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Growing up in Joplin, Missouri, Magnolia Summer vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Grabau suffered through the same boredom countless small-town kids face. As he puts it, with not much to do, "we got together and either did incredibly stupid stuff or played some music." But in between hours of garage-based noodling with friends, Grabau discovered punk rock thanks to some neighbors who weren't exactly thrilled with his musical choices.
"I remember I was listening to Van Halen, and they stopped throwing rocks at us long enough to tell us that we should listen to this stuff," Grabau recalls wryly. "They gave me a mixtape of, like, the Clash, the Police. Even the Violent Femmes were considered really punk back then.
"It was one of those mind-blowing, life-changing things. Dead Kennedys, Butthole Surfers, Sex Pistols. They just would feed all these stupid young kids next door to them stuff because they couldn't stand that we were listening to 'Panama' in our backyard. It was music that was made on your own terms, stuff that people made themselves. There was this sort of DIY aesthetic about punk rock at that time that I got."
Grabau's assertion that this attitude still influences him today makes sense when considering Magnolia Summer's origins. The group originally started as a loose recording project, a collective of musicians who shared ideas and words with each other. From these interactions came their 2003 debut, Levers and Pulleys, an album whose spacious songs and spare violin reflected the nature of the sessions.
Unexpectedly, constructing Pulleys actually helped Magnolia Summer coalesce into a full-fledged band albeit one that never lost this spirit of camaraderie. Witness their current lineup, which includes a veritable all-star cast of St. Louis musicians: Bottle Rockets guitarist John Horton, Ring, Cicada drummer Aaron Zeveski, Linemen bassist Greg Lamb and Waterloo vocalist-songwriter Mark Ray. (Grabau is also in Waterloo.) With a solid group in place, Grabau naturally approached recording Magnolia Summer's sophomore album, From Driveways' Lost View, from a collaborative perspective.
"I wanted to make a band record," he says. "I'm very fortunate to have such a great group of friends to play music with. I wanted to make a document that hinted at that music relationship, and also the relationship of a working band. I tried to use these songs as a means to carry that through."
To that end, the basic tracks for View were laid down as a band starting in late 2004, with overdubs added later at various home studios around town. The end result is an engaging album that bursts with movement: Guitars strut like a marching drum major whether bashing out gnarled rock or picking out dusky twang as bass, organ, piano and even strings provide subtler currents of melody and mood. A little bit Wilco's ragged storytelling, sometimes Built to Spill's noisy-jumpy indie rock, often R.E.M.'s Out of Time-era regal jangle, View isn't afraid to smash expectations or transcend genres.
"[View] has a lot more colors to the palette," Grabau agrees. "[We're] a rock band, so you have the prerogative to make really quiet songs and really loud songs. Whatever's necessary to carry the song across. I wanted this concise rock record that has some songs that were really louder in scope, louder in focus than the first one. But I didn't want the record to be relentless. I'm not always a rock writer, the band always doesn't play rock songs. That's where the ebb and flow comes in."
Equally up-and-down are View's lyrics, in the sense that they distill the confusion of your twenties a period often marked by feeling unsettled and unmoored. Grabau's expressive croon jumps out of the music: "Please stay," he pleads on the rootsy "Lost in the Way." "It's gonna be a bad break," he frets on "Words for War," as plush piano encircles simple acoustic guitar riffs. And on the lively highlight "Once in a While," he tries to figure out where things went wrong: "How can I explain, that nothing's the same? Don't tell me why do we change, every passing day. Once in awhile...." At this Grabau's voice trails off, repeating the last phrase wistfully. If Pulleys used whispered fragility to push its points across, View takes vulnerability and alternately embraces, laments and questions it.
"The record is about a love that owns you but is never completely fulfilled, loved ones you find yourself torn away from because of the daily complexities of life that constantly drive you away," Grabau says. "[It's] about work that sustains you but never completely delivers, about friends that you never seem to have enough time to connect with; about decisions that are made out of necessity; about a government that doesn't represent you and provides no solace whatsoever; about closed doors you can't reopen; a neighborhood that is never quite a home; and about words that never seem to come out right."
While this all might seem rather depressing, in truth View is a comforting trek through such melancholy. And Grabau doesn't want the album to be seen as a downer of a disc. "I hope that somewhere within this record, there's a faint positive light, a glimmer of hope that someday, another day, will reveal a better day one where all of your hope is met with some kind of resolution."
In a sense, insisting on tucking away messages of hope and optimism in the face of what seems to be formidable hopelessness is very punk rock of Magnolia Summer. And while such sophistication often doesn't come until far along in a band's career, consider Grabau's band still a work-in-progress.
"I don't think the band is one particular thing," he says. "The band is a progression musically. I'd like to build a body of work that highlights that progression. Not to say that we're going to put out some death-metal music the next record, but I hope the record hints at an evolution of sound and songwriting.
"If I was a painter, you would always exhibit your most recent work and hope that your work doesn't discredit what you did before but [be] a continuation of it and an evolution of it. Painters tend to take different directions. What remains is a constant theme or a vision of insight. I would hope this record would remain true to what's insightful to me or what I tend to be about musically and at the same time not be a rehash of what's been done."