By M. Lewis Barker
It’s difficult, if not downright impossible, for me to review a local group without considering their part in the grand scheme of the Provo music scene. Every style, band, and member of this community is linked together, from Baby Ghosts to J.Wride. In my poor attempts to imitate proper review sites, helmed by proper writers who studied journalism in college hoping to imitate Clark Kent, I occasionally look at the bigger picture. How does a group fit into our scene as a whole? What does their music mean to the people that spend their money every weekend attending shows? What does it mean to me?
(That may be a self-centered way to review the hard work of other artists, but my favorite reviewers wear their opinions on their sleeves and talk just a little about themselves.)
I started the Provo Music Blog over a year ago, and it seemed the de facto complaint from both me and many in the music scene at large was the overabundance of Folk. When I made my now-horribly-out-of-date catalogue of active bands, a whole third of them played some variation of Folk, generally of the Omaha-inspired, Indie version. It wasn’t that every show was populated by these groups, but the biggest names in the scene nearly always had that quality about them. You could expect hushed vocals, acoustic guitars, and possibly a cello any night that Velour was packed. I was right at the front of the masses bitching about the homogeny in our scene. Ironically, nearly all of the folk albums I reviewed received heavy praise. Folk was all over because so many bands played it excellently.
I’ll hardly act like Folk has vanished – it is still immensely popular here. However, its trendiness is beginning to wane. Threatening its throne are a young group of spacey dream bands who owe a lot more to Sigur Rós than Bob Dylan. Soft Science, Lake Island, and even Book On Tape Worm to some extent each play some variation of this lovely indie music. Leading the charge is The Moth & the Flame, whose recent album release show sold out Velour so bad that they scheduled a second concert three days later for those who couldn’t attend the first. The duo, composed of Brandon Robbins on guitar and Mark Garbett on keyboard, have been quickly taking over the local scene thanks in large part to the hype machine the band has managed to build.
I was quick to dismiss TM&TF for a long time. But then I was given a copy of their self-titled debut album, and the hype around it is completely warranted. In these last two weeks, I’ve listened to The Moth & the Flame some five or six times. It’s been in my car’s stereo rotation for the past week, though it is best heard on a big pair of headphones (as all music is).
This is easily one of the best albums I’ve ever heard out of Provo. I can’t describe it on a song by song basis, as the whole album just weaves together. Robbins and Garbett have seamlessly blended the Icelandic dreamscapes of Sigur Rós with our own homegrown brand of Provo Indie Folk. Echoes, synthesizers, bells, and strings envelope Robbins’ guitar and the duo’s vocals as they take us through this meticulously crafted work of art.
On even the first listen, one immediately knows that a lot of work, time, and money went into The Moth & the Flame. It’s a labor of love. As they sing “Everything we’ve done until now’s for nothing” on “&”, I can’t help but agree. The lyric works on several levels. The group’s previous work may been more than “nothing”, but nothing they’ve done in the past has been worth as much as this. Though personally, I view it as the album’s signature line because it perfectly captures the feeling of being a useless 20-something who wants to contribute much more to the world than his or her skillset and experience would allow.
I generally ignore discussing lyrics, but the themes in the album are strong. Feelings of ineptitude, wanting to do more than you can, growing up – these are simple ideas that constantly swim about in my skull. The modern young adult feels privileged and helpless. We want to prove ourselves mature while embracing childhood and nostalgia. The line “there was nothing left” from the song “Dreamer” says it perfectly. We were told we could be anything and are angry to learn that it’s not true. Granted, I am most definitely imprinting my own thoughts and ideas onto this record, but it is the interpretation that I see. TM&TF floats around ideas, both lyrical and musical. Sounds bombard the listener from every direction. How else can we make music anymore? Our lives are a constant barrage of media. We’re not cowboys on the plains or train-hopping Depression-era hobos. A cheap acoustic guitar and harmonica don’t cut it anymore.
The melancholy that surrounds TM&TF may be overdramatic, but I’ve never heard a local band so perfectly reflect life here in Provo. Our artistic community is not nearly as negative and spiteful as what you might find elsewhere, but an unfortunate part of Mormon culture is our large sense of entitlement. More than anyone, we feel like we’ve done things right. We avoid all those drugs and drinking and STDs, our boys go on missions, we study hard in college, all in hopes of success and prosperity in life. And when we don’t see the rewards we were promised whether it’s a good job or a loving spouse, what is there to do? We can’t complain to the establishment without being labeled heretic in some form. The Moth & the Flame’s self-titled debut deals with that frustration, whether the band intended it or not.
The album never quite builds to the climax one might expect, despite its several high notes. An “Ára Bátur” would help round it out, but maybe that’s not the point. The album never ventures out of its own territory, employing the same sounds and styles from start to finish. One song will end and another will start without me noticing, and I’m not always sure if that’s intentional. In other words, it’s a bit repetitive. But so is life. They pull influences from all over, and yet make this album seem like it distinctly belongs in the here and now.
The answer to that question from “Goodbye” – “Don’t you want to go home again?” is a resounding yes, but you can’t. You’ll never go home because your home is gone. All you can do now is accept that and work on building a new home. That’s the hope that I found in this work. This really is a tremendous album. The production, musicianship, songwriting, and composition are all superb. They have set the bar very high for Provo.
You can stream and/or purchase the album at the band’s official website: http://www.howwewokeup.com [2020 update: link now inactive].
These past few months, I can hardly say that I’ve been faithful to the few of you that actually read the site. In true elitist hipster fashion, I started working at a record store, or at least the closest thing Utah County has to one. Include the constant fatigue and excessive apathy that come packaged with a case of mononucleosis, and you have a recipe for a forsaken site. For that, I apologize. I really do have things to write about, videos to edit, and bands to praise/hate. Unfortunately, unless some new people are interested in contributing to the site, don’t expect the two updates a week I once was able to output. (I know many of you are just downright heartbroken.)
The biggest thing to happen during my absence is the signing of Fictionist to Atlantic Records. But let’s calm down kids. Provo is not Seattle circa 1991. Fictionist and Neon Trees are not at the start of a revolution. Whatever their strengths and weaknesses are, both of those groups are incredibly safe. Nearly everything we do in Provo is safe, but enjoyable. Even the record I just barely praised so much hasn’t done anything particularly innovative. Still, if you’re looking for fame or glory or attention or whatever, now is the time to pull up your bootstraps and get at it. Of course, if that’s all you’re looking for, then I have every right to post mean things about you on the internet. But if you’re earnestly making music, not for fame or money or recognition but because you just love doing it and creating something new, then I salute you.