Alex Woodard – Saturn Returns

Alex Woodard
Saturn Returns

If you like any of the bands in the RIYL, please stop reading this review and buy Saturn Returns. I promise you will like it. My elitist, guilt-ridden, unfocused review can now begin.

A few weeks ago, my friend Chris summed-up a local band we’d gone out to see by saying that they sounded like they wrote their songs by playing the first things that popped into their head and then just sticking with them. He wasn’t indicting their song’s simplicity or the group’s playing ability, just the fact that they sounded like they didn’t put much thought into their music. These chords go together, let’s use them; these words rhyme, good enough; that drum beat fits, play it. That kept popping into my head throughout Saturn Returns. The songs don’t sound bad and aren’t poorly recorded and the playing and singing aren’t weak, necessarily. The music is just horribly derivative of bands (see RIYL) that are ridiculously boring, generic, and careerist enough. It’s offering nothing new to a tired set of songs that really had nothing new to offer in the first place, and above all, it doesn’t sound like anyone was trying all that hard or stretching themselves that far to begin with.

Dave Marsh wrote, and I’m misquoting a little here, that great songs search for meaning and find only clichés, which they then redeem. The reverse being true, bad ones find clichés and think that the answers are just that simple. The packaging gives it all away here: black and white photographs of an old man with a cane and a cowboy hat walking a desert road alone, of Alex on the beach with his guitar, of Alex with his dog. In this world, the clichés fall like rain (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Alex (every song is in the first person and I don’t think he’s trying to inhabit characters in his writing) “could use a little faith” (“Surround”), needs to close his eyes to be able to see (“Chariot”), will catch your fall should you stumble (“Every Road”) and works “in the city” but dreams “in the streets” (“Surround”). His feelings are laid bare and wrung tight for every possible drip of inherent drama; every line is a revelation of his deepest wishes and fears.

Most people can identify with these emotions, and some of us may have even written similar verses in our high school journals. But that was before we heard soul music, the Ramones, Big Star, the Clash, or Nirvana. And, unless you’ve stopped listening to those bands, Woodard’s over-simplifications will ring trite. His feelings are valid and I’m sure he believes it all very strongly, but he’s not adding any new insight into anything or even trying to, really. He’s just talking about himself, basically. To his credit, with the right producer his songs will be almost as good and as worthy of being in heavy rotation as practically any other band that’s on Mix radio. It’s just that the league he’s playing in isn’t very strong.

The rub is that this guy and a lot of these bands have earned their success the old-fashioned indie way; they tour and tour and tour. They self-release and hustle their music and believe in it as much as any of your favorite, more credible acts. They just happen to make music that is palatable to large groups of people. And more power to them, really. Still, their work ethic doesn’t make their songwriting cut any deeper or make it any more significant musically (and this isn’t just directed at these bastard children of Glenn Frey; there are plenty of examples in the new garage rock scene, the 80s and hair metal revival scenes, and on and on). Saturn Returns is, I’m sure, the product of a lot of hard work and honest feelings; success is rightly deserved. It just never really rises above the level of unredeemed cliché.