Ganging Up On the Sun – Guster
Considered as a straight line from the first time I saw them (at Wetlands, opening for moe., just two shlumps with acoustic guitars and a freaking bongo player), to the next time I paid any attention to them (today, right now), Guster's trajectory seems pretty remarkable. Of course, a lot has happened in the intervening decade. Ignoring the legitimately grassroots fanbase they've built for themselves, more significantly, there is barely a bongo evident on Ganging Up on the Sun, the band’s winning fifth album. And, even if one disregards the shedding of the bongos as a sign of evolution, there is the album itself: a slab of major label sunshine circa aught-six.
Over the years, I'd heard the usual drib-drab about how the band was now all about songs, man, and song-craft and being indie and all of that. But every band says that. That’s what bands are supposed to say, especially bands who’ve been accused of being hippies. Granted, I probably wasn’t paying much attention the first time around, but this new phase (or newer phase, anyway) Guster is immensely likeable. Like a moderately less hooky Cake, Guster’s music is all lighter than air, in the best way possible.
Received as context-free mp3s (or, in my case, as merely a disc with a tracklist and some legalese about how I'd be disappeared if I copied it), Guster is objectively good-natured. On the bittersweet "Satellite," melancholy vocals couched in digital gloop conjure an autumnal atmosphere. The long melody of "Empire State" recalls Paul Simon's jazzier complexities. Ganging Up On The Sun’s instant likeability, however, owes as much to its sound as its songs. The singing — such as on the forcefully nostalgic "One Man Wrecking Machine," which finds the narrator back at the prom — is nearly always sweet, lush and sympathetic with subtle reverb. When a banjo enters the mix on "The Captain," it is soft and ringing, instead of harsh and metallic. It is a complete soundworld.
Likewise, the band's musical smarts manifest themselves more in cleverness than anything experimental. Slashing guitars and subliminal countermelodies (ooh, and there are some bongos, maybe!) fill out a brief, dramatic coda to "The New Underground." A strident acoustic guitar and maracas power "C'mon," while a snappy three-note riff sits purposefully between verses, keeping the ear pleased at all costs. This is a morally responsible task and one that Guster takes to with, sorry, gusto. One need not actually like likeable people, of course. Even so, Guster is well suited to the task, and that seems to suit them just fine.