A LISTENER’S GUIDE TO MORNINGBELL’S ALBUMS
I remember my first Morningbell show so clearly.
I’d seen the Shitty Beatles the week before at the Orange and Brew, as part of a larger Reitz Union Board (RUB) Entertainment Beatles event. Like every massive Beatles fan going out to their first Shitty Beatles show, I was curious but skeptical. Like every massive Beatles fan a few minutes into their first Shitty Beatles show, I was fully converted by right around the second song.
At the end of the set they mentioned that some of the lineup (Travis Atria on guitar and vocals, Eric Atria on bass and Chris Hillman on drums, joined by Stacie Atria on keyboards) would be playing original songs at the same venue next week. I had read about Morningbell in local publications and heard that they’d played Bonnaroo, and now that I’d witnessed some of their impressive musicianship with the Shitty Beatles, I decided to check them out. The show was free and I lived in the dorm right next door.
I stood in the front row, close enough to know that the first Morningbell song I ever heard was “Faster Than Eagles, Stronger Than Lions.” (I peeked at the set list once I realized I liked their sound.) They closed the show with a cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” with the band banging away at drums while the strobe lights from their signature 100 Dollar Light Show blinded us.
After the show I remember going up to Travis Atria (singer/songwriter/guitarist/musical genius) and telling him that I’d read about them a few times the previous year but never quite made it out to a show (“something always came up”) and how much their set had made me regret it. I didn’t know back then that I’d soon be planning my schedule around their shows for years to come.
I bought a couple of Morningbell pins for a dollar and got a complimentary copy of their second album, Forgetting to Wake Up, with my purchase.
I played this album out. I lived in the dorms at the time, and my roommate started singing along to the songs because I would play the CD all day. I played the record as soon as I would (remember to) wake up, while I got ready for school, I even got to the point where I played it on repeat every night while I slept.
A few years back, I used to say that Morningbell was my favorite local band. Now, going on five years as a fan I can say that Morningbell are one of my favorite bands period. They are constantly evolving and endlessly innovative when it comes to their music, the ways in which they put out their music, and their live performances.
To the point, Morningbell will premiere their new album, Bôa Noite, with two listening parties at the Kika Silva Pla Planetarium at Santa Fe College on Saturday, April 6th. The premiere has proven to be a hot ticket locally; both the 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. showings are now sold out.
If you need to brush up on your Morningbell records in preparation before the new one drops, check out this album listening guide while you wait.
Morningbell released their first album ten years ago next year, but many of the songs, like “Underwater” and “Harmoniums”, still hold up among the band’s best, and songs like the title track and “I Found Jesus (Hiding Underneath the Bed)” remain live staples to this day.
The album begins with “Underwater,” a song that immediately sweeps you underneath like quicksand into Travis Atria’s feelings of doubt and disillusion with the uncertain world around him; a world full of fickle friends and communication breakdowns in relationships.
“Why don’t I feel better yet?” Atria sings, “When I clearly remember making myself forget.”
To this day, “Underwater” is one of the songs where Morningbell most vividly created and captured a mood. The song sounds like the moment where you know you’re going to drown but desperation has given way to resignation as Atria sings, “The more I learn, the less I believe/The more I lose, the less I need/If I lose you, what else do I need?”
With the second track on the record, the beautiful “Mars (It’s All Right)”, the band lets you know right up front something that you will need to know about much of Morningbell’s early output: you are going to hear a lot of songs about outer space. They never get quite to Robert Plant Rambling On about Middle Earth level, but space clearly inspires awe in Atria and provides countless metaphors through which he tries to make sense of his world.
“Lightning Bolts” is a song whose swinging melody and carefree horn solo initially obscure some real fear: “I have reason to believe that God’s got lightning bolts in His hands/And they’re aimed straight for my head/But He said ‘dodge this one if you can.'”
“The Dope Illusion” is a jarring musical attack on the senses, especially after the breeziness of “Lightning Bolts.” I think if I’d never been to a Morningbell show I’d probably still envision fragmented images in pitch darkness lit only by strobe lights while hearing this song as Atria sings “I fell awake from this dream/Things aren’t what they seem” in the midst of musical chaos.
The band shows some Sympathy for the Savior on “I Found Jesus (Hiding Underneath the Bed),” a song in which Jesus succumbs to the anxiety of having the weight of the world on his shoulders and begins to doubt himself. To try to cheer him up, the narrator picks up poisonous snakes to prove his faith, to which Jesus replies, “If you’re trying to impress me, don’t bother; you think you’re so great. Well I’d like to see you walk on water. I invented that shit.”
The sweet “We Are Aliens” is a tribute to musical gods that were gone too soon: Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and John Lennon; and the unrealized ideas that they took with them when they left our world. At this point on the album Morningbell have gone through so many musical styles and vastly diverse songs that you wonder if they’re worried about leaving any musical ideas unfinished like their heroes did. You know how they say bands try to put everything they know on their first album just in case they don’t get to make another one? Learning By Musical Montage is one of the best examples of this I’ve ever heard. The album title is fitting already, and then you get the Marley-inspired reggae breakdown in “We Are Aliens,” just in case they missed anything.
Atria seems to address some of these fears on the album’s title track. “Tomorrow, we might all just disappear/Close your eyes and open them/Nothing would be there.” He wonders whether he and his loved ones will continue to exist in some form after they leave this world. “Yesterday, still exists somewhere in space/In the form of light waves hurtling away/We’ll follow them out so you can see/If we exist forever or turn into nothing.” He reassures, “If I make it there before, I’ll wait for you/If you make it there before, wait for me.”
“Learning By Musical Montage” is also special for Morningbell fans because if you’ve been to enough of their shows, you picture the band wearing their light glasses and Christmas Light Jackets as soon as you hear it.
Listen: Underwater, Harmoniums, Learning By Musical Montage