Sixteen months ago I spent two or three hours recording in Fred Thomas’ Ann Arbor bedroom. During the afternoon I played a handful of Motown-sounding vibraphone riffs into his four-track and that was that. I was paid for the session with a slice of pizza.
Considering the overwhelming stats about the making of All Your Summer Songs the “pizza session” isn’t really a big deal. After all, it’s a record that matured over two years in eight different recording “studios” (many of which are only qualified as such because they had an electrical outlet for Thomas’ four-track) and it involved almost 30 musicians under the umbrella moniker of Saturday Looks Good to Me (including vocal contributions by such indie luminaries as Tara Jane O’Neil, Ted Leo and Ida’s Karla Schickele). Qualifying … Summer Songs as immense is easy enough by just reading the liner notes.
When you listen to it as a finished product, though, none of the stats mean anything. The statements of Summer Songs bear clear evidence that Thomas has masterminded something many songwriters simply can’t: he takes common, everyday things like ambulance sirens, paper airplanes, city planning and New Year’s Eve parties and bestows them with a spiritual depth that is both enormous and compelling.
The basic building blocks of the record combine eerily retro production hookery (think Phil Spector/Brian Wilson with cheap toys) with poetic narratives about the gray area between post-adolescence and adulthood. Sure, the world of indie rock has had more than its share of that, but Thomas is able to make emotionally relevant mountains out of observational molehills partly because of his catholic understanding of the history of pop songwriting. The lyrics percolate like good fiction, inspiring a familiar melancholia. All Your Summer Songs is a new record of your favorite old songs.
“You Work All Weekend,” one of the few tracks that Thomas actually sings himself, opens with a sweet 12-string hook and a simple narrative: “When you work all weekend you can’t help but feel estranged and by the time Monday shows up, everything has changed.” But by the second verse even the arrangement is sunnier than ever (with the addition of a glockenspiel), and the lyrics have taken a darker turn: “When you smash a window, glass fills up the car … You’ve been such a basket case since that boy broke your heart, and if he finds out you miss him, he’ll tear you apart.”
In this way the record’s lyrical integrity and the structural smarts never falter. Where most “indie” songwriters write songs for and about their audiences (read: humanities majors at liberal arts colleges), every track on … Summer Song offers a vignette of twentysomething life presented with such poetic charm that there is an almost universal relevance. These songs are populated with college kids’ overwrought feelings and complicated emotions (again nothing new), but they are presented in a way that makes us actually care. These are stories about twentysomethings that can have meaning to anyone.
“Typing” opens with guitar played though thick tremolo and an echoing tambourine. Erica Hoffman begins singing with one of the album’s most poignant one-liners, “You spent such a long time typing that you forgot how to write letters.” But again, as the direction of the story changes, so does the orchestration, so does the undertone, so does the whole package. Eventually the vocal melody is lost in the far distance, and ascending harp strumming and somber flute lines carry the song.
But come on … flutes? Harp? Vibraphone? Mellotron? four-track? On first listen the motley orchestration and the heavy-handed production will be challenging enough to throw some people off track. Even those who might be used to listening to new music with old production tricks might have a hard time. After all, in the last decade many lesser songwriters (e.g. the Kindercore, Elephant 6 crew) have attempted similar grand plans to draw attention away from the fact that under all the glockenspiel there isn’t much of a song. Thankfully, Thomas’ skills are only enhanced by all the theatrics, and in the end it is difficult to imagine the songs hitting home quite so hard without them.
But when Thomas begs, “Sing me a song, and don’t let me think too long about what I tried to say” in “Ambulance” maybe he is handing us the key to his intentions. Maybe his Summer Songs are about the indescribable vacation from reality that important music — and for that matter important art — can offer.
Nate Cavalieri writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.