Published on November 27th, 2013 | by Scott Ryan0
Runaway Symphony, ‘Running South’ Review
There’s always some comfort in aural familiarity. Settling in with an album that you know isn’t going to throw curveballs or bizarre sonic detours. Music that hits the expected dynamic marks in ways that feel organic to it’s genre but not entirely predictable. It’s what keeps a great many people attached to the repetitions of pop radio and drove classical composers working in the later 20th century away from mathematical, atonal exercises and toward the idea of repeated themes and minimalism. People instinctively like what we know.
The problem is that too often, especially in indie pop-rock, genre markers become tropes. The same ideas being produced again and again, untempered by wit or invention: rise and fall dynamics, earnest lyrics of heartbreak, chanting “whoah oh” bridges. And interestingly enough, it seems the earnestness is often the most divisive aspect. After all, one’s heart-strings can only be tugged so much before they are strained and it all becomes cloying. Crafting songs that are truly moving without being sappy is an increasingly difficult juggling act.
If the key is balance, then Runaway Symphony are successfully walking the beam on their newest release, ‘Running South.’ In fact, from the sound of it, they want it to be your new favorite record. It aims to hit all of the warm, emotional sweetspots that your favorite records hit: heartbroken lows, emotional highs, uplifting messages (“this world is not a disaster!”). The album isn’t in a buzzy new genre and it doesn’t do anything the listener hasn’t heard before. But being familiar isn’t the same as being tired. The fact that the band can create something that uses the recognizable (i.e. chord changes, song forms, instruments) and still manage to surprise is greatly to their credit. Second track, ‘Lie Awake and Dream,’ feels like many longing, acoustic songs that have come before, beginning with pinging guitars and delayed textures before the warm strum of an acoustic guitar takes over. However, the sweetness of the chorus hook that works in both the context of the chorus and the slow building bridge truly lifts the song. It is this gift for memorable hooks and melodies that set them apart from many bands that ape the same kind of cascading sound to manufacture emotional walloping hits. Here, the big payoffs are mostly hard-earned, and the band is at their best when they allow their penchant for strong melodies to combine with their powerful arrangements and become something transcendent.
As a whole, ‘Running South’ sounds pretty sure of itself. Right off, ‘Scarlet Heart’ sets the tone, repeating it’s conflicted mantra of, “this is the life I chose” vs. “these are the lives I stole” over reedy organs and steadily building drums. The record manages to weave an impressive sonic consistency, using strings, glockenspiel and other textures to complement the core makeup of pristine guitars, inventive drums, piano, and vocal harmonies. And when banjo driven ballad, ‘Butterflies,’ gives way to an ambient instrumental transition or ‘Spirits,’ and ‘Wolves in the Woods,’ reveal that they are essentially two parts of the same song, separated by a dramatic string interlude, the listener begins to see just how much craftsmanship is on display. The lyrics in the aforementioned songs tell a dark story, where the climax conjures biblical imagery as a kind father figure steps in to protect the troubled story teller, singing, “this one’s mine!” These guys are great players and writers, and these elements work extremely well, lending the band the musical and emotional credibility needed to earn their big moments, and forgive their lesser ones.
Admittedly though, when the curtain is pulled back far enough for their influences to peak out, pinpointing how similar the record can sound compared to other anthemic indie pop bands like Death Cab for Cutie or Stars can dent it’s power. Latter track, ‘Rubicon,’ matches ‘Transatlanticism’ era Death Cab almost verbatim in its outro. These moments can make it feel as if the big eighth note builds, grinding guitar outros or cries of “I don’t want to live alone” happen out of obligation. Runaway Symphony are better than that. The record really fires when it feels like the musical ideas present themselves out of the emotional trajectory of the song, rather than a need to check off a requirement.
If these guys can continue to inject actual, heartfelt moments into their anthemic brand of indie pop-rock, they should have no trouble making it to a stage big enough to match their musical ambitions. For now, those listening to ‘Running South’ will be trying to no avail to get some of these songs out of their heads. Or they might not try that hard. There is afterall, comfort in familiarity, and this is a record you will be happy to get familiar with.
Listen to “Lie Awake and Dream” off Running South
Visit www.runawaysymphony.com to pre-order the album.
PS: I have seen these guys live, and they put on a powerful show. I would recommend going to see them do their thing, opening for Sallie Ford at the Bartlett on December 18. Details and tickets.