that the battle is far from over, even as the general public gets closer to accepting this defeatist sort of outlook with every day. But this is a battle that will take real commitment and determination to win. So stop angrily re-posting controversial Fox News articles on facebook, get off the couch, and go make some tangible change in the world.
Think twice, the change that we need can be found. Think twice, just don’t expect to get it handed down. Think twice, right now it’s up to you and me. Our hearts guide our minds to make greed obsolete.