There is a term in writing called a poetic truth, or at least I think there is. It’s one of those terms a professor of mine would throw around, and I just assumed everyone used it; yet, I can’t find anything about it, at least used in the context that I know it on the internet. Basically, when something sounds true because of the wordplay but isn’t necessarily true in reality, it is a poetic truth. You can also find these poetic truths in exaggerations, when you say something is always one way or never another, but the reality is that the absolute language makes your statement false. The Henry Clay People‘s new album, Somewhere On The Golden Coast, is full of these. A line like “We were working part time, all-the-time” obviously isn’t true, but it says something beyond that they were working a lot. There are connotations to their social class, to the difficulty a young person has making ends meet, and to the flawed view of reality that occurs because of that youth. These make this a poetic truth, if that term is even real.
I point this out because any conversation about The Henry Clay People should begin and end with the lyrics. Somewhere On The Golden Coast is a far from perfect album, and it would be pretty arguable to take a negative approach to a review. First off, two of its strongest tracks were featured on their previous album, For Cheap or For Free. Secondly, though the laid back production suits their material perfectly, Somewhere on the Golden Coast sounds like an indie record. Now don’t read that expecting lo-fi. To clarify, The Henry Clay People fall a notch below a band like Titus Andronicus or The Hold Steady because it seems like the attention to detail is lacking. I doubt that this is true, but rather, just the bi-product of a modest recording budget. Unfortunately, some bands can use their monetary limitations to their advantage. This is not one of those bands.
Also worthy of mentioning is the backing music in concert with songwriter Joey Siara’s vocals, leaving little to be desired if only because it’s not really memorable. Even after 10 or so listens, I can’t hum or even hear in my mind a particular guitar riff, and the percussion might as well not have happened. But like the production, there is something about this that makes sense to The Henry Clay Peoples aesthetic. Where they may seem too insightful and unassuming to be Southern Californians, they bring a very distinct laid-back attitude to their music (on record, at least). Having memorable riffs would seem out of place when compared to the lifestyle they champion. S0me groups will teach you to live fast, while other preach message of leisure and relaxing, but The Henry Clay People combine these to a live-fast-in-a-chill-way, at least in their songs. Of course, I say this having recently seen a show of theirs: On the record this point is pretty subtle; in concert, they definitely deliver a high energy set. The focus leans toward the bands rapport with each other and their love of whatever new songs they have written.
Despite these gripes, why do I recommend this record highly? Are these my friends? Is this my band? No, and I don’t owe them money or a favor or anything. My possibly inflated rating is based on the talent that is Joey Siara, who has now launched himself into the conversation with the great songwriters of today. Even putting aside “This Ain’t a Scene” and “Working Part Time”, the strongest moments on SotGC rival any of the artists we considered masters. I’m talking about Craig Finn, Will Sheff, John Darnielle. He is not a consistent as any of these guys (yet), and isn’t quite a storyteller (yet?), but he has a knack for the poetic truth, rolling these blanket statement around you like you were on fire and didn’t realize it. The other young bands that I could compare them to are Japandroids and Titus Andronicus. All play songs that recall youth with language and emotion that you can’t fake. “We got drunk and called in sick when we felt like it,” he sings on “Working Part Time”. On “End of an Empire” he notes, “We need nothing but each other, except for maybe some couch for us to sleep” and “We don’t need a future, it was going to happen anyway.” Such recklessness and futility is not usually the focus of youthful celebrations, but The Henry Clay People, with the aforementioned contemporaries, are making it one. The Henry Clay People just seem at peace with their lifestyle. Sure, you could criticize this as the precursor to writing songs about drunk girls or something (that’s not a bad idea…), but not sugar coating the joy (and foolishness) of youth is still refreshing, especially when they make it sound so scary, isolating, dangerous, and, most importantly, fun.
While no songs come up as duds on the record, there certainly are some highlights. “Your Famous Friends” is single quality and is a different take on LA than the celebrity references you normally find in other music genres. Interestingly, the two tracks that seem most immediate begin and end the album. These two tracks, Joey Siara told in an interview with Buzz Bands, were actually last minutes additions to the record that had already been delivered to their label, TBD. Based on the general sound, you can’t tell that they were produced outside Aaron Espinoza (of Earlimart and Admiral Radley), who produced the rest of the album. They are immediate and gripping tunes in completely opposite ways. Album opener “Nobody Taught Us To Quit” is about a minute long and has barely audible vocals, except with the repeated chorus, “Nobody taught us to quit but we were learning pretty quick,” setting the stage for an album’s worth of youthful mistakes, trials, and tribulations. Sure things get rough, but there is always hope on the horizon when you are young, and if there is not, you might have grown up too fast.
Then there is closer “Two Lives At the End of the Night”, one of a few laid back, down tempo tunes that are unexpected on the record but welcome nevertheless. This track is open and special, an insight to life on the road, and what you miss and what you can’t return to. It’s a song about growing up and changing, sung with the insight of someone who has been through life before but with the emotion of someone dealing for the first time. Moments like this can’t be faked on a record, so the aforementioned interview’s insight that it was written, recorded, mastered and added to the end of the album in less than a week is not surprising — but it is still remarkable. Not knocking the band’s other four members, including Joey Siara’s brother Andy, but they have a golden goose in a singer and leader. This album shows that and can command his language to make truth out of the less-than-true. He’s capable of soaring to new heights at any moment. I just hope someone is there when it happens with a Mac, his musical family, and a few beers. We will end up with the next great American rock band.