A few weeks ago I wrote about Trapper Schoepp and the idea of the ‘begats’. The basic idea being that most of the bands and artists I listen to I arrived at directly because of another artist or band. In Trapper Schoepp’s case, I discovered his music when he opened for Jesse Malin. In my musical biography he is a link in a chain that lead me to Frank Turner, another artist that made me believe in love at first listen.
Earlier this year, I was seeing Skinny Lister at Underground Arts in Philadelphia. I arrived before doors and was hanging out out front. It was early March and pretty cold. I was wearing just a t-shirt and jeans, despite the weather, because I’m not always very smart. As I stood there shivering, a young woman came up and gave me a pin and a wristband for Xtra Mile Recordings, Skinny Lister’s label, and as I would find out that night, the label of just about every non punk or ska band I’ve been listening to lately including Trapper Schoepp, Beans on Toast, and after that show, Will Varley and Frank Turner.
Hanging out before the show waiting for Will Varley, the terrific opening act that night, to come on, the DJ played a song that I would later find out was called ‘Get Better’. I might not have noticed it, but the couple of folks I was standing next to got excited when it came on and about half of the pre-show crowd started singing along. I’ve only ever seen people get that excited about a pre-show song three times. The first was a few years ago when the DJ at House of Blues in Boston played ‘The Pirate Song’ by Suncooked, and late this summer at the ‘Cranking and Skanking’ fest, when ‘She’s Kerosene’ by the Interrupters came on.
After seeing people get so excited, I focused on the song for a bit and was blown away. I didn’t know the name of the song or the artist, but I jotted some of the lyrics down on my phone and then just listened. It’s such an amazing thing to get gobsmacked by a song like that. It’s kind of like meeting someone’s eyes across a crowded room and seeing them smile at you, or opening the perfect Christmas gift as a kid. I think deep down we all kind of believe that we’ve heard it all before and that there’s nothing new under the sun, but then you hear that song and realize that there are an infinite number of wonderful things left to be discovered.
Not too long after that, Varley came on, followed by Skinny Lister. They were both magnificent. I hadn’t known Will Varley beforehand, but he was a very British combination of hilarious and poignant.
Despite the wonderful show, I was still a bit stuck on the song I had heard beforehand. The line “We could get better because we’re not dead yet” kept echoing through my head.
The next day at work, I looked him up and watched the video for ‘Get Better’ on YouTube. The video is pretty much just a hand writing the lyrics of the song on various things. It’s a terrific video. Having heard the song in its entirety again, I thought “Oh, well then” and went on Amazon and immediately bought ‘England Keep My Bones’ digitally.
I realize if you’re a Frank Turner fan, you probably just thought ‘Hold up, Get Better is on Positive Songs for Negative People’, and you would be right. This is a thing I started doing ages ago when I’d hear a song I liked and wanted to explore the band, which is buy an album that doesn’t feature the song I know I like. My weird nerd logic is that I *know* I like the one song, but I don’t know if I’ll like the rest of a bands stuff, and if I get the album I know has at least one song I like, I might get complacent and never try anything else. It’s like going to a restaurant and only ever getting the same dish.
So I bought and listened to ‘England Keep My Bones’ and thought to myself, “Oh. Well then.” and bought ‘Love, Ire, and Song’. By the end of the day I also owned ‘Tape Deck Heart’ and finally ‘Positive Songs for Negative People’.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t gone more than two or three days since without listening to at least half of the songs on England Keep My Bones. I have listened to them all a ton, but that’s the one that resonates with me the most.
I’m not English. I have never gotten one of those genetic tests, but by all accounts I’m half Welsh, which is kind of like going through life with your favorite ice cream flavor being rum raisin. ‘England Keep My Bones’ is like a love letter to all of those things that have made me wish I was English my whole life. It’s an album about England, its past, present and future.
The album opens with a pastoral melody that slowly gives way to Frank Turner singing the album’s mission statement, culminating in the line, “But on the day I die, I’ll say at least I fucking tried, that’s the only eulogy I need” and then it rolls into “Peggy Sang The Blues”.
‘Peggy Sang the Blues’ is about hanging out with a ghost who has some good advice. It’s the kind of song that doesn’t jump out at you on your first listen through, but then you look back a year or two later at the album and realize it was your favorite song all along. It’s the sonic equivalent of a romantic comedy where after years of mishaps, two best friends finally get together.
The biggest, most bombastic song on the album is track three, ‘I Still Believe’. This song is very simply about believing in Rock and Roll and music as a positive force. It’s loud, brash, and the kind of thing music nerds like me will get bumper stickers of because we very much still believe. If you could call any one track on the album ‘essential’ it would be this one.
‘Rivers’ is a song about England itself. I went to England for the first time a couple of years ago, and fell deeply in love with every bit of the country that I saw. Listening to Rivers is like revisiting that trip. It’s lowkey compared to the rest of the album, but no less poignant. Every time I hear it I feel a deep ache to go back and wander ‘this green and pleasant land’.
‘Rivers’ and ‘English Curse’, an acapella song in the style of an old English ballad, bookend the song ‘I am Disappeared’, which is the beating heart of the album. It feels like the most personal of all of the tunes, and it’s certainly the one that crawled under my skin and took up residence. It’s about the idea of keeping your eye on the exit and being prepared to run when life gets too much. I’ve written and deleted a few sentences about why this song resonates so much and I think if I write too much about it, this is going to turn into a confessional post, and I’m already rambling enough. Suffice to say that this one resonates with me pretty deeply, and not just because he’s dreaming of Bob Dylan.
‘One Foot Before The Other’ is the angriest song on the album. It feels like a companion song to the closing song on the album “Glory Hallelujah”. The latter is best summed up by the first line of the chorus, “There is no god, so clap your hands together.” It’s sung in a pseudo gospel style that morphs into Harry Chapin style folk, whereas ‘One Foot Before The Other’ is snarled out. ‘One Foot’ isn’t as direct, but the idea is the same. Stop looking up and look next to you, because humanity is what we have and what we should care about. ‘One Foot’ also mentions both Dostoevsky and Woody Guthrie in the same song, and I’m down with anything that does that.
‘If Ever I Stray’ is without a doubt the most fun song on the album, and challenges ‘I still Believe’ as the most anthemic. It starts out with an acoustic guitar and lyrics about hope and keeping your head up, and eventually he counts off ‘one, two, three, four’ kicking the band in a borderline head-banging football chant chorus. It just gets better from there. I listened to this one on my way into work each morning for three weeks after I bought the album. It’s the kind of song that makes the day just a little bit easier to face.
The song that follows ‘If Ever I Stray’ is a low key ode to nostalgia, and how, no matter how old you get, going back to where you grew up has a special feeling that can’t be replicated. It’s another song that makes me yearn to go back to England and explore more, but also makes me think about the town I grew up in, although it makes me wish that town was a bit more worth singing about.
‘Nights Become Days’ and ‘Redemption’ are both low key sad songs. They’re more quiet and contemplative than the rest of the album. They feel a little out of place amongst the rest, a little like previews of his next album, ‘Positive Songs for Negative People’.
It’s a wonderful album top to bottom, and the kind that sticks with you, and you can listen to no matter what your mood, and it will have something for you.
Emotional resonance is something we all look for when we listen to music. We all want to hear songs that we can relate to or match what we’re feeling at any given moment. Most artists have a fairly small emotional range. Feeling down? Listen to the Smiths. Feeling rebellious? Listen to the Replacements. Feeling angry? Listen to Rage Against the Machine. Feeling like a middle ages farmer? Listen to Jethro Tull. This isn’t to say that most bands don’t have range, but very few are full service. Frank Turner dances across the whole spectrum. It’s something that’s pretty unique. I’ve found it in a handful of artists and they’re the ones that stay with you, and entwine themselves deep inside. There is a raw desperate humanity to his songs that artists sometimes seem to shy away from and he revels in.
If I had to say there was something he specialized in, it would be trying to fight through depression by focussing on the positive. I will admit, this is not something I’m good at. I tend to cope with depression and hopelessness with sarcastic nihilism. It’s not the best coping mechanism. The other thing I do is throw myself into music. Frank Turner’s music seems to come from a similar place, but he has the wit and wherewithal to not give into it. When I listen to him I can hear that same voice I hear in my head when it gets too much, but instead of wallowing in it, Turner fights back with hope and a very English kind of strength. I will admit that his songs have helped in a few darker moments, and he will always have a spot in my pantheon for that. His is a voice that gets it, understands what folks like me see as the truth of things and says ‘Put on your brave face’.
A few months after first hearing ‘Get Better’ I got to see him perform live with his band, The Sleeping Souls. He played the Fillmore in Philly as part of his tour supporting his new album ‘Be More Kind’.
‘Be More Kind’ is a statement album written by a guy who sees the grim state of the world and says ‘Nah, fuck that.’ It’s equal parts angry, positive, and, at its core, defiant. I don’t want this post to be completely album reviews, but the key tracks for me are 1933, Make America Great Again, Brave Face, and Be More Kind.
1933, which sings about the state of things, can be summed up with the line ‘Don’t go mistaking your house burning down for the dawn’. I have said that verbatim to a Trump supporter. They didn’t appreciate it, but it’s exactly right. This song is equal parts angry and exasperated at the shape of things. It’s not subtle, but it shouldn’t be.
‘Make America Great Again’ is re-purposing the awful slogan into something meaningful, following up the song name in the chorus with ‘by making racists ashamed again’. It’s a catchy tune and a good message. I wish I felt more comfortable driving around playing it at top volume though, I’d hate for people to misinterpret it.
‘Brave Face’ is about that concept I talked about before, of fighting off the hopelessness with defiance. It’s catchy, positive, and relentlessly defiant in the face of a world trying to kick sand in all our eyes. It’s an honest song that isn’t trying to offer false hope or overly-positive pablum, it’s about how we face each day.
‘Be More Kind’ is the title track and the album’s mission statement. It’s a quiet song that speaks a pretty sincere truth, all we have is each other, so be more kind. Try to be more kind. I will admit, it’s a song I need to hear once in a while because I have a hard time with it. My reaction to the world tends to be more rage-based and I forget the simple concept of kindness sometimes. That rage against the world isn’t particularly productive but it’s hard to pull back from, but I think Turner is right, we all need to be more kind. If I take away anything from all of this, it’s the hope that I can find ways to be so.
He opened the concert with 1933, which would have seemed like an odd choice if I hadn’t actually seen it happen. Somehow it was the perfect opener. It’s upbeat, energetic, and angry. He followed that up with ‘Get Better’, the song that started the whole journey for me. I don’t always feel like I got my money’s worth by the second song of a show, but if I had ended it right there and then I would have been fine.
He bounced around from more low key numbers to the rockers all throughout the show. He is a dervish on stage, bouncing around, putting everything into the songs. At one point he crowd-surfed over me and I feel comfortable in calling him the sweatiest man in rock.
He talks a lot between songs, telling stories, jokes, and just generally engaging the audience. He talked about his friends saying he’d never have the “bollocks” to play ‘Make America Great Again’ in the states, right before playing ‘Make America Great Again’. He even played ‘Brave Face’ for the first time that night. It was the kind of show that made me think about taking a week off and just following him around for a while.
The oddest thing about the proceedings for me was the weird almost punk vibe to the crowd that was decidedly not filled with punk rock types. Pretty far from it, actually. It was a bunch of people who seemed interested in things like crowd surfing and moshing, but weren’t really sure what it was all about, kind of punk-lite. This sounds judgemental and I don’t mean it to, but I went to the show after getting back from a two day punk rock festival in Ohio, that featured bands like Sick of It all, Rancid, and the Street Dogs. I was worn down from getting crushed at that concert, and the half-moshing at the Turner show was fun and kind of goofy. It was a bit like taking a cool down walk after a long run. Turner, for his part, recognized the vibe, and prefaced playing ‘If I Ever Stray’ with a bit about how people say to him they feel safe trying out crowd surfing at his shows, and then said this was the song to do it to if you were a small person and not ‘a big punk rocker type’. I enjoyed the heck out of it, and I’m pretty sure no one went home covered in someone else’s blood.
It’s always a bit weird coming to an artist late. Frank Turner has been around for years, and it turns out I have some friends who are big fans. I had never come across him until that Skinny Lister show, and even then I might have missed him if I wasn’t paying attention to the music. I guess the lesson is to always listen to the music. You never know where it might take you.