SINCERELY, SEVERELY (2009)
By Celia Almeida
If their newest album Bôa Noite lives up to the hype that the band and those who’ve heard excerpts from it have been building, it may not be the case much longer, but up until this point Sincerely, Severely has been the gold standard for a Morningbell album.
The band already wore their Beatles and Flaming Lips influences on their sleeve on their previous albums, but with Sincerely, Severely that list expanded to include Curtis Mayfield and Tom Waits among others. Adding funky soul to their already electrifying psychedelic sound proved to be a winning combination for the band. We love our sing-a-longs in Gainesville, but when this particular record came out I remember being struck by how quickly people learned the songs and how huge the sing-a-longs were for songs like “Marching of to War” and “Let’s Not Lose Our Heads.”
The latter kicks the album off with another kooky Morningbell idea. Those aren’t shakers you hear, they’re toothbrush percussion brought to you by Morningbell. In a time of Congressional scandal and incompetence and criminal behavior without consequences by those who steer the direction of our economy, “Let’s Not Lose Our Heads” is a much needed reminder to remain calm and release our frustration in more productive ways, like perhaps rocking out in the front row at a Morningbell show.
If Morningbell had hits, “Marching Off to War” would be first on the compilation album. It’s been an audience favorite since the album’s release. The song is driven by drums that call together an army of the same people being spoken to in “Let’s Not Lose Our Heads,” but reminds us to let life’s smaller unfortunate circumstances slide. “There’s no need to go marching off to war.”
“Hello Dali” (get it?) is an attempt at communication within a relationship where the two parties no longer understand one another. It’s an upbeat song that shines even brighter live, as it gives Morningbell plenty of opportunities to play with their foot-pedal-activated light show, but it’s most memorable for the refrain “Drums beat time, but no one beats time.” One of Atria’s greatest gifts as a songwriter is his ability to write lyrics that read like mantras or affirmations. One of my favorites is “Everything that you have ever done will matter.” “Dancing In the Jaws of a Lion” gives us yet another one: “Any town could be my home.”
“Soul Ma’am’s” nod to Sam and Dave is a punny reminder of the change in this album’s influences and direction. Atria temporarily puts down the space metaphors to send a simpler message, “Lay down next to me/Lay down next to me. Instead of leaving you should lay down next to me” while horns and “woo hoo hoo” harmonies beg along with him.
“Soul Ma’am” does the begging, but “Sincerely, Severely” gets the ladies into bed. Watching the crowd transition into this song at Morningbell’s shows is a social experiment in what music can do to get people physically closer. I’ve actually watched this happen from a vantage point slightly above the crowd at one particular show. The single people in the room become painfully conspicuous. I’ve seen drunk couples grind on each other and start sloppily making out by the time Travis sings “Only the good Lord knows what I wanna do.” Somehow “Placebo Torpedo” never quite had that effect on people. If you’re uncomfortably single you might want to take a bathroom break during this one or bring a very adventurous good friend to the show.
There’s a sneakier sensuality to the album standout “Stay In the Garden.” We’re shown a seedier side of some familiar characters: we spy the Holy Ghost stumbling out of a bar and he’s “higher than the Pope’s hat.” The song sounds like you might hear it drifting out of that smoky bar at 4 a.m. while somewhere else at around the same time, another man doesn’t want his night to end and pleads, “Oh, Eve, won’t you stay in the garden one more night with me?”
“Oh, Return” finds Morningbell reinterpreting “You Never Give Me Your Money” through the filter of their unique and, by this point, evolving but signature sound. Yes, only fools try to reinterpret the Beatles, but this is also the band that brings sellout crowds to High Dive on a regular basis with their Beatles cover band, The Shitty Beatles. Their efforts on this particular song result in one of the most gorgeous moments on the album and a highlight of their whole catalogue.
Sincerely, Severely is a document of a prolific time and a creative peak for the band. The most inspiring aspect of the album is the band’s audacity to make it. They could have stuck with the melodic, psychedelic rock songs that were already good enough, but their decision to dive into the world of soul music – falsetto, white suit, and all – took guts. The results could have been reductive at best and laughable at worst. Instead the leap resulted in one of the most beloved albums to ever come out of Gainesville, Florida.
As a treat for fans of the record, the We Are Angular and Beautiful EP contains six bonus songs from the Sincerely, Severely sessions. It can be downloaded for free on the band’s website morningbellonline.com. It’s saying something about the quality of an album when a song as great as “Love Is On the Way” doesn’t make the final cut and lands on a bonus EP instead.
It was going to be pretty difficult for Sincerely, Severely’s followup to beat its predecessor, so the band didn’t necessarily try to do that. Instead they made a shorter, nine track album (as opposed to Sincerely’s fourteen) that in a sense nods back to their first album by playing less like a cohesive album and more like a strong collection of songs that shows what the band can do now. It’s a sort of update and reintroduction to the band after undergoing their stylistic changes.
While the band didn’t actively set out to trump Sincerely, Severely musically, that does not mean that they slacked in any way on pushing innovations for this album. Morningbell is a band that is constantly trying to outdo itself and climb to another creative level. For Basso Profundo”s release, the band decided to forego traditional album hard copies in the form of CD’s. Instead they released the album on a custom, limited-run USB complete with the full album, a bonus four song EP [including covers of The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” and The Cardigans’ “Lovefool”], high quality band photos and album art, and even personalized recipes from the band.
The band may not have set out to outdo Sincerely, Severely, but their efforts resulted in an album that many of my friends call their favorite. Some of Morningbell’s best and most fully realized songs are found on this album.
One of these songs is “I Could Use A Little Help.” Morningbell doesn’t get much funkier and sexier than this. “I got my arms, I got my legs/I got my arms and my legs/And I can use them to walk away/I got my heart, I got my head/It holds my brain and I can use them to make you stay.” I believe it. The bass and guitar lines on this track force their ways to the forefront but allow space for more delicate elements in the song to have their moment, notably the string outro. That string part is like the Song of the Sirens for my sister and me. We’ve set out to listen to the album as a whole and ended up getting sucked into rewinding that part over and over or replaying the song for an hour because of that string part alone. Every time it ends we want to hear it again.
It’s worth moving on, though. There are so many more places to go. The next song fades in with the sound of bongos rushing towards you, joined by the sound of a heavy, distorted guitar, and suddenly Travis Atria is singing in French. The song is “Hats Off to You, Josephine Baker,” an ode to the singer, actress, and civil rights luminary. The song is a fuzzed out track with tinges of Afro-pop, a pre-chorus backed by twinkling keys, and an over the top, humorous crescendo. The song comes in at just under three minutes but goes in three times as many directions.
Immediately after that, the band reminds us on “Stick With It” that just because they can bounce around that much within one song, doesn’t mean they have to or will. They can get into a groove and ride it out for a bit. The instrumental breakdown on this track includes lazy horns that respond to the tension in the guitar lines. After letting loose on “Sincerely, Severely,” Travis doesn’t hold back his libidinal howling much anymore and you get plenty of it on this track.
The instrumentation and arrangements on Basso Profundo are the best to date for Morningbell. The instrumental breakdowns on the album strike an almost classical balance between sounding as if they’ve been meticulously arranged without coming off as rigid. The breakdown in Basso Profundo‘s title track drags you down like a rip current and is a key example of this balance. It remains to be seen how Bôa Noite will stack up against Basso in this sense, but with some songs on the new record consisting of up to 150 layered tracks, the band will surely be trying to one-up themselves once again.
Morningbell makes introspective but celebratory music. Their Facebook profile and Forgetting to Wake Up booklet read, “Morningbell is a rock band that wants you to be a happy person. Please be nice to people today!” They’ve never made a happier sounding song than “Hey Man, Hallelujah!” Don’t be fooled, though. They’re up to their old tricks again, dressing up lyrics of despair in joyous melodies. The whole song is written begging a lover to come back home. Still, no one would blame you for missing that point while jumping around and screaming along to the song at their live shows.
The album closes with “The Keeper of the Key,” and rightly so, ’cause it’s about damn time Travis Atria wrote a hymn. You feel the sting when Atria sings “I’ve been a lucky man, but I know what it is to suffer,” and when the horns come in to bring the song home you’ll sink in your chair, close your eyes and go back to a time when that sentiment rang true for you.
Listen: “I Could Use A Little Help,” “Hats Off To You, Josephine Baker,” “Hey Man, Hallelujah!” “Keeper of the Key”
Celia Almeida is a proud Gainesville music supporter and regular at local shows. A graduate of the University of Florida in English, she is a contributor to The Rock Blog on Rock104.com and is the clichéd music writer in that she herself says she has no musical talent. She has decided to focus her obsessive personality productively by writing about music and those who create it. She once briefly sang with Lady Gaga. Her “Morningbell’s #1 Fan” T-Shirt is one of her most prized possessions. She is “Just a Fan.” Check out her music blog at http://radioroadmusic.tumblr.com/.Share on social media