The Free Years's Debut Album For a Limited Time Is a Synth-Heavy Slab of Dance Pop 

click to enlarge For a Limited Time brings high-energy, danceable music with plenty of memorable hooks. - LEIGH HALSEY
  • LEIGH HALSEY
  • For a Limited Time brings high-energy, danceable music with plenty of memorable hooks.
About five years ago, as Matt Kavanagh was getting ready to release a record with his old band Palace, the head of the label had a small request before pressing the album.

“When I talked to the label owner, he didn’t say it was unlistenable or anything, but he said that he wanted to make it radio-friendly and re-record some stuff,” Kavanaugh recalls.



That “I don’t hear a single” line may seem like the kind of power-move reserved for ledger-dwelling A&R men, but Kavanagh and company were happy enough to comply. Palace, a ’60s-indebted pop group that mixed twee affectations and boy-girl vocal interplay with Kavanagh’s occasionally confessional lyrics, ended up releasing that record, but dissolved shortly thereafter. After a number of line-up changes and a roster that swelled to eight people at one point, Kavanagh simply didn’t have the energy to keep up with the pace of fronting a many-membered band with multiple personnel shifts.

“I was going through this same process of re-teaching the songs to new members and then having to relive those songs,” Kavanagh says. “I was just over it.”

So rather than soldier on with the umpteenth version of Palace, Kavanagh and drummer Danny Hill joined up with Ryan Meyers, who had played in the band Dots Not Feathers. Together, they fused their love of 1980s synth-heavy production into the Free Years.

If Palace wasn’t exactly radio-ready, the Free Years has overcompensated with its ultra-clean sheen of bubbly synths, tightly compressed drums and falsetto vocals. On its debut recording For a Limited Time, the band channels the disco-hangover of Chromeo through the Swedish hit-making machinery that producers like Max Martin have weaponized.

“I wanted to get away from that twee-pop and that ’60s influence. I wanted to do something more modern,” Kavanagh says.

If the Free Years sacrificed the live, loose energy of its members old bands, the new palette lets Kavanagh perform at his expressive best. He’s always been an emotive singer, and the grid-like patterns on a track like “Step by Step” require a bit more vocal discipline than he was used to.

Kavanagh is heartened by the response that the band’s debut single “Eazy,” complete with a dance-routine video, garnered, and he wants to build off of the energy in fusing synthy, neon-lit song styles with modern pop production.

“When a song works, I’m gonna run with elements of that idea and keep that in mind,” he says. “A lot of Palace stuff was just for me, and it was cool that other people dug it. I want to know what works and excited other people.”

For a Limited Time has a slight tang of irony in its title; this recording was expected to drop some time ago, but the vagaries of life — and members transitioning from their twenties into their thirties — accounts for some of the slowdown.

“I think there are a lot of factors, but it was a lot of growing up and having full-time jobs and trying to make it work,” Kavanagh, who is a plumber by trade, says. “Time flashes and I have a career — I didn’t want to have a career, but here it is.”

Whatever initial buzz the Free Years had upon formation has cooled a bit, and subsequent shows were performed with the aid of backing tracks, one of the cardinal sins of rock & roll realism and a dividing line between the rock and pop worlds.

“I don’t know if it was not accepted or if St. Louis is more geared toward Americana,” Kavanagh says. “The fact that we’re using backing tracks, too — that was mostly a necessary evil to combat dealing with people’s schedules. Moving forward, we’re getting more and more keen on the idea of getting rid of the backing tracks and doing the full band.”

Kavanagh and Hill remain the core of the Free Years in the wake of Meyers’ departure, and the band has since grown to a five-piece (bassist Kevin Neumann and keyboardists Jessica Urso and Josh Edwards round out the line-up).

Having formed Palace in his mid-twenties, Kavanagh looks at musical success through a different lens now that he’s put some years behind him.

“I think about longevity; the way longevity looked when I was 25 is different when I’m 33,” he muses. “Can I actually perform these energetic pop songs when I’m 55? I’ll always be a songwriter, but I think that the future for me personally would be more involved with the sync licensing business. But I don’t see myself giving up the band. Once I got a full band again, I got the energy back.”

Juggling a 9-to-5 and a band is an investment, and Kavanagh has few pipe dreams about making it rich. His goals are a little more modest.

“I just want to get a return on it so I can I stop being a plumber,” he says with a laugh.

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