Fourth of July

Fourth of July on the Plains

(Rangelife Records; 2007)

By Eric Sams | 22 February 2008

It’s not necessarily a fool who would take Fourth of July’s Rangelife Records debut album for yet another Bright Eyes side project/tour retrospective/unreleased collection/remix compilation. And if that honest error was made, one might find this a refreshing relaxation of form for the Nebraska wunderkind, a melodic exhale. This effort, in short, would be one that casts last year’s hit-and-miss Cassadaga (2007) in an even more forgettable light. A reasonable soul could also believe that the sound is reminiscent of—as my editor who saw Fourth of July live at a bar in Iowa suggested—a “super drunk” Pavement tribute, though I naturally prefer my own comparison to his (suspecting as I do that he would never make a Bright Eyes comparison, no matter how accurate, to a band that he admits to enjoying).

After all, one needs only to listen to the rambunctious “Long Gone” to hear the hearty collectivism of a Saddle Creek release. Effortless cohesion shouldn’t be surprising considering that the root of Fourth of July is a trio of siblings (the Hangauers) hailing from the amber-waves-of-grain portion of our great nation. (Semi-related note: The city of Lawrence, Kansas publishes a website dedicated to the coverage of its local music. This intuitive and comprehensive repository of songs, videos, news, reviews and tour dates is truly an impressive display of scene solidarity. It’s like they Scenecasted themselves.) This collection though, is bereft of the arcane philosophies of Lifted… (2002), the acerbic sermonizing of I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning (2005), and the aggressive jitters of Fevers and Mirrors (2000). Each of these classifications is meant as descriptions, not indictments. Each is conflicted, halting shorthand for the proposition that effort is required to absorb and interact with these albums, which places them in stark contrast, despite notable stylistic overlaps, with this collection, their barfly second cousins.

Fourth of July on the Plains is certainly less ambitious both thematically and technically than your average Midwestern sad-sacks-with-guitars affair. Indeed, much of this content has its boots kicked up on the porch banister, its hooks carrying lazily across the Kansas plains on a balmy midsummer afternoon; just Brendan and Kelly Hangauer killing off an hour or so by unabashedly belting out hyper-melodic emo bursts. They seem interested largely in holding forth on a small constellation of themes, all of them recurring in some form or another in nearly every song; I suspect I won’t be alone in finding the list particularly, if episodically, descriptive of my last two years of college.

To wit: this record is fairly drenched in alcohol, and its characters move and speak throughout Plains with the fluidity, confusion, and labored earnestness of the perpetually intoxicated. Drinks are currency (“How much does another drink cost? / The exact same price as chaos / But if you want you could buy me one more shot”); drinks are debt (“I’m gonna drown my sorrows / With a couple more beers / And I’ll feel worse tomorrow / But I don’t think I care”). Drinks are, in short, the prism through which they see the world and all the relationships (long distance love, familial bonds, cheap carnal gropings) in it. The 21 and 22-year-old incarnations of me are even now nodding their heads knowingly with a weary look in their eye.

But I don’t feel too old for this music. It doesn’t function only as a piece of nostalgia for me because there’s just too much life and vibrancy in it. It’s still too immediate to be shaded sepia and filed away in the annals of memory. I think this is mostly because of the dulcet, crystalline guitar lines ambling through the heart of the mix on nearly every song. They don’t rock in and of themselves, but they bolster this collection, lending it enough heart and heat to allow these songs to not only be reminders of good times past but in an indirect way, present day party inducements.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my editor dug this band so much when he saw them. He was in a bar, he was wasted, and though the songs themselves deal with many issues outside that smoke filled sanctuary they’re constructed to sound best with those contextual acoustics. (I also like them because they love Wu-Tang, like, seriously.—Ed.) But what’s truly impressive is that when I listen to this album months later, four states east, and dead sober I too can bask in that warm neon glow. For all the texture and subtlety of Bright Eyes and his ilk, sometimes it seems like they would be well served to calm the fuck down and have a drink. That’s the service Fourth of July provides. That’s what they’re doing, and it’s what they’re inviting you to do. Not just to listen to their stories but to ruminate on your own as you would among friends at that dive up the block that still lets you smoke indoors. And who wouldn’t like a band that can bring that bar to them?