Bright Men of Learning, Fired

Bright Men of Learning, Fired

It’s about damn time. I’ve been a fan of Bright Men of Learning and its various predecessor bands over the years, from frontman Marshall Preddy’s early Wholesome Rollers project on through the evolving lineups of Telluride, Chasmatic, and the current band, digging ’em live the whole time and definitely liking what I heard in recorded form. Even still, though, I always got this feeling the band and music weren’t quite where they needed to be; close enough to glimpse it, sure, but not yet hitting the mark.

With Fired, they’ve hit that mark — obliterated it, actually — and left me shaking my head and grinning. This is what Preddy’s songs have needed to sound like, the whole freaking time. I couldn’t have articulated it if you’d asked me before I heard it, but trust me, the songs on Fired are perfect right down to their core.

Part of it’s the production, honestly; the album was engineered and produced by Preddy’s brother-in-law, of all things, a guy named Jonas Wilson who runs Blue Train Studio up in Austin. And he’s managed to make the band’s sound fit them this time out like it was a tailor-made suit, right down to the close-mic’ed, gently distorted vocals on “Your Brave Mistake.”

There’s always plenty going on, but it’s never overwhelming, always fitting in right where it should — and sometimes the little touches are genuinely cool all by themselves, like the gorgeously delicate little guitar line sliding through the back end of “Left Behind.” As a bonus, Preddy’s vocals on Fired are easily the most polished I’ve ever heard them, just broken enough to tug at the heartstrings and slurred like some oddball cross between Britt Daniel and Mick Jagger.

What really hits me here, though, is that stylistically speaking, Preddy and BMOL bandmates Ben Murphy (guitars/lap steel), Chris Kahlich (guitars), Jonathan Sage (bass), and Jeff Senske (drums) have stepped away from the more overtly “country,” roots-rock sound they started out with. Admittedly, the No Depression tag’s not something the band’s ever sought out, but it’s something a lot of folks (me included) have stuck on them in the past.

But now? Not so much. Of all the tracks on here, the raw, bluesy “Sidewalks” is probably the closest to the whole Uncle Tupelo crowd, but even that’s supremely laid-back and mellow, all shrugging slacker coolness. Second track “One That Matters,” on the other hand, made me double-check the player — had I inadvertently switched bands somehow? Where’d the country-rock go? With its melodic-yet-twitchy drone riff, driving rhythm, and snarling delivery, the chorus of that particular track makes me think of nothing more than Archers of Loaf’s “Underdogs of Nipomo.”

The Bright Men picked a fine, fine opening track, too, with “Blood Rain,” which I’d listen to on repeat for the blazing, rumbling guitars all by themselves. I’m not generally one to obsess over the way the guitars on an album sound — the songs are more my thing, generally, not the guitar nerd-ery — but holy fuck is that an awesome guitar tone. Warm and solid, with just enough of a rough edge to it to dig into the rest of the song, it makes me want to raise a lighter in the air and bob my head as I sit here on the couch. (And hey, the near-constant bed of feedback floating through the background’s damn cool, as well.)

There’s also “White Sands,” which rides out into the desert with a nothing much but a guitar and comes back with a raise-your-beer, yell-along anthem that’s half spaghetti Western and half spooky Gorillaz outtake — and no, I’m serious about the latter; did you hear those cool “chirping,” almost ska-like guitars? “Your Brave Mistake” is propulsive and barely-restrained, with pumping drums (courtesy of the metronome-solid Senske), fuzzy guitars, and vocals that make me think alternately of David Garza and Supergrass.

Finally, there’s “Western Hearts,” which rides that line between the jangle-country stuff and more full-on rock probably more than any other song. It’s a great little bio/song, sung from the perspective of a possibly-corrupt career politician who only comes back home every six years to fight for his re-election, and in it the band manages to turn a sleazeball into nearly a sympathetic figure, a guy who stays away not because he loves DC but because it’s the best thing he can do for his constituents. By the time the final scene unfolds, you feel bad for the politico.

And all the while, the dusty, loose-limbed guitars sweep and sway, but the track never gets fully dragged into that territory. Instead, there’s a resemblance (to my ear, at least) to the quieter parts of Sebadoh’s “Gimme Indie Rock,” albeit with an appropriate touch of an out-West vibe. It’s like the Bright Men guys decided this time to aim more at channeling the indie-rock icons they loved, rather than fitting some kind of limiting idea of what genre the band “belongs” in. I’m hearing shards of The Replacements, Sebadoh, Pavement, Superchunk, and — naturally — Spoon drifting around in there, and this time they’re taking center stage.

Hell, maybe they always did, and I was just missing it and focusing unfairly on the country side of the equation. Whatever; however it works, it’s amazing, and I’m damn glad to be able to hear it. Don’t stop now, y’all.

[Bright Men of Learning are playing their CD release 9/18/10 at Rudyards, along with Orange Is In & Jim Beazy.]
(self-released; Bright Men of Learning -- http://www.wearebright.com/)
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Review by . Review posted Thursday, September 16th, 2010. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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6 Responses to “Bright Men of Learning, Fired

  1. Review round-up - Bright Men of Learning on September 17th, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    […] was a golden review from Jeremy Hart of Space City Rock: It’s about damn time. I’ve been a fan of Bright Men of Learning and its various predecessor […]

  2. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 1: Bright Men + Handsomes + Freedom of Movement + The Manichean + Miss Leslie + More on January 28th, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    […] project Side Arms, but mostly because I’ve been listening to Bright Men of Learning‘s Fired a ton lately, and it blows me away every freaking […]

  3. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 3: Buxton + The Donkeys + Bright Men + Tigerparty + Appleseed Cast + Jeff Wells Memorial + More on August 21st, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    […] up the ramshackle stage with their roots-tinged, laidback-but-cynical indie-rock roar. 2010′s Fired was honestly one of the best damn albums I heard all of that year — indie, major, local, […]

  4. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 3: Bright Men of Learning + A Sundae Drive + Thou Shall Not Kill…Except + Paige Lewis + More on January 8th, 2012 at 10:46 am

    […] nonchalantly making music, putting out CDs/records (their most recent album, 2010′s awesome Fired, as a vinyl-only release), and occasionally playing shows (since, y’know, they’ve all […]

  5. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. (Late) Weekend, Pt. 2: Young Girls (Revd!) + IFest + Dengue Fever + Bright Men + T.S.O.L. + More on February 3rd, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    […] for BMOL, their most recent full-length, Fired, was one of the top, top handful of albums I heard last year, and that includes a lot of really, […]

  6. SPACE CITY ROCK » Pour One Out, Y’all: Bright Men of Learning & Sharks and Sailors Have Their Last Hurrah on March 10th, 2012 at 12:56 am

    […] band, sure, and one of my favorites in town. But it wasn’t ’til 2010′s vinyl-only Fired where I sat up and said, “holy fucking crap, this is incredible.” With that release […]

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