I’ve never thought of Brendan Kelly as much of a singer. Sure, I’ve followed his career—hell, Slapstick played at the first real DIY show I ever saw—but he’s always been in that category of “punk vocalist,” who relies on attitude far more than vocal chops. As such, I had pretty mixed feelings coming into his solo project Brendan Kelly & the Wandering Birds for their debut full-length I’d Rather Die than Live Forever.
Brendan Kelly & the Wandering Birds, though, is a different beast than his Wasted Potential material in 2010. There, he did the singer-songwriter thing with an acoustic guitar. The Wandering Birds is a full band, and they don’t waste time is introducing the concept. Opener “Suffer the Children, Come unto Me” is a rocker. Sure, it starts out with a minimal guitar line and Kelly’s voice, but it builds into a higher volume affair with a driving beat. It differs from his other projects in two primary ways. Musically the record covers a lot of ground. It’s rooted in punk rock, absolutely, but verse-chorus-verse power chords don’t dominate the songwriting in the same way. Second, the lyrics here, to put it pretty directly (because, hey, that’s what Kelly would do), are perverse and dark. I’d Rather Die than Forever isn’t about Kelly’s exploration on the meaning of life: it’s about crafting disturbing characters who walk the shadows and lurk in alleyways and behind bushes. Each song builds on ideas of obsession and derangement, exploring them through a character perspective instead of the ol’ punk rock sloganeering.
This blend in the content works rather well. The in-depth explorations of perversity give a more complicated base that forces the music to stretch out, and the energetic, forward-moving music gives the lyrics an added darkness that becomes somewhat obscured and blurry as it passes the listeners’ ears before it can truly set in. Sitting down with the lyric insert for this record is a vastly different experience than grabbing your iPod and catching a bus. A song like “Dance of the Doomed” has a bounce to its step, moving forward with a positive sound, while the lyrics tell a wholly different story. In that sense, perhaps it can be compared with “Unicorn Odyssey” from The Falcon’s album, covering a despicable character while the music keeps you moving. If Kelly had approached this content with, say, a creepy and plodding Tom Waits style, the record would be entirely off-putting. Instead, the vibe coming from the instrumentation complements his stories without doing a disservice to the tone.
Still, for all the talk of how this project is different, its primary audience will be fans of Kelly’s other bands over the last decade. It falls mostly in line with The Lawrence Arms and The Falcon, while mixing in a wider range of influences that expand the base without slowing down the pace or derailing the song structures. It sees a lot of new sounds seeping into the content, but Kelly’s songwriting is a familiar style and the new additions work well, even the world beat that works its way into “Your Mother.” It doesn’t break ground, and the creepy angle will alienate a few, but it’s a solid record with a few standouts (“Suffer the Children, Come unto Me” and “latenightsupersonicplasticbags”) and few faults. It may not have Neil Hennessy and Chris McCaughan playing together, but it will help fans waiting for the next Lawrence Arms. After Wasted Potential, it’s much better than I’d expected.
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Posted July 6, 2016, 7:03 p.m.
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