Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Sidekicks

When singer and guitarist Steve Ciolek realizes just how much Jack Kerouac influenced his songwriting, it sort of surprises him. “I was reading On the Road,” he admits, “so, lyrically, I sort of wanted to write songs that portrayed actual people and stories, or have an argument or stance on something. Before, a lot of the songs would end up being about feelings and stuff like that.

I don't know,” he then laughs. “I just thought of that.”

Those who have heard Awkward Breeds, the Sidekicks' third full-length release, may not be as surprised. Released by Red Scare Industries and Really Records in the winter of 2012, the record, as a whole, feels obliquely narrative. Set to a raw, diverse, and sincere sort of power-pop, Awkward Breeds feels less like a collection of short stories, though, and more like a series of conflicts that center around adulthood's social expectations—a series of scenes in which a speaker questions himself and the world in which he struggles but hopes to belong.

Looker” might capture most candidly one such conflict. Ciolek's voice soars and swoops above the soft, buzzing strings of his acoustic guitar. His words feel confused during these delicate verses, as if his speaker is uncertain about his feelings for the one he loves; at the end of the second verse, he sings, “As something to look at on a screen / I hope you don't look at all pretty to me.” As if caught in a sudden gust of wind, Ciolek's voice climbs sharply towards the song's conclusion, and this protagonist's pain becomes suddenly apparent.

Instead of just writing a love song that expresses what I'm feeling,” he explains, “in the song 'Looker', I tried to write a song more about examining love. Like, 'I'm a man, so why do I think of things this way? Why do I think about women this way?' I try to acknowledge some things that I don't think are talked about in songs.”

These stories and ideas are brought to life, however, by the melodies on which they lean. Songs like “Grace” display Matt Climer's thick but distant-sounding drums; they throb beneath a blanket of trebly guitars and a quilt of vocal harmonies and falsettos. On slower songs, like “The Whale and Jonah”, Climer's heavy steps are still present, but guitars become the fuzzy frontispiece. Ciolek's are lanky and lean and stretch across Matt Scheuermann's jangly, gurgling chords; in the song's open spaces, Ryan Starinsky's bass lows in a modest manner, leading the song's simple progression in unpredictable places.

Climer points to songs like “Peacock”, with its soulful stomp, as a songwriting risk that paid off. “Musically, I think the song 'Peacock' was probably the most satisfying one,” he claims. “It branched me out of my comfort zone as a drummer a little bit and got me to try new things, got me grooving in a different fashion, like in the chorus where it's more of an intricate type beat where it's not just straightforward 4/4 on the hi-hat and snare and kick drum. I think that was a song that shows the ever-growing maturity of our band.”

Despite pushing themselves to new stylistic and melodic limits, the songwriting on Awkward Breeds remains remarkably consistent. This may be due to the way in which it was recorded—both the style and the philosophy behind it. “Eric Cronstein, who recorded it, is really into capturing a performance as opposed to trying to do things piece by piece,” says Ciolek. “A lot of times, I would end up being like, 'I want to do it again,' and he'd be like, 'No, it's good. Keep that.' We ended up keeping a lot of imperfections. He liked how it sounded more live, I guess. It's kind of weird because it's hard for me to tell what imperfections end up being things that people are drawn to, but I definitely think it's a true way to capture our songs.”

No where, however, does Awkward Breeds feel flawed. In fact, if the record captures the band at their most real, it reveals a band that has bloomed into something more complex and precise than their contemporaries, all while maintaining the pop sensibility from which many mature artists stray. “Pop can be sort of a bad word if it's overdone and there's a million repetitive choruses,” Ciolek explains, “but, when it's done right, it's the most easy-to-understand form and the best way to convey an idea. I think that's what I've always strived for: Writing good pop songs, not annoying pop songs.”

The Sidekicks succeed at marrying accessibility with unpredictable complexities—yet another way in which Jack Kerouac may have influenced this record. Because this marriage is expressed melodically, though, Awkward Breeds becomes more powerful than Kerouac's merely printed words.

Ciolek, with Climer nearby, recorded these songs on winter afternoon from their friends' house in Ohio a week before the release of Awkward Breeds. Climer later admitted to eating all of the spicy tortilla chips while Ciolek conducted his half of the interview.

"Looker" and "The 9th Piece" appear on the Sidekicks' 2012 record titled Awkward Breeds; an alternate and acoustic version of the latter appears on their 2012 single for the song "Grace". "Swingin' Party" is a Replacements cover; the song originally appeared on the 1985 album Tim.

Visit the band's Facebook page for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Three for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2012. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

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