Alva Star – Escalator

Alva Star

Alva Star’s frontman, John Hermanson, set out to “unlearn everything he knew about songwriting and recording” when he began forging the album that is Escalator. I’m not sure what facets of his craft he actually unlearned, but apparently he retained a knack for putting together melodic songs that carry messages of self-doubt and cynicism about the intentions of others. Oh, and also some messages of doubt about the ways music gets produced and consumed these days.

Alva Star seems to be primarily a vehicle for Hermanson and his musings, relying on three others to round out the band and help him realize his vision. Certainly the songs on Escalator center around the lyrics, as it is a rare moment when there is no singing on these songs. You don’t get a lot of long instrumental passages. It’s a good thing, then, that Hermanson (and his bandmates) can sing well. The often downbeat songs benefit from the bandmembers’ winning vocal abilities.

So, in terms of the music, it’s hard to pin the band down. It’s not like the artists cover a bunch of different styles, and sonically it’s a pretty consistent record. At times it sounds like Americana without the country twang, but at times it has the feel of early Radiohead, before a lot of that band’s experimentation. This has a lot to do with the “rock” sound, a la The Bends, but also with the forlorn vocals. At other times I’ve thought that it had the feel of the quieter stuff on Failure’s Fantastic Planet or even Steely Dan and the Eagles, three bands that I wouldn’t guess have ever been put together like this. And, finally, I started thinking maybe Alva Star shares more with Pedro the Lion than anything else, owing to a similarity in their shared confessional-type lyrical style and in their simple-but-subtle approach to the music.

I guess that’s the long way of saying that Alva Star has somehow assimilated an eclectic mix of influences into a sound that, while consistently its own, feels familiar in many ways. The songs convey a maturity in composition and assuredness that isn’t always common in indie rock.

“Wouldn’t that be great / To get across / The things you feel / You must express / To tell the world / The way it is,” goes the title track “Escalator.” When these lyrics are understood in the context of a musician singing about the music business, you start to pick up on Hermanson’s disenchantment with the industry’s starmaker mentality. Escalators, after all, go up and down, as do the fortunes of many promising bands. “Comeback” follows up on the theme, with lyrics describing a performer’s fall from grace and his/her subsequent descent into obscurity in the face of the public’s fickle tastes. “Friends that you’ve lost or could care less” expresses a harsh but realistic sentiment about this theme, while “It all catches up to you sooner or later” and “Maybe no one waits for your comeback” cement the feeling.

“Cold Calculated” recalls Pedro the Lion’s expression of what it’s like to be able to say something in a song that’s hard to express directly to the people at which the song is directed. “Tornado Girl” and “The Messenger” turn up the rock quotient a little more than do the other tracks, and they’re both sad and lovely. “The Messenger,” for instance, features the lines “I thought you were with me / Thought we had it all worked out / You knew what I was about / You couldn’t do it without me. / You supplied a reason to care / A burden to bear / A beautiful complicated piece of machinery.” I’d love to have seen the lyrics for all of the songs printed in the liner notes. Instead, on the inside of the CD packaging, there’s ostensibly a newspaper article about the band, written by one Paige Turner (har har).

Taken as a whole, Elevator is both a simple and a complicated release. It’s hard to write an album like this without it coming across as either preachy (“here’s what wrong with music and people today”) or mopey (“woe is me”). Lyrics like “Curses on you all / I stab you in the back” (from the song “Today”) and “Sorry I’m so selfish / I don’t want to be that way” (from “Get Behind Me”) show that Hermanson doesn’t exempt himself from his own critical eye. In the later song, the repeated directive of “Get behind me” might mean “give me support,” or it might mean “get out of my way.” It works both ways, actually, because by the end of the album you realize that it’s a complex enough work support both readings. Not too many bands would have been able to pull this off.