Fact, Fiction, and Fantasy

Whenever I first hear a new record, I always hear it as a collection of influences. I’ll hear bits of this artist and that artist, but it takes a few listens before it begins to sound entirely like the artist. When I first put on the new Trapper Schoepp record, I heard Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Warren Zevon, Sugar, The Replacements, Nina Simone, The White Stripes, Jim Croce, U2, and more. I decided to wait a little while before writing about it so I could live with it for a while. A month later, I’ve been so gobsmacked by the album I’ve barely been able to listen to anything else since it came out. 

When Schoepp’s last album, “Primetime Illusion,” came out, I wrote about how music can be fixed in time for the listener. We associate songs and sounds with life events and where we were when we first heard them. For me, his last album came out at a rocky time, and when I hear it, it can remind me of that period, but even more so, it reminds me that that time is long gone. It’s cathartic. That album will bring to mind different things for everyone who hears it, which is why “May Day” is a bit different. “May Day” arrives on the heels of the collective trauma we all went through over the last year with the pandemic, the election, and the summer of justice marches. Filled with songs about loneliness, quarantine, defiance, hope, despair, and rebirth, it is the sound of Trapper Schoepp trying to process the last year for himself and, in turn giving voice to our shared experience. 

I will admit to being slightly trepidatious about the new album, same as I was with the recent Bosstones release. Although I’d heard four of the new songs on the album beforehand and loved them all, I wasn’t sure what a year inside would do to musicians’ creative fire. I know the repetition and constant weight of the days had beaten me up. Mustering up the urge and drive to write was much harder than it had been, and the results felt mediocre at best. To my mind, it had to be so much worse for musicians who thrived in front of people, up on stage and on the road, having to play to phones and laptop cameras. It was all so draining that I half expected that most “quarantine albums” would be exercises in “fine.” 

Art by the Flash Nites

Schoepp had released a series of covers over the year, mainly for Bandcamp Fridays, that were all excellent, but also all songs that were on the slow and sad side, including “Keep Me In Your Heart” and “Walls.” Taken collectively, they make a great sort of mini-album, but they are also the soundtrack of someone who is having a tough time. I expected the new album to have a similar vibe, and while I knew I would enjoy it, I wasn’t sure if an album made in that kind of atmosphere would be able to reach the heights that “Primetime Illusion” did. As good as the singles were, and they were all outstanding, it still felt like a big ask. 

The other end of it is that as a listener, I also wasn’t sure how receptive I would be to songs about the last year. The last 15 or so months have been miserable. There’s no other way to describe it. There have certainly been highs and lows during the time, but really it just sucked. I missed my friends, my family, doing things, live music, etc. Like so many, I lost loved ones to Covid and had to find a way to process that grief through webcams and cloth masks. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to deal with it or even think about it anymore. I had spoken with friends about how much I hoped TV shows would just ignore the pandemic and leave their fictional universes untouched by it. I wasn’t sure if I wanted this particular inescapable part of life creeping into the things I turned to escape it. 

I wasn’t sure how to best illustrate lockdown, so here’s Animal Crossing.

And so this was the mindset I was in when I opened the door on May 21st to find a package from Grandphony Records, sent from just up the road in PA, waiting for me. The new album had been released the midnight before on Spotify and other streaming services, but I held off. I wanted to be a big nerd about it and hear the entire album for the first time on vinyl. I’m not really an audiophile, but I like the act of listening to music on records. It gives it a weight and presence that just isn’t the same listening to music on my laptop. Also, I’m a big nerd, and this is just how I like to do things. 

Before I get into it, quick shout out to Grandphony. I had preordered a poster, a tote bag, and the vinyl, and they were really packaged well. I’ve gotten some dinged-up stuff lately, and these were pristine and secure and on time. It’s a little thing, but I genuinely appreciated it. 

The first big observation is that this doesn’t sound to me like a folk-rock record. It doesn’t feel like it should be in the ‘Americana’ section either. It’s a pure rock record. Schoepp has been trending this way over the course of his last four albums, I think. Starting the clock with “Run, Engine, Run,” Schoepp has evolved from borderline country to bonafide rock and roll. This isn’t to say that there aren’t folky moments on this album, there surely are, but the balance has shifted. The pedal steel floating around is more of a side character than one of the main stars. The album is much closer in vibe and sound to Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen than the Byrds. 

In terms of Schoepp’s evolution across albums, I say starting with “Run Engine Run” because it was his first national album, and I’m not sure how much he likes to be reminded of the first two albums made in high school and college (which I’m about to do, so…). It’s interesting because prior to this, his second album, “Lived and Moved,” was the closest to a pure rock record. His first album, “A Change in the Weather,” is practically a jazz record and, outside of a couple of songs, sounds wildly different from anything else he’s done and feels as far away from “May Day” as Wisconsin is from Sydney, Australia. It’s worth a listen, I enjoy it, but it’s just very different. The song “Programmed,” for instance, turns into essentially “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. But that’s neither here nor there, it’s just an interesting note in how musicians eventually find their sound and how, outside of AC/DC, it’s usually more fluid than we tend to think. 

RIP Sally

The second big thing is that this album is very similar in a way to Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home.” Dylan’s fifth album is essentially split in two, the first side being electric and experimental and a significant departure from his folk sound. The second side is primarily acoustic and closer to what came before. Schoepp reverses this. The first side of the record includes all three singles (“May Day,” “A River Called Disaster,” and “Yellow Moon”), as well as “Paris Syndrome,” all of which are very identifiable as what you would think of as “Trapper Schoepp songs.” What I mean by that is simply songs that they all could have very easily been slotted on his previous albums without feeling out of place. They have Schoepp’s emotive playfulness in spades. The fifth song, “Hotel Astor,” feels a bit like an outlier, but not too much. The second side of the record, however, feels like Schoepp flexing his muscles and letting loose. The five songs fly off in wildly different directions and utterly blew me away when I first heard them. Truthfully, they still blow me away on my 20th listen. Much like Dylan with “Bringing it All Back Home,” Schoepp is teaching a masterclass in evolving and growing his sound far beyond our expectations. Each cut on side two brings something new to the table. I’m also willing to bet money the album was sequenced very definitively with listening to it on vinyl in mind. 

First day, fifth month, called May

The third big thing is that if anyone in Schoepp’s life ever forgets his birthday after this album, he should disown them. 

This is going to sound very hyperbolic and over the top, which is my brand, I guess, but this is the kind of album that reminds me why I love music so much. It’s big and bold and fearless. It’s like a boxer dancing around a ring and launching punches from different angles, never letting up or letting you go. It’s not perfect, but it’s damn close. 

It also reminded me that I would make a terrible music critic because I tried to think of something negative to say to lend myself credibility, and the best I could come up with was “I’m not in love with the first 15 seconds of “Hotel Astor” and “In the sequencing, I think I might flip “Hotel Astor” and “I am a Rider” because Astor feels like it should be on side two and Rider would work on side one. But also maybe not?” That second thing also made me feel like a huge nerd again, but when a record is this good, it’s worth nerding out over. I also wish the vinyl had the lyrics with it (addicted, evicted, and ‘a victim’ sound very similar). That’s about it for problems, though.

Before I get into the songs, let me just say that the group of musicians on this album is stellar. Tanner Schoepp’s bass and vocals are very much the top of his game. Jacob Bicknase’s drums feel like the true star on a few of the songs. Matt Smith and Quinn Scharber’s guitar work is mind-blowing, with more than a few breathtaking moments. Phillippe Bronchtein and Matt Keon’s pedal steel provides natural, emotive texture when called upon, and Bronchtein’s synth stuff fills the album up with warm and powerful sound. I’ll talk more about Ian Olvera’s production and piano playing as we go, but I hope he and Schoepp continue their partnership for a long time.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

So, let’s talk about the songs themselves, starting with the eponymous album opener, “May Day.” The song begins with a little piano riff that is repeated throughout the song. I compared it on Twitter right after I heard it to some of my favorite piano parts in rock songs, specifically “Chest Fever” by the Band and “One of Us Must Know” by Bob Dylan. That’s probably over the top because it really is a simple riff, but honestly, it makes a difference. Having heard a couple of acoustic versions online, the song remains fabulous, maybe the album’s best, but the piano turns the record version into something really special. There’s a Springsteenesque quality to the song to start, but throw that piano in, and it’s born to run, so to speak. Despite comparing it to Springsteen right there, I’d say the song is the purest distillation of Schoepp’s talent on the album. It’s an up-tempo story about the tail end of a romance that just isn’t working. “You’re a bad drug, it’s time to kick it,” Schoepp sings, but rather than being sad, it’s a celebration. It’s playful, fun, and a great way to both open the album and declare the album’s intentions. I love a good mission statement song, and boy, does this one get the job done. 

It features one of my favorite lyrics, “Called me a mistake, great lakes heartache.” That’s just a good damn line, one of my favorites on the album. Schoepp has always been good at writing lyrics that are clever and insightful without tipping over into twee or being too solipsistic. It’s a nice balance. 

The second song on the album is nominally about Schoepp’s time living in Hotel Astor. I say “nominally” because it’s more about being haunted by regret. It feels almost like someone describing a nightmare. Haunted is the right word here because there’s a ghostly quality to the song. If you’ve seen The Shining enough, hotels of any stripe start to become a little unsettling, and this song has a very similar quality. The mood and texture of it feel like waking up in a sweat in a strange hotel bed, the room only half dark because of lights outside, and realizing you’re alone. Schoepp’s vocal is done in a whispered shout, the kind you’d use in a hotel when trying not to disturb the folks in the room over. All this swirls in and out of the song, and then the extremely serious guitars kick in about 1:14. I said “Oh shit” out loud the first time I heard this song when they kicked in. These are grown-up 1985 FM rock guitars playing a 30-second solo that ends on a long note with Schoepp singing, “Shouldn’t I try to save you? I will be haunted till my dying day” without any other instrumentation. It’s one of my absolute favorite moments across all his albums. It sends chills up my spine. 

It’s a brilliant song, to which the only complaint I have is not especially loving the piano and drum intro. It’s not bad, but given where the song goes, it just feels jarring to me. Although I guess it helps add to the drama that builds over the course of the song. It’s the one song I feel like I should discuss on my horror movie podcast rather than here; it’s so cinematic. 

A River Called Disaster

I wrote about the next two songs a while ago, when they were released as singles. My feelings about them haven’t changed since then. They’re both tremendous songs. Hearing them in context on the album has only enhanced my appreciation of them. The kinetic angry despair of “A River Called Disaster” following the haunted hotel nightmare of “Hotel Astor” is a bit of sequencing that supercharges the song. Going from the big, grown-ass-man and dread into the engine revving opening of “River” is just exciting. There’s a story being told with the songs, and getting to hear each chapter in order is a special experience. It’s a nice reminder that albums are not just a collection of songs but different chapters of a musical book. 

“Yellow Moon” following River on the album feels like salvation. It’s an allegorical song treating life alone and on the move like being lost at sea. The arc of the songs goes from a breakup, regret, despair, and finally here at shore under a big yellow moon. It’s a wonderful ride. Each song taken individually is great, but put together moves them into “really fucking special” category. I thought Yellow Moon was a nearly perfect song on its own, one of my favorites in his entire catalog, but hearing it as part of the story kicks it up even higher in the pantheon. 

Photo by Lina Kivaka on Pexels.com

The next song, “Paris Syndrome,” I first heard when Schoepp played it during a Kickstarter-backed zoom mini-concert. I really enjoyed that whole thing, but it’s such a strange situation, and having someone perform songs just for me, even over zoom, felt odd. It was certainly the first time I ever felt guilty after hearing live music. At the time, the song’s subject felt intensely appropriate, being about something you’re excited about, not being what you expected. The song is about a relationship not working despite expectations. It’s the folkiest song on the album, almost a lullaby. It’s a wonderful little song and a great way to end side one of the record. After the intense emotions and power of the first four songs, it’s gentle and quiet. There’s a peacefulness to it that, despite being sad, makes it a nice song to listen to while walking through the tall grass. 

Then you flip the record, and it punches you right in the face. 

The first song on side two is “Little Drop of Medicine.” This song begins with a HUGE White Stripesesque opening chord and POUNDING piano keys. I was in no way ready for this song after “Paris Syndrome,” and I’m not sure I’ve ever had my expectations turned on their head as much as this song did, and still does, for the second half of an album. It’s got the giant loud guitars and a loud, quiet loud structure that I’ve never heard from Schoepp. If you had told me this guy was going to have a Pixies by way of the White Stripes song leading side two, I would not have believed you. I know I wanted to write this without name-checking other bands and artists, but it’s hard not to with this one. It’s incredibly unique in his catalog. It’s bold, sinister, and sexy. Not words I’d normally associate with the guy who wrote “Ogallala” and “Bumper Cars.” I don’t mean for that to sound dismissive or insulting either, it’s just I never really expected this album to have what, for all the world, sounds to me like a song about sex. I could be wrong about that, I’m not always great at guessing what stuff is about, but give it a listen and tell me it doesn’t sound like a sex song to you. Whatever it’s about, it’s a phenomenal song and tells you to buckle up for the rest of the album. 

Photo by cheptu00e9 cormani on Pexels.com

I’ve been thinking about how to write about the next song, “Solo Quarantine,” for a while, and I’m still not sure. Like I mentioned before, I wasn’t sure how I’d react to songs about the last year. When I read the song titles, it made me nervous. I was genuinely worried I wasn’t going to like it. After hearing “Little Drop of Medicine,” I lost any sense of expectation for the next songs. Then the song played, and I was honestly stunned. That’s not even hyperbole. I had to stop the record halfway through the next song because my brain was still stuck on “Solo.” 

My initial impression of “Solo Quarantine” was that it was the single best song in Schoepp’s entire catalog. After a month of listening to it and every other song of his that I have, and my opinion hasn’t changed at all. I think this song is the best thing he has ever done. It’s a perfect song. 

The first thing that jumps out is how deep and rich the sound is. It opens with what sounds like someone running a pick across a metal acoustic guitar string, and then 15 seconds of piano become the vocals and drums kick in. The resonance in the piano LEAPS out at you. The overall soundscape in this song is like watching a movie in a fancy TDX theater. It envelops you. The album lists Ian Olvera and Schoepp as the producers, and while the whole album sounds incredibly good (no joke, the production is incredible all through), this song feels like their Sistine Chapel ceiling.

I don’t know which of the two of them is playing the piano on it, but it’s pretty magical. The song itself is about a midnight call from someone who is alone during the lockdown. It beautifully captures the malaise, loneliness, and desperation of last year. The urge to reach out to anyone who might listen and try and make a human connection while being trapped, and the exhaustion of the person taking the call. 

So anyway, when I said I wasn’t sure how I would react, the answer “break down in tears.” I’m not a person who is very in touch with my emotions, and I’m certainly not prone to crying (probably to an unhealthy degree), but I was not ready for a song to resonate so completely with all those stored up emotions from last year. It was a profound experience for me at first and remains so now. I love every bit of it, from the opening to the single guitar strum at 3:06. That guitar strum is the kind of thing that makes me want to get really hyperbolic, and I’m right now restraining myself from writing a paragraph comparing it to the moment Roland sees a blade of grass in Stephen King’s Gunslinger. I’ll spare you that, but I do want to say that the song this most reminds me of is Jim Croce’s “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels).” 

The two songs don’t sound alike, but their emotional content is somewhat similar. Both are about calls and connections. They both feel like perfect ways to describe melancholy and the feeling of being alone but TRYING to not be. “Solo Quarantine,” to my mind, is a modern update of this classic. Listening to them back to back feels natural to me. I don’t know “Solo Quarantine” will ever reach enough people to go down in the rock pantheon as a classic, but it should, and it should be put right next to “Operator.”

Not pictured, a guard telling me not to go onto the floor.

To pander a little bit to the likely Wisconsin based audience of this piece, this song is Trapper Schoepp’s version of Giannis putting put 40/13/5 in a game seven vs the Nets. From the production, to the singing and musicianship, to the lyrical content, everything about this song hits the right notes. It’s not my favorite of his songs, but I truly thing it’s his absolute best work to date.

The next song is “I am a Rider,” which is also the most confusing song on the album. The song is the kind of mid-tempo rock song I associate with Jesse Malin, among others. In fact, I can hear him sing this song pretty easily in my head when I think about it. It’s not the type of cadence or sound I associate with Schoepp, but man, does he nail it. It’s far and away the most country-tinged song on the album while never really tripping over into being country. It’s the one I find myself singing at random moments. The chorus is incredibly catchy, and the vocal bridge is really cool, “No riches, just rust.” I just can’t figure out at all what it’s about. The first few times through, I wondered if it was about the Freedom Riders, but I think it’s pretty clearly not. The only other association I have with the phrase “I am a Rider” is from seeing it on motorcycle t-shirts, and given the engine mentions, I’m guessing that’s what it’s about. I know Schoepp used to ride BMX, but I have no idea if he’s a motorcycle guy now or what Birmingham has to do with anything. Maybe it’s his version of “Mississippi Goddamn.” Whatever it’s about, it’s different for him and a terrific song. 

I mentioned way back that I like it when Schoepp sings mad, and the next song feels furious. “It Didn’t Take” is a primal, growly, defiant rock song. Schoepp doesn’t have many “go to hell” type songs, but this one is shaking its fist in the air and screaming. “I was born on the first of May,” Schoepp practically growls out in the chorus, letting everyone know he’s still standing over some mighty acoustic and wailing electric guitars. When I talk about how this is a pure rock record, this is the song that seals the deal. It’s a modern classic rock song that people never seem to be able to write anymore. You can feel Schoepp’s lineage with Petty, Springsteen, Bob Mould, and more. It’s wild and cool and a big jump in Schoepp’s sound. It also feels like the moment of catharsis that the whole album has been building to. It’s where he lets all of the bad shit out in a primal scream.

I also have to say that perhaps the most surprising lyric on the whole album is in “It Didn’t Take.” It comes around 2:26, “I was born on the first of May, and I am not God’s mistake.” That is a heavy-duty line right there. “I am not God’s mistake” is something that feels deeply personal and angry. I have no idea if it’s autobiographical, but man, if someone said that he was God’s mistake, well, that person sucks. That’s the kind of thing that is meant to hurt deeply, and feeling that way is real stuff. It’s a hard thought, and the expulsion of that notion in the song is quite a moment. 

The final song is “Something About You.” This is a slow, synthy, echoey near ballad. It’s got a soundscape that feels like dipping yourself in hot fudge (that’s weird, I know, but it’s so deep and full and rich, I can’t think of anything else.) This is the most electronic-sounding song in Schoepp’s catalog. It feels like the redemption and rebirth moment capping the whole enterprise. “I’ll give way to winds of change,” he sings, and that’s what it feels like. It’s the album’s epilogue, where you get the sense that maybe things will work out. There’s hope, after all. 

This is where the record lives now.

“May Day” is a brilliant album. It takes you on a journey through a place in time where we all might have been going down the same river, but we were all in different boats. It feels like Schoepp leveling up, and it’ll be stuck to my turntable for a long time.  Last year was rough, and we’re going to be processing it for a long time, sometimes it’s good to be reminded that we’re all in this together even when we’re all far away. “May Day” speaks to that truth and provides the perfect soundtrack the long road back.

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