Starting Five: The Good Life
by Chad Jewett
More or less an opportunity for the Internet to tell us we’re wrong, Starting Five is also a challenge: choose five essential songs, films, or books that get to the heart of bands, filmmakers, and writers that we love. Today, in honor of Saddle Creek Records’ vinyl reissue of the band’s first three albums, we look at five essential songs from indie-rock quartet The Good Life.
“The Beaten Path”, Black Out (2002)
Likely the best of the band’s four albums, 2002’s Black Out found The Good Life searching out novel sounds and ideas during an era that was already defined by the rapidly expanding aesthetics of Saddle Creer peers like Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley. At its best, Black Out captured an imaginative, richly-appointed sonic world previously unheard in not just Tim Kasher’s full-time band, Cursive, but also in the Saddle Creek universe in general. “The Beaten Path”, the album’s first song proper, embodies the dense studio cross-hatching of the album, as chattering, astro-pop programming and fizzy synths spark across the song’s otherwise pastoral indie rock. It’s an aspect of the band’s sound that has sadly gone missing, and finds its ideal form in “The Beaten Path”. The song boasts both one of The Good Life’s finest hooks (“Always my way my way my way my way…”) and the band’s most compelling production (career-best work from Mike Mogis). Anticipating the bright-yet-melancholy laptop-pop of The Postal Service by a full calendar year (it’s tempting to see a Cursive/Good Life – Death Cab/Postal Service equation here), songs like “The Beaten Path” – and the lion’s share of Black Out in general – deserve more credit as early innovators in indie-rock’s recent emphasis on electronics than they usually receive.
“Early Out The Gate”, Black Out (2002)
On the grand, stately “Nothing Gets Crossed Out”, Bright Eyes’ singer-songwriter Conor Oberst muses “Yeah Tim I heard your album and it’s better than good / When you get off tour I think we should hang and black out together”. The line was a clever nod to The Good Life’s Black Out, but the gentle baroque pop of “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” itself feels of a kind with “Early Out The Gate”, Black Out’s gorgeous, sweeping early centerpiece. Like “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” the song places lovely, affecting layers of piano and horn over an otherwise sparse ballad, lending the song an almost archetypal wistfulness. As with much of Black Out, there is added texture and ingenuity in the arcade noises and synthetic drum programming that click and beep beneath the song’s other-wise rustic palette. But “Early Out The Gate” is defined by its balance, and as transporting as the song’s orchestral and avant-digital brushstrokes are, the band itself is at its nimble best here, especially drummer Roger Lewis who manages to roll with the surrounding drum machines while also providing the song a fluid, human touch.
“Night and Day”, Album Of The Year (2004)
Considering the song’s picaresque blend of waltz-time and wheezing accordion, one might be tempted to think of “Night and Day” — the second song from The Good Life’s much-loved third album, The Album Of The Year — as a last glimpse at the fractured-fairy-tales of Cursive’s The Ugly Organ. And while the sonics are similar, the narrative is strikingly different, offering one of Tim Kasher’s most thoughtful, fair-minded psychological portraits. The Ugly Organ raised the specter of Kasher’s harsh female characters – “Night and Day” goes one better by actually spending its time not with Kasher’s perennially jilted and/or besotted narrator, but with the women he forever poeticizes. Indeed, even the eponymous album opener cops to the narrator having “Bukowski on the mind” (a dire condition indeed). But “Night and Day” places a much-needed skeptical eye on Kasher’s tragic-heroes – and in the process offers a poignant portrait of a young woman dealing with her own demons.
“Keely Aimee”, Help Wanted Nights (2007)
Where Black Out was defined by ultra-rich studio-crafted detail and The Album Of The Year delivered a particularly ornate brand of noir-ish folk, 2007’s Help Wanted Nights feels somehow effortless, even airy. Here, The Good Life whittle the orchestral bulk of the previous records down to a set of reedy alt-country songs. “Keely Aimee” is a perfect example. Built from a breezy strum, a sere lead guitar, and some pliant rhythm work from Stephanie Drootin and Roger Lewis, the song offers a translucent lightness for Tim Kasher’s wry melody. As original (and missed) as the over-stuffed electro-country of Black Out was, hearing The Good Life’s core players in the open air is a revelation. The song’s lyrics, like “Night and Day”, are poignant and sensitive: “I know this town’s been hard on you / I’ve seen the neighbors close their shades / But Keely, they’ve got their secrets too / So you fell in some mud, you haven’t fallen from grace”. The song marks a subtle turn for Kasher, eschewing the acerbic Beat-influenced bite of past work for something more humanistic, delicate, and perceptive.
“Heartbroke”, Help Wanted Nights (2007)
Clocking in at less than two minutes and largely built from a sole electric guitar that cycles and ticks like watch gears, “Heartbroke” pushes the windswept minimalism of Help Wanted Nights to its most severe extreme. But all of that open space is welcome for the whopper of a melody that Kasher provides here, a marvel of slinky, casually-tuneful brilliance that is gorgeously haloed by Stephanie Drootin’s ethereal harmony. There’s a newfound subtlety in the sarcasm with which Kasher delivers a line like “Well I’m sure your heart is breaking too” (a line he would likely have chewed with a lot more relish on Album Of The Year) and an unexpected return to his sharpest post-hardcore roots in a barbed guitar that breaks the song’s otherwise hushed groove. The song becomes a tour-de-force by judiciously placing each grace note and sudden turn in its exact right place, as tastefully figured as a Seurat painting or a Salinger sentence. Most of The Good Life’s discography is intangibly heavy, but “Heartbroke” absolutely bewitches with the lightest of touches.