Do the easy smiles of our youth just get blown away as we get older?
With unbridled youth comes the certainty that life is willing to donate every last ounce of sweetness to the cause of protest, love and rock ‘n’ roll. We take for granted in our formative years that imagination and amazement will continue in perpetuity to our dying breathe. Then there’s this moment where idealism bolstered by the sound of a fuzzy Stratocaster and a Marshall stack abruptly transition to the law-abiding meticulousness of adulthood. It gets harder and harder to conjure the wily bravado of revolutionary freedom that once you could summon at will.
There are some who give in, allow the sheer weight of adulthood to grind them down. Then, there are some who refuse; those brave and foolish souls who just won’t let the brilliant red jewel light of a Fender Deluxe Reverb flicker out so easily. They know that the only thing that really makes sense is rock ‘n’ roll. Standing at the edge of the crowd, stage lights shine like distant stars–the clang of electric guitar silences all doubts. The crowd pulsates, sweating off booze, saving their worries until the morning.
Can we ever press rewind or does the reel-to-reel just keep rolling until it spits out the tape in a twisted act of audio disintegration?
Some artists just want a quick fix—the shortest road to rock ‘n’ roll heaven, a catchy three-chord chorus. But they burn out like firecrackers, bright and shiny, over way too soon. True artists go for the slow burn. They remain, not solely for the moment, but for the journey we make and those we have not yet taken. They show us what still exists within. Josh Olmstead is one of those artists.
Olmstead, a longtime anchor of Philadelphia’s music scene, writes music never for the cheap hook, never looking for the easy way in—opting for the window instead of the door. Nothing is obvious, nothing is thrown in carelessly. The foundations of his songs build, piece by clever piece. And, nothing stays on the path you thought he was going to take–he always finds another way to a place you never thought you’d end up. That’s his magic! They’re songs that musicians will argue over for hours, wondering what chord he threw in, just how he recorded that chorus and how in the world he ever got those parts to fit together seamlessly. Studio magic, brilliant insanity or sheer luck!
Starting off in 2007, with his first major release, “Charms,” and continuing with “Purple Mountain Majesty in the Antlers Hotel” in 2010, Olmstead has made music for an audience searching for substance and sonic wizardry. Those albums, featuring Philadelphia legends, Mike “Slo-mo” Brenner on lap and pedal steel guitar, as well as Brian Christinzio (BC Camplight) on piano and organ, were produced by renowned studio engineers, Brian McTear (Kurt Vile) and Jonathan Low (The National). Each album featured a different cast of characters, but their strength rested squarely upon Olmstead’s songwriting, musical curiosity and guitar virtuosity—skills gained as a lead guitarist in several international touring and recording bands. From 2006 to 2011, Olmstead played alongside BC Camplight (Bella Union), and together with members of The War on Drugs, toured the U.S. and Europe. Thereafter, in 2011 and 2012, Olmstead backed Summer Fiction (Bank Robber Music) following the band’s debut eponymous album. In 2013, Olmstead then joined TJ Kong & the Atomic Bomb (American Diamond) for extensive U.S. touring, with the band’s Daytrotter Session named amongst the site’s Best 100 Songs of 2013. While on touring breaks with TJ Kong, Olmstead began compiling a new roster to begin recording on what will be his third album: featuring bassist, Sean Gallagher, and drummer, Avi Glickman, from the Philly band, Oh! Pears, as well as emerging guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, Stephen Horne.
So, since we’re all here for the same reason, we might as well just get into it. There is a time and a place for formality. Otherwise, there’s only one question to ask: Are we having fun yet?
With the arrival of Josh Olmstead’s newest single, “Fun Again,” he invites us into his carnival of dancing bears and bearded ladies. As the track fades in, a calliope comes in over the air waves, beckoning the listener into the song, entering Olmstead’s mad circus. But, no sooner do we enter than we are transported into a dream and a night which finds itself somewhere between fiction and the absolute truth.
And we’re there with Olmstead as he takes us through the night on Malcolm Street, with “tape hiss reeling from beyond,” as it “finds its way to dawn.” Under the big top, he is seated at a table with friends, shucking oysters; drinking aged scotch whiskey out of coffee mugs; discussing art, music and politics, and admiring the rustic quality of a West Philly fixer-upper home where house cats spy through cracks in the floorboards, kicking dirt and debris through exposed beams onto those below. There are house plants and throw rugs, and experimental music is playing on cassettes through an old boom-box—the aging cassette heads stretching to become part of the music’s overall sound, much like how our own body and mind stretch to accommodate changes in life as we get older.
The verse rolls in and over the carnival like a monster truck rally, and it’s T.Rex Seventies glam finding union with sweeter elements of Chilton’s Big Star floating underneath. Like any great Olmstead song, “Fun Again” rests on the talents found between six strings. Olmstead and second guitarist Stephen Horne find true beauty battling back and forth, sometimes in unison, sometimes pushing each other forward to dizzying heights. The chorus comes to shelter us, providing space amid piercing slide guitar. You can hear Olmstead’s affinity for the grandiose and his affection for California’s revamped Laurel Canyon scene, led by neo-hippy, Jonathan Wilson. It all rises up like ambient sea swells leading us to the song’s central theme: “If Royal’s Camp began what Malcom Street became, at least that’s fun again.” It’s Olmstead finding his past again in a new time and place. He’s not sure if it’s the same or if it will ever be like it was, but he’s taking stock of what the moments at Malcolm Street mean to him. Maybe it doesn’t matter that you can’t go back; it’s enough to learn that you don’t have to yearn what was when you can be with friends and smile at what is.
“Fun Again, to be released on October 7, 2014, was produced by Bill Moriarty, who has worked with local greats: Dr. Dog, Man Man, Toy Soldiers and The Lawsuits. Together with Moriarty, Olmstead got up to his old tricks—one part sweat and ingenuity, one part studio magic. Taking a page from Jimi Hendrix, Olmstead double-tracked all the rhythm guitar—clean through a Fender Deluxe Reverb and dirty through a Marshall hand-wired 2×12, each panned hard left. During the song’s interlude solo, Olmstead tracked the lead part, doubling it with a brass slide, then gave a 2nd harmony guitar part a similar treatment. When it all comes together, there are four lead guitar parts hitting you all at once! In the 2nd solo, in a nod to Brian May’s crushing treble-boosted Vox tones and multi-layered guitar licks, guitarist Stephen Horne takes off out of the gate with a dazzlingly-fast improvised Major key solo, which then meets up with Olmstead’s supplemental, contrary motion lines for a wickedly fun grand finale of the guitar solo section. But, the craziness didn’t end with the guitars! To get some of the alternate reality drum sounds, Moriarty turned off the overhead and direct mics and fed the drum signal only through the room mic. And, you’ll notice that all the backing vocals during the verses were run through a Leslie cabinet effect, as well as having the guitar, bass, and electric Rhodes affected with stereo echo in the choruses as a nice counterbalance to the more compressed tone of each verse. In the verses, you can hear Olmstead going for a tighter approach reminiscent of Lou Reed’s “Transformer,” with Horne’s lead parts emulating Mick Ronson’s cutting lead parts in the verses of such classic songs as “Vicious” and “Hangin’ Round.”
But getting beyond creative knob-turning, “Fun Again” is at its heart a look at how things change as we move through life, yet at times, feel like they’ve never changed at all. The same moments shared by Olmstead at the pastoral Royal’s Camp of yesteryear are the one’s relived in a decidedly more urban moment on Malcolm Street. Asked about the origins of “Fun Again,” Olmstead remarked: “From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Avant-Garde City Symphony films, and beyond, I’ve always been fascinated by the city as the ultimate, life-affirming and civilizing force, and the great outdoors as a sacred and essential place of wonderment. Fun seems to be some mysterious combination of spontaneity and pre-meditation experienced at the whim of city lights or country stars — sometimes the perfectly planned party pays off, sometimes fun sneaks up on us without even trying or despite ourselves. Then at some point, fun also becomes sort of nostalgic; things feel fun because they remind us of the past. Or maybe, any new experience simply reminds us of what it’s like to be young at heart. I like to think that if things get stale in any one environment, you can always, at least, dream of escaping back to the countryside, or into the city, for a little bedazzlement. The fun in this song isn’t necessarily the culture of fun sold to us as consumers, it’s about the fun in making those important reconnections with your time and space.”
This is where he leaves us, figuring out the right balance of nostalgia and optimism, rural and urban, in our individual and collective journey to attain a fun again state of being. For now, we wait for Josh Olmstead and his newly assembled cast of misfits to bring us something new to ponder. Until then, we’ll take our fun where we can get it and hold onto our cassettes a few years longer.