In the late ’90s and early ’00s, word that David Bazan, Will Johnson, and brothers Bubba and Matt Kadane were releasing an album together would’ve pleased most indie rock fans, and incited at least a bare minimum of attention from the rest. Things were simpler then: “Indie” itself felt like more of a coherent idea, partly as a function of there being less press coverage of underground music and partly because the sounds percolating from below were more homogenous. Guitar-first indie held court back then, and the four songwriters aforementioned singer-songwriters each made an important mark writing their own strain of it, Bazan in Pedro the Lion, Will Johnson in Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel, and the Kandanes in Bedhead and The New Year.
Times have changed. Our most prominent music publications cover a broader swath of genres, so it’s easy for trad-indie veterans to get lost in the mix. Regardless, yes, four dudes with four highly venerated pedigrees made a record together and, yes, it’s a remarkably solid effort. The self-titled release from Overseas serves as an important reminder of how deep emotion can be conveyed through the simplest of rock formulas: Guitars, bass, drums, and the occasional synth line or tambourine shake provide more than enough atmosphere for the songwriting here, which is equal parts melancholic, haunted, and driven. Instead of emulating styles that have become more en vogue since their heyday, the veteran players made an indie rock album in the way that description was once better understood, and one that fits neatly alongside the work each member has created on his own. Which, in addition to Overseas simply sounding great, means that it’s rife with thought-provoking meditations on love, lust, God, and the despair and ecstasy wrapped up in them all.
Bazan, Johnson, and the Kadanes are all songwriters and multi-instrumentalists in their respective roles outside Overseas, so, aside from vocals, it’s rarely obvious who contributed words and music to the record on a song-to-song basis. And the songwriting process itself was entirely collaborative, according to the band’s bio and recent interviews. That process makes Overseas an easier record to digest as having been made by a capital-letter Band than, say, Atoms for Peace’s AMOK, which is easy to pin on Thom Yorke. Still, there are moments here that hew most obviously to one member’s work over the rest, which serves more as a subtle reward for fans who take a chance on Overseas than any sign of compromise in the process.
Though writing duties were in flux during the making of the record, the decision to have Johnson and Bazan sing (solo and in harmony with each other) was apparently a firm one. Johnson’s gruff, tattered rope of a voice rests easily next to Bazan’s cleaner, though no less world-weary, croon, and the songs they front alone are appropriately suited to their individual strengths. In this way, Johnson, whose work outside the band isn’t as blatantly dark as Bazan’s, becomes the right choice for “Lights Are Gonna Fall”, “The Sound of Giving Way”, and “All Your Own”, tracks which inject Overseas with the major chord punch that feels necessary on the backs of bleaker songs “Old Love”, “HELLP”, and “Here (Wish You Were)”. Here we find Bazan in his comfort zone, despairing of trapped marriages, disbelief, and disillusionment with any type of divine narrative, showering the pain with pills and alcohol. After a decade of this sort of thing, it’s tempting to grow weary and even a bit worried for Bazan (even allowing for the fact that some or all of it is storytelling), but the truth is there are few who convey the hurt and confusion embedded in these issues so poignantly.
Throughout Overseas the music shifts between spare, single-note, fractured movements — perhaps best witnessed in opener “Ghost to Be” — to triumphant rock surges, as in “The Sound of Giving Way” and “Down Below”. Somewhere in between is the melancholy hopefulness of “Came With The Frame” and closer “All Your Own”, the final two minutes of which provide one of the more plaintively beautiful passages from a rock-oriented band in many years. It’s in these moments where the Kadanes shine most, when it becomes clear how their prior work in the elegantly stripped acts Bedhead and The New Year is so value-added in Overseas. Their contributions will be less obvious to fans who approached this record because of their interest in Bazan or Johnson, but the Kadanes‘ touch throughout Overseas can’t be overstated.
Something else is also happening in the record’s final moments, which is a wordless expression of its thesis. Perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not, Bazan, Johnson, and the Kadanes leave us in a solemn haze by utilizing little more than two tastefully composed guitar lines. They lead us from the noise and the pain of the previous nine and a half songs, credits rolling, reminding us that the best-written music rarely requires tricks to incite its intended affect. They make us focus on melody, pure and disrobed, and they nudge us to be consumed by it.
Essential Tracks: “Here (Wish You Were)”, “The Sound of Giving Way”, and “All Your Own”