Our Favorite Rock Album So Far This Year: Like Pioneers’ “Oh, Magic”
Let’s not beat around the bush. Chicago’s Like Pioneers’ new album, Oh Magic, is our Favorite Rock Album of the year so far. While we won’t deny the talent-tossin’ swagger of the Blunderbuss house that Jack White built, nor the kinetic appeal of Japandroids’ Celebration Rock album, Oh, Magic is a hook-filled indie-rocker with more cohesion, art and intelligence than either of those or any other rock albums released so far this year. There. We said it.
Having grown a little gummed up in the first half of the year with predominantly softer and syrupy sounds, we had been straining to hear some rocking abandon to help kickstart our summer. And then Like Pioneers came hurtling down to hypnotize with Oh, Magic (on Abandoned Love Records). You knew this band was capable of big things after 2010′s debut album, Piecemeal, which included superb throttlers like Crop Circle Plus Legs (one of our favorite songs of 2010), but we weren’t prepared for the quantum leap made by the band on their new album.
Like Pioneers’ hook-laden, indie-rock sound bears the influence of the best of the best: The Replacements, The Walkmen, Guided by Voices, Modest Mouse, Nada Surf, and even a bit of Built to Spill. But the Chicago lads (Bobby Gallivan, Jesse Woghin, Dan Radzicki, and Matt Holland) and lass (Janie Porche) add just the right twists and turns, mixing in dexterous and dynamic divergences to create their own unique sonorities and make the sound their own. Add to this mix the fact that Mike Lust, who engineered and recorded the album, and the band have masterfully produced the album with incessantly apt Factory Records-esque drum, bounding bass and propulsive guitar effects and sounds throughout.
As we said, there are great melodies throughout the band’s songs, but where Like Pioneers really shine is in the intelligence of their lyrics and their inspired delivery. Like many of our favorite bands (REM, Radiohead, etc.), the band’s lyrics feature enigmatic, elliptical wordplay that nevertheless enable the spirit and meaning(s) of the songs to shake through. Each listener is left to conjure his or her own throughlines from the marvelously malleable lyrics. To go way out on a limb, Oh, Magic is a concept album of sorts. The listener is left to decide which concept(s) to adopt. Various themes consistently run through the songs (with only limited breaks or diversions). Though the songs sing generally of adversity, loss, resolve and renewal, you might hear more specific themes, such as lamentations for forgotten bands and music, and musicians falling in and out of favor (particularly in this Anno Domini Domini era). Or you may hear tales of relationships drowned but still breathing. Or the songs may sing to you of a nation (America) past its prime. Still again, you might recognize family/generational issues (boomers/parents vs. youngers). Or, all of the above. Regardless, we guaranty you will be moved.
But don’t let any of the above guesswork get in the way of the shear enjoyment of the music, songs and singing on Oh, Magic. After a listen or two, we guaranty you will be involuntarily twitching and shout-singing along. The album kicks off suitably with the refrain, “My heart felt frozen, won’t you please, please, please move closer,” from inspirational opening track Champion. The song seems to be a clarion call announcing a newly-inspired and evolved band. And from there the album proceeds to rack up one rollicking highlight after another, ultimately finishing with three of the best songs of this or any other year. Following Champion, the (self?) motivational All Wrapped propels with its chiming guitar and singalong chorus: “It’s all wrapped around you, this house of cards; it’s all stacked against you. And I guess we could focus on this for far too f@#ing long. I know that it looks all right. Oh, but I know this is not your time to fade out.” Other sublime songs and moments are strewn throughout the album, with not a clinker to be found. The band continuously lulls you in and then impressively shifts gears during songs, such as on Tell ‘Em Ghost when the chorus hits at 2:32 and demands “Now all hands on the spaceship, and you were gearing up to leave. Out here in your basement you were too stoic to believe, and we wasted the obvious engagement. We’re wasted for the opportunity.” We imagine a crowded club and the entire audience loudly answering the call for all hands. And then Janie Porche steps in on National Spectre and at 3:05 levitates the chorus to new heights in her quest (in the process reminding of Mates of State’s Kori Gordner, but with more aggression):
“Let this be the reason we’re trying.
Let this be the season we’re dry.
Let this be the reason we’re fine.”
Powerful stuff. After a few more charmers, we get to the last three songs on the album. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it does. On Requiem for Some Band, Like Pioneers have delivered one of the most compelling songs of the year. Jesse Woghin does his best Westerberg impression (listen in at 1:26 and thereafter), and Like Pioneers give us a poignant anthem for all bands who have shown huge promise only to end up toiling in obscurity. Woghin is literally haunted by the prospect:
“Ghosts that come to me come through the stereo.
And there’s nothing quite like it, the sound of leaving.
Ghosts that come to me come through the stereo.”
Requiem is followed by the “epic” Boggs with Bobby Gallivan regaling throughout the near-six-minute song, and the band stretching out a bit a la Built to Spill. Boggs feels somewhat a call-to-arms response to Requiem, with Gallivan seemingly exhorting the band and their audience (Lonely Adora?) to stay the course and not give up the fight:
“Lonely Adora, I’m on my way.
Lonely Adora, I’m on my way, don’t move anything.
The freezing rain sent cars off the street,
but well-wishers staggered along
and helped us back to our feet.
So now we stand, as we planned, arms to shoulder.”
The album closes with one final mini-masterpiece, July 2. Jesse Woghin again evinces his lyrical magic (“It was old at the taste of it, and it doesn’t matter how it’s plated”), and the band builds and moves behind him to perfection. The album ends fittingly with Woghin’s repeated encouragement:
“Holding down, down. Holding down, down.
We will all ride.”
So listen up: do yourselves and Like Pioneers a favor, and go buy (or stream if you must) the entire Oh, Magic album HERE. You will be richly rewarded. Like Pioneers have only made a few live appearances in recent months. We hope this is only a temporary state of affairs and that the band is merely off fine-tuning its stage act for an assault on America. To quote Neil Young on the subject: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” These songs deserve a large following and venues filled with ardent fans singing along at the top of their lungs. It would be, oh…magic.
While you’re at it, check out the band’s official video for Tell ‘Em Ghost below.