By Shain Shapiro
Slowly but surely, Guster has shed their collegiate rock status over the years to emerge as a tour-de-force in pop. Arguably the best album of their career, 2003s Keep it Together saw the trio, along with multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia, at their thought-provoking acme, creating music that was catchy as hell, even though it dealt with death, torn relationships, and love gone awry. And such incisively introspective lyrics, along with their ability to write the perfect song, has definitely continued with Ganging Up on the Sun, crafting an album that challenges Keep it Together as the (now) quartet's magnum opus.
This twelve-track, fifty-minute foray into pop and what lies along its fringes is the first Guster release that lists Pisapia as a full-time member of the band, and his influence is evident throughout every melodic nook and cranny. The songwriting is stylistically as mature as Keep it Together, but the arrangements are far superior to any other release the Tufts-born trio has to date. Possibly due to the fact that this is the band's inaugural attempt at self-production (directed through the keen eyes of Pisapia), Ganging sounds more mature, sleek, and stylish than ever before. Bluegrass-infused "The Captain" is one of the best songs the quartet has ever written, while album-closer "Hang On" has a verse-chorus-verse structure and accompanying harmony catchier than Bird Flu. In addition, both "Manifest Destiny," a simple piano and horn-led Brit-pop jam that openly jabs the lovingly sympathetic Bush administration, and aggressive "The New Underground" exhibit an eclectic style that has been previously unforeseen. Furthermore, ballad "Ruby Falls" and the lugubriously brooding opener "Lightning Rod" more than reinforce the point.
Lyrically, the brilliance continues as Ganging exemplifies lyricist Ryan Miller and company in their most political and sarcastic state, making each song just that much better. While the aforementioned "Manifest Destiny" criticizes the war on Iraq and thirst for oil in an impressively accessible way, slide guitar-driven single "One Man Wrecking Machine" sarcastically lambastes the American Dream for advertising exactly the opposite of what it delivers while focusing on Hollywood and the media's role in promulgating the ideological sludge. The song is damn catchy, too. Furthermore, distorted "The Beginning of the End" begins where "Manifest Destiny" left off, critically assessing Big Brother (not the TV show) for its role in myth-making and how democracy, in its current state, is "breaking us down." Showing sides of Velvet Underground and Joy Division influence never seen before, "The Beginning..." is a powerful, persuasive track that tells it like it is without shouting in the listener's face. That trait only comes with maturity, something which Pisapia contributed significantly.
While a fantastic record top-to-bottom, the only criticism I have is that percussionist Brian Rosenwercel plays drums instead of his usual instrument, as hand drums rarely make any appearance of note on the record. Possibly due to the fact that Rosenwercel's hands are falling apart after over a decade of smacking cymbals with his palms or possibly for stylistic reasons, the percussion is just not there. While it does not detract from the power of these pop gems, it takes a portion of Guster's uniqueness out of Guster. Lucky for them, they can write a pop song better than most.
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