Every minute or so, a new EP from an emerging folk/punk band is released in the universe. Thanks to the global availability of Pro-Tools and the ever great equalizer that is iTunes, everything is out there, everything is downloadable, listenable, accessible, and purchasable. Every single guitar chord is out there, even that ear-bleeding rendition of a Todd Rundgren hit you thought you had left behind when you moved out of your mom’s basement. The internet is a nightmare for A&R’s, journalists, and anyone whose job principally relied on the race towards the elitism of a record deal. I tend to tune out, or, conversely, I believe a songwriter from LA can change the world. I’m too old for the poetry of the deed. My email inbox is the digital equivalent of a graveyard for the hopes and dreams of aspiring musicians. And then I received the Soldier of Fortune EP.
The first notes of Soldier of Fortune remind me of early 1980s U2. It has the same youthful exuberance, the boldness young bands have when they have yet to reach their twenties and dream of the poetry of punk rock. Zack Fowler leads a solid and surprisingly consistent rhythm line, delivers thoughtful and borderline poetic lyrics that speak to the literacy and the music knowledge of the band. Smelling of long drives on the interstate – “maybe I could ride to Nashville on my way to you” – and the universal rock’n’roll theme of conquering the open plains, Blackshear offers an alternative to the revival of Americana: slightly more European, slightly grittier, but maintaining an open-mindedness close to those who have been listening to records their whole lives. Springsteen had declared it so clearly in “Born to Run” that there was nothing else to do but sever our ties and live the dream. Blackshear is trying to express the paradox that lies in staying true to one’s roots and running for the bigger pastures. If anything, Blackshear is attempting to grab the more complex side of rock’n’roll. It’s certainly no small feat for the opening song of a first EP.
Zack Fowler is however a bit of a smartass. When pressed on what his slightly more obscure influences were, he simply replied, “Our influences are the sound of angels crying and the hum of a piece of shit car’s engine”, which what I could imagine was offered with a wide grin adorning this southern boy’s face. There is something insolent and irreverent in his approach to music recording that the band as a whole can only benefit from; it gives them independence, critical thinking and most importantly, helps them preserve a certain work ethic that has been lost over the years. Since the death of the initial punk movement, many, especially on the northern american continent, have attempted – more or less successfully – to single-handedly rebrand it, to the detriment of its original values. If a bunch of kids from Georgia can decide they will dig old 1980s Irish rock’n’roll and read Phil Lynott’s biography, we are closer to the original ideology than anyone else could work on. There is no nihilism in Fowler’s affirmation, there is simply sarcasm and the self-awareness of not (yet) being capable of changing the world. It’s the statement made by someone with rampant ambition but with complete clarity of mind that nothing is achieved without first shedding a pound of sweat on stage for a weeks in a row.
If you do not believe that anyone is capable of spitting sneers are you from the comfort zone of your headphones, feel free to tune onto “Vital Signs”, in which Fowler shrugs and claims “I am dying here, but it could be worse”. They’re on fire, they’re spitting lyrics with the velocity and ferociousness of a seasoned rhythm guitar player, but the emotion easily lurks beneath the surface. It would be too easy to dismiss the line “I’m old enough to lose a friend” due to Blackshear’s teenage composition. Easy and stupid: the maturity in this record surpasses way more than similar releases that covered the first three years of the 00’s, also known as the golden age of the golden boys with guitars. Blackshear appeals to a decidedly older audience: those who grew up listening to the remnants of grunge, the rise of alternative and their parents’ Springsteen records. It’s my generation, tainted with the millenials’ appetite for smugness more than revolution. Where my peers would burn everything down and scream for a clean slate, Blackshear’s generation wants to capitalize on what already exists. And this is how “Vital Signs” is more of an alternative song with a slight nod to jazz rather than the spitfire of The 1975’s. Fowler’s voice does not necessarily belong in this time. It belongs inside my vinyl record collection.
“Acid Rain” is pure early 90s alternative rock. I wish I had never been told of Blackshear nor Zack Fowler before receiving this EP. I would have reviewed it with no background information and would have written shots in the dark, as to whether this collection of songs had just been unearthed from someone’s basement after their house was foreclosed down somewhere in upstate New York. It sounds like all the rage and the intensity of a young band touring all the shitty venues in New Jersey, where even the floors and barstools smell like stale beer, where the barmaid looks like she’s been sleep-deprived for over two decades and there’s nothing to do in the local town besides getting drunk and sleep on someone’s rooftop. Blackshear is trying to build their own memories based on someone else’s; they’re drawing emotion and musical influences from people older than them, who have already survived car crashes and college graduations, who have already been sold out to their local bands and had poorly designed tattoos. There is, however, none of the despair of those who have trawled the circus for too long before giving up. They are built for relentless touring, they are built to pull at their heartstrings every night all over the country. There is asphalt in those bass lines, and underneath every chord lies the keys to a van.
Are they almost famous? Will Blackshear herald the new generation’s newfound appetite for Bruce Springsteen – still recording and releasing and touring and headlining – or are they simply a more vocal version of a crowd and source that had been there all along, overshadowed by bands whose names start with “The”. The beauty and simplicity of acoustic number “The year the world would end” showcases an impressive lyrical complexity, that has been amazing me from the very first listen. There is wild-eyed wonder in this young voice, that shouldn’t be discarded in the name of trademark cynicism. I’m a New York City girl, I don’t know what long plains in Georgia and the scorching summer heat is like, near the humidity, driving on the interstate under a bright blue sky; but thanks to this five-song release, I’m getting closer to finding out. “Most of us die young”, Fowler sings, “I’m barely breathing, but I’m hanging on.” This universal feeling of pure surrender, the near death that we all seem so close to, all the time, every night before deep slumber, Fowler grabs and runs along with. If Frank Turner claimed “we are what we believe”, Fowler ends with a very Strummer-esque “Stay free, stay strong, carry on”. And we should. In the name of what music can bring.