In the spring of 200
5 4 5 I really think it was 2004 it must have been 2005, I was driving up to the Gerbe's in Columbia (read: still the best grocery store ever) when a rare set of lyrics, rendered with unusual tunefulness, caught my ear:
... Before time takes each year
Like a knife cuts it clear
It's school then work and then life, and that just sharpens the blade
I think about time for fun
I think about time for play
Then I think about being done with no resume
With no one left to blame
What about fortune and fame? ...
It's like what John Mayer was trying to say in No Such Thing! I thought. I sat in my car while the song finished. Carbon Leaf? I didn't really like that other song of theirs [Life Less Ordinary], but THIS ... this was about as perfect as radio music could be.
I went on to discover a bunch of old songs on their website (HOW COOL, I thought, THEY ACTUALLY WANT TO SHARE THEIR STUFF) and an abiding love for Carbon Leaf was born. I was not at first super-impressed with many of their pre-major label releases -- CL's sound turned a corner when they went pro -- but they grew on me after a while, making up in sheer enthusiasm what they lacked in intricacy, finding things in apparently simple tunes that only revealed themselves after repeated listening.
After about a year I made it to a live show at the Blue Note. I was, of course, blown away, and spent several minutes after the set ended standing around listening to Scott Milstead talk about drumsticks with a fan and shook some people's hands and told them they were awesome. Because = true. Within the week I had gone by the Friendly Local Record Store and pre-ordered their forthcoming album, Love Loss Hope Repeat.
I had high hopes for LLHR. If Carbon Leaf got as awesome as they did between Echo Echo and Indian Summer, how much more awesome would they have gotten over the intervening couple of years? What phenomenal auditory wonders did they have in store for me?
Well ... not very many. The album was fine. Just ... fine. My mind was not blown. My world was not rocked. The lyrics felt cliched, trying too hard for the poetry and poignancy and wistfulness and honest assertion of the simple goodness of life that illuminated their other work. I definitely didn't feel like it measured up to their old stuff, let alone what I knew of Indian Summer. It just didn't jive.
I thought of all the old-school Carbon Leaf fans being annoyed with how the sound changed when they signed with a label. I thought of a disappointed critique that called the recent endeavor "mom-rock". I thought of one of my favorite webcomics and how it had really taken a turn for the worse when its author quit his day job (as Carbon Leaf had done) and lost contact with the world outside his art (as I was worried they were doing). As LLHR mashed around in my head with the rest of the albums, I would open iTunes and find myself looking for the songs I really liked in their older discs, Echo Echo or Shadows in the Banquet Hall.
I also remembered reading in Blender somewhere that sophomore albums on a label are often subpar but that bands can and do rebound from them. I clung to that hope, but Carbon Leaf were already seasoned musicians by that point, having already put out 4 full length albums and a two-disc live album. It seemed odd for things to go off-kilter suddenly. When it was announced about a year later, in extremely shady terms, that drummer and founding member Scott Milstead was no longer going to be with the group, I was positive that CL had jumped the shark, that the band I loved was now a closed chapter. At their LDOC performance last year, Barry looked ... I told myself he just looked exhausted, but frankly, he looked kind of coked out [I am as worried about my favorite musicians turning to drugs as I would be about my friends], and the whole performance felt phoned in. The announcement in August that bassist Jordan Medas was also leaving the band (though it sounded much more aboveboard) almost seemed redundant. Who could blame him? And it's not like things could get much worse at this point.
So when I saw Carbon Leaf scheduled at the Lincoln for the day after my birthday, I put on a happy face and tried to get excited. At the very least, I was still happy to support the band. At the very best, I was hoping for a miracle -- but I didn't really expect one. There were actually a few moments during the evening when I considered bagging the whole idea, feeling like I probably wouldn't miss much.
But I already had my ticket, so we went. The Lincoln was full but not crowded; the stage was covered in Christmas decorations -- two trees, lights on the drumset, garland and Santa hats on this and that. The opening act was not so bad as to make me want to stab myself in the ears. And then the waiting.
and then ...
IT WAS AMAZING!
A few new songs, a few tweaks of older songs, and a lot of old favorites with new life, not sounding like they'd been played at every show for the last 10 years (even though they probably have.) There was not a single disappointment in the bunch. I didn't even feel ripped off at the omissions. The music had presence and certainty, like "We know you've heard it this way since 1999, but here's how it's REALLY supposed to be." It was joyful and reflective and bittersweet and lively. Barry, Terry, and Carter were at the top of their game on stage banter. They were having a damn good time, and they invited us all in so enthusiastically that we couldn't possibly say no. They reclaimed what was theirs and made it their own again -- their own in the moment, not their own from the glory days of 2002.
The new release is just a couple months away and I can't wait. Carbon Leaf is back.
"Did you take a picture?" Josh says. "You should include it." This one's probably the least blurry, taken right before a sweet unplugged encore of Learn to Fly (anyway I'm pretty sure that's what it was). You can see the festive lights :) (And very little else.)