I first heard of Roman Candle through their publishing company in Nashville--a friend who works there gave me a copy of Oh Tall Tree In the Ear. I didn't listen to it until several months later, though, when a former bandmate of mine (monster axe-man Stanton Adcock) began playing with them on tour. So, sometime last spring, I hit play. Out came "Eden Was a Garden." I listened to nothing else for a week. I liked the album immediately for its energy and its wealth of melodies (not all vocal). Later, I fell in love with its lyrics.
Roman Candle's writing is deliberately poetic and lyrical. For example:
I could wish against the dawn of day, sit and wish that we could stay
In this room we could wait til the tears come
Oh but that don't work for me and you, doing things the way we do
It'd be a conchshell stuck to our eardrum
With every passing minute as a faint-heard roar
Of a rolling ocean talking about some road we've never seen before...
Verses like that are hard to come by. They're even more rare from a rock band. You can read Roman Candle's lyrics on the page (or at their site) and hear Auden, and Eliot, and Whitman. Hell, they name-check Milton. And while citing The Greats is one thing (anyone can quote Shakespeare*), writing great is another. Roman Candle's lyrics are more than rich, rewarding, intellectual conceits that develop an idea, or tell a story, or give us some fresh imagery. Read (or sung) aloud, they're beautiful. Whoever's writing them has a poet's ear.
So, a year later, I'm still finding new things to love about this album. Each song is full of new musical nooks-and-crannies to explore, new favorite lines, a guitar part that just catches the ear, etc. Or, in this case, a really cool songwriting trick that's so well-executed I didn't hear it the first dozen times.
Okay, click that link and listen (couldn't find a YouTube video for it). Maybe listen a second or a third time. I listened to this song several times before I realized something was strange about it. I listened a few more times before I realized what that strange thing was: "Early Aubade" is backwards.
This is a verse-centric song. As you can hear, there isn't really a chorus, and there isn't really a bridge. It's just a series of verses--without a refrain--that tell a story, and the music helps it along. When a song stays the same structurally, songwriters like mix it up musically/melodically/etc to keep the listener engaged. In other words, "I'm playing the same chords, but now a piano's joined me!" You need to mix it up one way or another.**
A few examples:
--My song, "In the Air Tonight" has a chorus, but it's really a verse-heavy song. To avoid redundancy, I added more instruments and background melodies in each passing verse. The song "builds" to a climax before the final line.
--Josh Ritter writes a lot of these songs. "Girl In the War" plays with the song's arrangement to build drama and give the ear something new to latch onto as each verse is being sung.
In other words, a common way of recording these songs is to add instruments and build the drama. But in "Early Aubade," Roman Candle does the opposite. The first verse is the loudest, biggest, and feels the most cathartic. Every subsequent verse strips away ornamentation; as the lyric gets more intimate, so does our production. Finally, we're left with only one singer, one guitar, and one open-ended hypothetical.
Pretty cool, huh? It's a simple twist on an old technique, but 1) I've never heard it before and 2) it's executed to perfection. As startling as the difference from first to last verse is, it's easy to miss the transition as it's happening. It's especially fun to contrast with the album's other bookend, the first track "Eden Was a Garden." "Eden" takes the more conventional approach, beginning with the lone guitar and singer and building up to a climax. Ten songs later, "Early Aubade" inverts the formula, employs a similar melody, and invites song-to-song comparisons.
I'd recommend playing "Early Aubade" the next time you're driving on an empty street in great weather. I'd recommend playing it loud. And I'd recommend getting the whole album. I promise, it'll last you a while.
(*Yeah, I'm looking at you, Mumford. Easy, people--I'm a fan! But the "they're quoting Shakespeare!" blurbs are just silly. I wish writing "E = MC2" meant I magically didn't suck at math. But yeah, I still suck at math.)
(**Unless you're Bob Dylan and you're writing "Desolation Row," in which case you can do whatever the hell you want.)