You've got a lot to live up to when you name your band after not one, but two, individuals with brilliant minds. Such is the case for the Long Island, New York-based band known as Edison Glass. This is a semi-independent modern rock outfit who coined their name as a tribute to inventor Thomas Edison (most famous for the lightbulb) and modern-day composer Philip Glass (most famous for a neo-classical approach involving repetitive, minimalist structures). At the very least, this moniker evokes a cerebral approach. It sets audience expectations pretty high - to pay tribute to those guys, you've gotta be doing something fairly brilliant, right?
Well, "brilliant" in this case is in the eye of the beholder. I think these guys demonstrate a good amount of brainpower in terms of their sometimes oblique style of songwriting, one which pays reverence to the open-ended mystery of God, and which contrasts it with the limited thinking frequently exhibited by mankind. They also show a bit of wit in the composition department, deftly guiding a few of their songs through somewhat tricky time signature changes and various moods. At the same time, their approach isn't entirely unfamiliar - you can more or less guess where they're going if you're used to the jangly, do-it-yourself approach of other modern rock acts who deftly walk the line between radio-ready hooks and a stripped-down, indie rock aesthetic. Think House of Heroes, or perhaps The Juliana Theory with less sneer (and no keyboards). Maybe even a little bit of Jimmy Eat World before they really hit it big. The fact is that it isn't that difficult to take a simple combo of guitar-dums-bass, throw some cerebral lyrics on top of it, and call yourself a thinking man's rock band. And this isn't at all a bad thing - it's just that it takes a few tries for Edison Glass to stand out in an admittedly crowded landscape.
But you will get a lot of musical goodness out of this band if you pay attention. What they may lack in diversity, they make up for in ingenuity - their personal quirks stand out in the trading off between dual vocalists, the spirited shouts that punctuate a few songs, the angular and occasionally dissonant guitars, and a nimble-fingered drummer and bass player who provide a wonderfully fluid rhythm section. It's not "hard" rock (even though it was mislabeled as such at my local friendly Christian bookstore), it's not jagged enough to be "alternative" rock, it sure as heck isn't "punk" or "metal" or anything "-core", and it's slightly too produced to comfortably call it "indie". But it ain't straight-up rock & roll, either, so I'm at a loss regarding categorization here. Occasionally you'll hear embellishments such as strings or horns, or they'll change up the tone of the guitars to do something more pensive, but for the most part, they stay pretty focused on the core elements that make your usual "rock band" lineup.
A lot of their songs are going to sound like a bit of a jumble at first - at least, they did to my ears. It takes a few spins to begin to recall which catchy little musical bits or which mind-teasing snippets of lyrics came from which songs. Once you've found those, they become like the pieces at the edge of the puzzle from which the mind begins to build inwards, mapping out the album and appreciating the individual songs as a whole, one by one. This was how I was able to slowly fall in love with the band's second full-length album, Time Is Fiction, which is now an early contender for my year-end Top 10 list.
Last night, I awoke to an opera house
Filled with empty seats
Performing Einstein on the beach...
The band's most compact, infectious little song is placed right upfront - it isn't usually their style to be this grabby, to have these little guitar riffs that seem to be jumping up and down like a little kid in a big crowd shouting, "Ooh, pick me! Pick me!", but it's certainly a fun way to spend 2 minutes and 15 seconds. It's actually a bit ironic - for a song that's so glaringly catchy, even to the point of having a little "Ba-da-da" sing-along near the end that the other guys join in on, there doesn't appear to be any sort of a chorus or refrain to grab on to. That leaves the jumpy guitars, the excitable shouts here and there, and the unpredictable time signature changes that show up as the song begins to unravel, as the main hooks - and it totally works. It's basic power pop goodness in a rather unconventional package - all with the intent of inviting the listener to let go of their stress and their need to control everything, a theme which will be explored again later in the album.
Don't sew our hearts together
Love will be our friend
We'll dance again with no reason
And no one'll be shunned...
So I mentioned that this album seemed like a bit of a jumble at first... I think a lot of the blame for that rests on a pair of rockers that are reasonably good, but that don't stand out as much to me compared to the others. This is the first such example - a song which keeps the tempo up and the musical mood rather edgy, has a fairly easy-to-understand metaphor about God bringing warmth to the coldness of human hearts, and which has a much more noticeable chorus that is quite easy to sing along with, thanks to the fervor with which the two vocalists team up to eagerly plea, We need warmth to come!" It just doesn't quite carry the same urgency or inventiveness as some of the other songs, so to me, it's more of a bridge to the better stuff that lies ahead.
Without a Sound
Don't just sit there
Or think you run too slow
I could be your ghost
I can run from you, too...
This one would probably jump out at me more if not for a mood and tempo similar to the song preceding it, but it's gradually managed to worm its way into my mind due to its rather stubborn insistence on ratcheting up the noisy dissonance. It's like an off-key pop/punk tune, with one of the lead Joshuas (yeah, both guys have the same first name) sounding almost a bit snotty due to the way that his rather thin voice warps the words and the notes that he's singing. It gives the song character, and it sort of fits the wrestling that happens within the lyrics, which portray an internal struggle, a control freak fighting to resist his usual urge to micromanage everything. (Maybe that's what it means, anyway. The lyrics here rank among the group's more puzzling statements.) In between all of the bending, thrashy guitars, the band's drummer actually becomes rather prominent with some rather tricky rolls and fills that help to take the band through another cute little time signature detour during the bridge.
End of You
Oh, nothing here makes sense
Or could there be some music in the math
Am I too far to see?
Is it just out of my reach?
This track slows things down a tad, but adds a slight air of mystery due to the garbled backing vocals that trade musings back and forth with the lead, and the rather feisty backbeat that propels the whole thing. It's willing dive into a place where things don't make sense, a poetic acknowledgment of God's ways being higher than ours, and that no amount of struggling with doubt or trying to shrug off difficult truths can place a person outside of God's sovereignty: "I could see all the things I've seen, and never reach the end of You". It's hard to explore infinite concepts within the finite constraints of a three-minute rock song, but Edison Glass does a good job of combining their kinetic, instrumental energy with a sense of wide-open space in this song. I love the way that it very suddenly peters out into atonal feedback, and then there's a quick count-off on the drums, and then we come crashing into the next song without warning.
All Our Memories
All your breaths are marked with paranoia
But still you satisfy nothing
Our regret and all this weight
If you feel the love, then forgive me
And you'll see what happens next year...
This would be one of the band's most schizophrenic tunes, and also one of their more embellished and produced numbers - you just wouldn't guess it from the messy way that they come tumbling into the verse, keeping a steady rhythm while trying to deceive you into thinking they're doing anything but. There's a fiery restlessness to it, that strangely settles into a calm, collected, almost romantic rhythm of 6/8 (which was really the time signature all along) for the sweeping chorus, which finds one of the Joshes pining, "O to be more than lovely! I can't save all our memories of us". It's the way that he draws out the word "us" into a great many syllables, the notes circling around like a bird in the sky, while a string section brings a total sense of elation to soothe the restlessness, that makes this song a work of genius. It's like having such a love/hate relationship with someone that you don't know whether to do a mushy slow-dance with the person, or start a fistfight with them.
When I was a boy, who lifted me so I could see
Above all the things height has restricted?
Oh, maybe someday I'll be a man...
One of only two ballads on the album follows, and it's a bit of a letdown after the dazzling heights that the previous song rose to. A big part of the problem is due to the subdued lead guitar, which sounds like an electric guitar played without much distortion, with kind of a dry tone to it - I honestly prefer the acoustic in a mellower setting such as this. The song's got one of those melodies that seems to wander aimlessly, not always quite sure when it's the appropriate time to move onto the next line of lyrics. I get that it's a more reflective song about the awkward phase in between boyhood and manhood, and that a guy's nervously facing up to his own destiny, but it takes too long for the feeling behind the words to really sink in - which it finally starts to when the full band builds up behind this simple arrangement of light guitar and drums, even bringing a horn section into the mix. Then the song starts to show off its dazzling colors, but it also starts to feel like a misguided attempt at doing something sort of "jazzy". It's an exploratory detour that doesn't totally work.
See Me Through
Not unambiguous, components of deceit
The inner workings, motivation's replete...
A ghostly fade-in brings us another sudden transition into a shimmering and surprisingly melodic guitar intro that, unfortunately, isn't enough to hold together a bit of a disjointed song. On the one hand, it feels like the band wanted to do a cascading, Britpop sort of thing, playing a simple but engrossing aural celebration of Gods provision for man in times of trouble, but on the other hand, it feels like their usually appealing desire to muck around with time signatures and strip most of the instrumentation down to the basics got applied to the wrong song. Consequently, both verses feel like they were dropped in from somewhere else, with their fuzzy, ambling bass lines and a rhythm that my brain can never quite seem to grab a hold of. It doesn't seem like the sing-along moment has genuinely been earned when they suddenly shift from this back to the easygoing refrain. So this one comes out in between - not terrible to listen to, but it doesn't have the right amount of "oomph" to bring us back up after the severe detour that was "Chances", either.
The Jig Is Up
How can you say the warmth makes you?
How can you say your sight leads you home?
A good dose of the feisty energy that made "Let Go" (and to a lesser extent, "Without a Sound") stand out reappears here, in another reverent song that feels like a case of push-and-shove between a willing heart and a stubborn mind, both taking their turns saying, "Yes, God, I trust You" and "No way, I'm doing my own thing". This would be the closest that the band comes to sounding like a "hard" rock act, due to the semi-fierce shouts that start to worm their way in to what sounded like a fairly smooth, melodic rocker at first. This one also has its pitfalls, its points where the reflective moments seem like they've been forced into what should have been a more rambunctious performance. Fortunately, this is the last point on the album where I feel "iffy" about any of the songs.
Our Bodies Sing
If sound wasn't in existence, and nothing could be heard
Our bones, they would still echo gracefully in turn...
Here's a smoother, more pop-oriented rock song that sticks to its guns and comes out better for it. It's got a simple but driving melody, and some subtle but clever lyrics that take the time to really unpack the analogy of the body as an instrument. It's basically the band's way of saying that it we had no voices, no clattering drums and noisy guitars, no conventional means to praise God, nature itself would still provide the song that needed to be sung. Plenty of Christian bands have expressed this idea, but few have really played out the metaphor in such detail - these guys are clearly musicians at heart, judging from the way that they write a song about the particular elements such as melody and tempo that constitute music.
Children in the Streets
We are the slaves of humanity
Forget about what we need
It's only what we think we need
The home stretch made up by the album's final three songs is where I think the band puts in their most poignant effort, lyrically speaking. From the simple but persistent "Thump! Thump!" on the drums that gets gradually louder until the entire band kicks in, and the way that the line, "Children in the streets!" is thrown in your face right at the beginning, it's pretty obvious that this is a protest song. And it's not one that lets the listener off easy. Take this for starters: "There's more than enough to feed this world. We close our eyes and choke on opulence." It's hard to swallow those words, coming from fellow citizens of the richest country on Earth. But on some gut level, I know I can't argue. What to do about it remains a question - it's one thing to protest widespread global poverty, and quite another to exercise ingenuity and take steps to combat the problem. Solving the problem isn't so much the concern of this song - it's more about getting us to face a problem that's quite easy to turn a blind eye to. We take what we have for granted while pretending that others don't have to go without, or that those who do deserve to do so because they didn't try hard enough. Or whatever the rationale is. This song just wants us to stop getting away with not caring. And it's not all yelling and screaming and guilt trips - the band is very careful to express everything in "we" terms, appealing to basic human decency and saying they've been guilty of the crime of just wanting more for themselves as much as anyone. The little details of this song get me pretty excited, too - it's not just a "message song" where the music takes a backseat. Intricate, fluid guitar lines run throughout, little electronic touches give the bridge a distant, cold feel, and the repeated cry, "Will anyone ever care about anyone besides themselves?" is perfectly designed to fit perfectly behind the song's chorus, making it a one-two punch that is nearly impossible to ignore.
Jean Val Jean
It's a battle between just and good
What you know is right, what you know you should
Will good overcome religion?
Anyone's who is familiar with Les Miserables will immediately recognize the titular character in this song - and personally, I'm no fan of musical theatre, but the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel would be one of the few works of the genre that I do recognize and respect. This character is a criminal, a man who change from being a petty thief into a much more redemptive character, one who is confronted with the weight of grace and the meaning of offering that grace to someone else who does not deserve it. At least, that's Edison Glass's interpretation of his story, and it's played out against a surprisingly gentle, almost innocently "cute" guitar melody that rings out as if it came from a keyboard. Actually, there might be a bit of piano in here, but either way, it's the band's lightest song by far, and it's quite a lush, beautiful moment of rest and reflection amidst a dense, busy song cycle. The high-pitched but soothing vocals add to that mood, and it's easy to imagine this man's epiphany, and how floored he is by realizing that he has this choice regarding who will win the "battle between grace and pride". (Interestingly, that same line about grace and pride shows up in Jars of Clay's song "Worlds Apart", and I'd be interested to know if Edison Glass is paying homage to a classic moment in Christian rock music here, or if both bands culled from the same source.)
Time Is Fiction
I stay up late, look at the pages
Where rhythms are made by the scratch of a pen
Watching you leave, I look at your movements
A beauty that sings from the song in your heart...
The final song brings back the aura of mystery for another exploration of the limitlessness of God, a being to whom a millennium can pass as if it were a second. It's a brooding, minor key song that expresses a relentless desire to know and understand that which can never completely be known and understood. It's a beautiful closing statement, filled with dramatic, reflective pauses, shining moments of clarity, joyous shouts, and one last dose of melodic guitar work to remind the listener that these guys can create a lot of atmosphere using just a few simple instruments. Much like Sixpence None the Richer's eloquent praise poem "Melody of You", this tune seeks to express in artistic language what cannot easily be expressed in everyday prose. Of course, there's only time to just barely scratch the surface, but the song seems to be about the experience of barely scratching the surface and knowing there's infinite possibility within this willingness to explore the heart and mind of God, so I'm OK with that. Surprisingly, for a song on this subject which is the closing track and the title track of the album, the band doesn't play it as a sprawling epic. One thing that this band doesn't seem to like doing is repeating themselves a lot. They make their point, they tack on a few question marks or exclamation points, and then they come to a quick climax or fade out and that's that. As much as I like over-the-top prog-rock epics sometimes, I can respect their approach here.
And that's Time Is Fiction in a nutshell - a precarious balance between zippy indie pop, reflective moments of spiritual clarity, and slight bits of exploratory deviation from the norm just for the sake of not being too predictable. Edison Glass takes longer to grab the ear than they do to grab the mind - but once they do, they don't let go of either very easily.
Let Go $2
Cold Condition $1
Without a Sound $1
End of You $1.50
All Our Memories $2
See Me Through $.50
The Jig Is Up $1
Our Bodies Sing $1
Children in the Streets $1.50
Jean Val Jean $1.50
Time Is Fiction $1.50
Joshua Silverberg: Vocals, guitar
Josh Morin: Vocals, bass
James Usher: Guitar
Joe Morin: Drums