brent johnson examines the musical evolution of alt-pop band Guster, as seen on their latest EP …
Guster could have been nothing but a gimmick.
On the surface, they started as a college band with a hemp-and-hackeysack sound, playing nothing but two acoustic guitars — and bongos instead of drums.
But really, they’ve always been more than that. Their songs are more vivid and compact than their jammy counterparts. And despite his lack of sticks, Brian Rosenworcel manages to make the music sound like it’s packed with percussion — even smashing cymbals with his bare hands.
Guster has also evolved into a sophisticated, surprising pop band over the last few years. They never wig out like Arcade Fire or change skin like Radiohead. But they color their music with subtle experiments. Horn sections, banjos, dance beats, hoedown foot stomps, squealing guitar solos. And yes, even drums.
A fine example is ‘Big White Bed,’ the best track on the Boston band’s new EP, On The Ocean. Theoretically, the record is a six-song collection of live tracks and castoffs from their latest album, 2010’s Easy Wonderful. But ‘Bed’ is better than a B-side. It starts with a shuffling acoustic guitar riff. Soon, it’s doubled with a jazzy standup bass line. Then a chorus of carnival-like horns bursts in. Like a lot of Guster’s music, it’s never fussy — just undeniably charming.
Lyrically, it also continues the frontman Ryan Miller’s religious explorations on Easy Wonderful. ‘Everybody that you’ve ever known is gonna die / Don’t cry / There’s a big white bed in heaven,’ Miller sings in the track’s precious opening line. Taken one way, it’s a comforting ode to the after life. Taken another, it’s a cynical nod to blind faith.
The rest of the EP isn’t as engrossing. Ocean is the latest in a string of odds-and-ends collections Guster has released over the last few years, appeasing their sizable fan base. The title track, ‘On The Ocean,’ is a single from Easy Wonderful — but one of the album’s lesser songs. It floats along with a pleasant melody — and some of Miller and guitarist Adam Gardner’s effortless harmonies — before drifting from memory.
Meanwhile, B-side ‘Every Moment’ sounds like a pastiche of fluffy ’70s soul-pop with a Hallmark message: make every moment count. More interesting is a striking, keyboard-plinking remix of Easy Wonderful‘s ‘This Is How It Feels To Have A Broken Heart’ — which proves that Guster may have a techno album hidden up their sleeves.
The EP is rounded out by a pair of live tracks — ‘Satellite’ and ‘That’s No Way To Get To Heaven’ — which are unsurprisingly solid. Guster is worth catching on stage. They put on a stirring show, complete with dramatic bongo playing and laugh-out-loud between-song banter.
They’re touring with Jack’s Mannequin this summer. You can seen them play Central Park in New York on Monday; The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., on Tuesday; and Festival Pier in Philadelphia on Thursday. For more information, visit their website.
Photos Courtesy: Zero to Sixty Group