Last week, Earhole unveiled a new series called Hidden Gems, where our writers unearth an album that may have escaped your attention, bringing it to light for you to enjoy. Better late than never, we always say. This week, Darren dug up some Aqueduct.
Aqueduct is an indie poppish band started by David Terry from his bedroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Terry relocated to music hotbed Seattle, Washington in 2003 and immediately ingrained himself in the city's scene. "Immediately" is not a misnomer here: Terry was opening for Modest Mouse only 12 hours after arriving in Seattle. Aqueduct has also played shows with Death Cab for Cutie and United State of Electronica, two other Seattle staples.
Terry expanded the band in Seattle; Aqueduct grew into a four-piece, and the complexity of their songs, especially the drums, grew with the size of the band. Both of Aqueduct's full-length records, I Sold Gold (2005) and Or Give Me Death (2007), are hook-heavy affairs with catchy lyrics and head-nod inducing beats played on actual drums instead of on a keyboard. Aqueduct hasn't been very active since 2007, which is a major reason I Sold Gold may not be on your music radar. I'm here to fix that.
Note: major shouts to my friend Emma for turning me on to Aqueduct 10 years ago.
I Sold Gold opens with a song that pretty effectively summarizes what Aqueduct is all about. "The Suggestion Box" is straight to the point, as its name suggests it should be. The instrumentation is pretty simple, with a repetitive piano riff and basic drum beat laying the foundation for a synth and Terry's vocals to build on. The lyrics aren't at all complex either. This is the whole song, lyrically:
Instead of beating me up, you should be giving me hope
Instead of bringing me down, you should be lifting me up
Instead of starting a fire, you should be heating things up
I'd never leave you there screaming for my love
That's it. Two-and-a-half minutes of straightforward simplicity that somehow doesn't sound formulaic. This is especially refreshing in the context of a lot of today's indie pop, which can feel a bit too interchangeable and anonymous.
The importance of drums to Aqueduct's sound becomes more evident in "Hardcore Days and Softcore Nights." If you listen closely to the instrumental part after the first chorus (starting at the 2:08 mark), you'll notice there are actually two drum tracks. Aqueduct leans on this technique frequently -- in fact, 2 of the 4 band members have "drums" listed as an instrument in their bios. The ability to combine complex drumming with relatively simple synth, piano, and/or guitar melodies is a key differentiator for Aqueduct.
The album continues with "Growing Up With GNR," a song in which Terry reminisces about the good old days of listening to Guns 'N' Roses. Way back when I was only 12, damn it all to hell, I was feelin' fine / Hearing Axl Rose on the radio singing "Sweet Child of Mine. Terry's character uses this memory in an attempt to escape from a breakup; he fails to escape. It's always about girls, man. The song opens and closes with lines about the girl. Welcome to the jungle, you're much too much to handle / I wish I weren't in love with you. We've all been there. Or maybe just me. Probably just me.
The back-to-back of "Heart Design" and "Five Star Day" is the album's sweet spot. "Heart Design" combines so much of what makes Aqueduct good: straightforward storytelling, bouncy breakdowns separating more subdued verses, synth and drums leading the way. Terry sings about the difficulty of letting love in, even if you think you've found the right person. The first verse captures this feeling perfeclty, but my favorite part is the final line: My heart is my own design, and I hope you keep that in mind when it's all over.
"Five Star Day" is another song about a girl making things difficult. Terry's character has more serious problems going on -- fearing my destiny, it seems I've shipwrecked myself before I ever left to sea -- but his chief complaint is his girl leaving and taking his five-star day with her. For a rock star, Terry has a lot of girl problems. (For an indie rock semi-star, Terry has the exact right amount of girl problems.) This makes his storytelling more accessible, though. He's not living some life we aren't familiar with; he's living our lives and making music about it. Listening to rich musicians talk about dealing coke, poppin' champange in the VIP, and going home with strippers is fun sometimes, but that is so far away from my life. Terry's got my problems.
"Five Star Day" showcases another of Aqueduct's go-to techniques. In the chorus, Terry's vocals follow the melody of the piano. Other people I've talked to go either way on this technique, but I like it. Whenever I attempt to write music, I always find myself doing this (more due to lack of talent than artistic choice). So, for me, it's a suggestion that maybe one day I'll be able to make good music.
The back half of I Sold Gold continues in very much the same vein. "Tension" is about getting in arguments with your girl and has one of the best lines of the album: how long is this tension going to last / I need some sort of refreshment. Terry's foray into girl problems continues in "The Unspeakable." I've lived my life so well / but you put me through hell / but it'll get better, my love / you left your sweater hung up in my heart / but I'll get better. That sweater probably smells like her, too. Damn.
"Frantic" is the odd ball of the album's in terms of Aqueduct's sound. It still feels like Aqueduct, but it's got the most elements of a popular indie song out of anything on I Sold Gold. It's guitar-driven, fast, and has a nice little groove, especially in the chorus. The most "accessible" song on the album is the outcast.
Terry closes the album with "The Tulsa Trap," a song in part about leaving Tulsa, but mostly about the rigors of being a musician. Damn, it takes a man, a modern man, to make the audio that you demand / record stop, record stop / now magically the music's in your hand. It’s a fun wrap up in the same vein as the album opener: straightforward and simple without fitting in to a box.
I Sold Gold is a record that knows exactly what it is. David Terry has girl problems and wants to tell us about it. Despite it being Aqueduct’s first full-length, the band is already clear and confident with its sound. Piano melodies, busy drumming, and wandering synth set the tone, and Terry settles in nicely in the middle. Aqueduct is not formulaic and manages to keep the listeners’ interest throughout the album. Press play and let Terry sing to you about what it’s like to to be an average dude.
However, in hindsight, it seems Terry may have fallen into the Tulsa Trap. He wasn't up for a whole lot of recording, which is a shame considering the talent of him and his band. The tides may be shifting though. Terry released a solo piano album last year, and according to the band's website, we're going to get more new music in 2015. I hope Aqueduct follows through; I say let the waters flow.