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Let's start the story of Joyce Manor's Million Dollars To Kill Me at the end of Million Dollars To Kill Me—at the last not-even two minutes of "Wildflowers," a song about light and beauty and wonder that ends the record like a sunrise after a long exhausting night. It's not a sing-along single or a bleaked-out slow-burner. It's brief, understated, and simple but sophisticated as it says what it needs to say in seven sharp lines. And it ends the album with a question instead of an answer, because on an album like this, questions are more honest. If 2016's Cody was about growing up, then Million Dollars To Kill Me is about what happens next—the reckonings with love, money, doubt and confusion, and the hope that persists despite it all. That's where "Wildflowers" comes in. Says Barry Johnson, band co-founder/guitarist/vocalist: "'Wildflowers' is my favorite song on the record—maybe my favorite song I've ever written. It's about how something can be so beautiful it breaks your heart."
That's Million Dollars To Kill Me: an album that glides across that tension between two perfectly opposite feelings. That's even how the guitars fit together. It's in the way co-founding guitarist Chase Knobbe can somehow make a song sound sadder and tougher at the same time, says Johnson, or the way Johnson mixes minor and major chords to invoke a precise kind of overpowering melancholy. ("I like when songs have a feeling of yearning," says Johnson. "It just feels good to me. Makes you wanna cry.") It's even in the way the album was made because it didn't start as a Joyce Manor album at all.
After Cody, Johnson contacted Impossibles' guitarist/vocalist Rory Phillips—"One of my musical heroes," he says—to produce the next Joyce Manor album. Phillips couldn't fit the commitment between work and family, but another idea materialized: what if Johnson and Phillips made a new band together? Over email, of course, since they were thousands of miles apart? So Johnson would send his half, and Phillips would send a whole song back, and it worked well. ("It was just really exciting to mail away for a song," says Johnson.) Then it worked too well. When Johnson asked Knobbe to add some guitar—on the original "Wildflowers," actually—he understood what was happening. What he'd thought of as "weird songs that were created with fake drums between two guys who were never in the same room with each other" were revealing themselves as the start of a new Joyce Manor record.
So they made a new Joyce Manor record. With Knobbe, new drummer Pat Ware—"Awesome new drummer," adds Johnson—and longtime bassist Matt Ebert, they wrote enough songs to fill a full-length, and then worked to get the ones lifted from emails to match the ones written at full volume. ("Bedroom charm versus live rock band," Johnson explains.) Their next step was a new step: their first time recording outside their L.A. hometown, at Converge's Kurt Ballou's GodCity studio in Salem, Massachusetts. They recorded daily 10-to-6 so Ballou could spend dad time with his kids at night, and then slept right upstairs in bunk beds: "Kinda felt like camp," says Johnson. "It was a pleasure—I would recommend it to anyone."
Million Dollars To Kill Me kicks off with "Fighting Kangaroo," part Jawbreaker wit and part Jawbreaker grit, while follow-up "Think I'm Still In Love With You" digs deep into that pit between pleasant memory and unpleasant present. (Or is that what "Friends We Met Online" does?) There's the instantly catchy "Silly Games," the deadpan blue album Weezer-style pop song where Johnson and Phillips started everything, and the Britpop-py (or Teenage Fanclub-by) title track, with a final line that lands like a boulder toppling off a cliff. There's the acoustic "I'm Not The One," with equal connections to Big Star, Billy Bragg and San Pedro hometown hero Todd Congelliere, who could make a sing-song playground melody sound profound. There's a little studio-inspired experimentation: e-bow on "I'm Not The One" and glockenspiel on "Silly Games," both Joyce Manor firsts. ("I never once suggested putting glockenspiel on anything but I think it works!" says Johnson.) And finally there's "Wildflowers," that unexpected inspiration for turning weird songs with fake drums into real songs with real drums and real everything, really. That's how Million Dollars To Kill Me began, and that's how it ends—clear, honest, direct and true. Which is about all you could ask for, whether you're starting a record or finishing it. Or listening to it.
Saves The Day
Saves The Day have been through a lot over the past two decades: Van accidents, member changes, the emo explosion, and the adventures that carried the act and their fans from adolescence to adulthood. But they've never had a proper history of the band... until now. Saves The Day's ninth album 9 tells the story of the band from the perspective of the band's founder Chris Conley and does it in a way that's as exhaustive as it is poetic and makes the listener a part of the songwriting process. From a narrative standpoint, 9 chronicles the epic story of a group of kids from New Jersey who realized their dream and became international sensations. However, on a more existential level, it shows how Conley “woke up” and became aware of his own consciousness through his relationship with music and the unbelievable adventures it inspired since he formed the act in 1997.
“A lot of the memories that I write about in the lyrics for this album I haven't written about because they were too painful or complicated. But for some reason when I was writing, my brain kept coming back to thinking about my entire career from a sense of reflection for the first time,” Conley says of the process of writing the follow-up to 2013's Saves The Day. 9 opens with the upbeat “Saves The Day,” which serves simultaneously as a mission statement and love letter to fans before segueing into “Suzuki,” a song that features the opening line, “On a black and red couch playing a burgundy Les Paul I played on Can’t Slow Down so many years ago, writing album number nine right now.” Then again, this meta sentiment isn't so surprising coming from someone who famously penned lines like, “You want to know who I really am, well so do I” on the song “See You” from the landmark 2001 album, Stay What You Are.
From there the album takes you back to the earliest days of the band's history of playing house shows on the crunchy, riff-driven “Side By Side” and drops you into what it's like to be to on tour with your best friends when all cylinders are firing on the instantly catchy, psychedelica-tinged “Kerouac & Cassady.” Next we move onto the band's unplanned rise to stardom and relentless work ethic on the driving and uplifting rocker, “It's Such A Beautiful World.” “This song is about the Through Being Cool era and things are starting to heat up,” Conley says of the latter track, which sounds like an unholy amalgam between Weezer and glam metal. “At this point we are flying to performances all over the world so in the first stanza I say, 'If we get stuck on a plane, we’re skydiving to the show.' It's such an incredible life to get to live and we were nuts for it and enjoying every second of it.”
Unfortunately with every cataclysmic rise to fame comes the ensuing pitfalls of ego and excess and that's what Conley tackles on “Rosé.” “That song is a bit of a dis track about certain rock star elements that started to be displayed in the band and I was kind of surprised that I wrote about it because it isn't something that I've thought about in a while,” Conley says. The song also sees him approaching the vocals in a way he never has before that unfolds itself more with each subsequent listen and is as ambitious as it is artistic. This is followed up with “1997,” which sees Conley once again reflecting on the band's early days over a distorted bass line and groove that's invitingly relentless and calls to mind an emo version of Van Halen.
Finally, we arrive at “Rendezvous” and how grateful Conley is of the current lineup of the band, which includes the virtuosic trio of guitarist Arun Bali, bassist Rodrigo Palma and drummer Dennis Wilson, who are the band's most consistent lineup to date and take the musicianship on 9 to stratospheric new heights. “At this point, I've actually dealt with the conflicts and the challenges in a lifelong career in music and now I have the guys that I could do this with forever and I'm living the dream again. Life is beautiful, so I intentionally reference the song 'It's Such A Beautiful World' in the lyrics because that song is about when things were going crazy for us and we were all so excited,” Conley says of “Rendezvous” which is layered in distortion-drenched perfection. “We're through all the reflecting and growing at this point, and we're still out here, and we're still doing it so the timeline essentially ends with 'Rendezvous' looking into the future.”
However, it wouldn't be a Saves The Day album without a surprise twist--and in this case it's the album's 21-minute-long climax, “29.” “The final track is seven songs in one and it's the internal personal timeline of my entire life,” Conley explains. “It starts with 'Heartbeat' because I was hypnotized by that sound as a kid and literally it's my first experience of waking up to life itself,” Conley explains. The finale goes on to introduce Conley's love affair with music via “So In Love”; Saves The Day's near fatal van accident in 2000 on “432”; and a difficult rift with a longtime friend on “Tangerine.”
“One of my main artistic passions is the fascination with how you can compose extremely long pieces of music but also hold the attention of the listener,” Conley says – and correspondingly “29” sounds less like prog-rock excess and more like an album unto itself. Subsequently the movement “Victorian & 21st” recounts Conley's meeting with a longtime partner; “Angel” is a tribute to his daughter; and the epic experiment ends with “New Jersey,” which sees him reflecting on his relationship with his parents and his sometimes difficult but always captivating past one last time, culminating with the line, “I know it’ll be all right, we are alive in the world.”
Ultimately 9 is sonic evidence not only that there's a reason we are alive in the world, but it's a miracle that Conley rightfully encourages us to celebrate.