I have a long and emotional relationship with Guster. They were the first real music (other than the crappy adult alternative radio stations my parents listened to when they were driving me places) I ever really listened to, via my sister’s cds. They were the first concert I ever went to, in the gym at Marist College. The fact that no one knew who they were made me quirky in middle school, when everyone else was listening to the Backstreet Boys and Korn. Through the years they’ve continued to be one of my favorite bands, and the primary reason I took up playing hand drums.
Early Guster albums were unique for many of the same reasons as other indie bands. Pretty high-low harmonies from the singers; quasi-profound, essentially meaningless lyrics; being entirely, absurdly Jewish. The main appeal, though, was in the style – percussive guitar-based grooves, and the HAND DRUMS. Through the first three albums, as the band went from unknown freshman at Tufts to a relative indie success, there was no drum kit. The percussion was entirely hand drums, a kit which grew from a few congas and bongos at the beginning to eventually a huge kit. It was really fucking cool. Anyone who’s ever seen them live, and seen Brian’s hands gushing blood after a jam-out at the end of ‘airport song’ knows what I mean. It was cool, made for a great groove, and Brian is Tito Puente- FAST. The bongos never stop on the first album, ‘parachute,’ and just try to keep up with him on ‘bury me’ from Goldfly.
Thus, when Brian picked up the sticks for a few tracks on 2003’s “Keep it Together”, I was taken aback. A drum kit? on a Guster album? However, after a few listens I was ok with this. They songs were great, contemplative and still funky, and the hand drums were consistently there, if not still the main focus.
Now here comes the latest, Ganging Up on the Sun. There are no hand drums to be found. Not a single bongo or djembe. I was horrified. Those high-pitched, reverbrating cracks of the bongos had been with me since I was 11 years old, and now they’re GONE. For about a month I didn’t listen to the record.
Lately, though, I’ve been giving it another chance. And, much to my surprise, it almost works. The songs are still funky. The harmonies are still pretty. The lyrics are still meaningless. Yes, it does sound much more like generic indie rock than anything they’ve done before. But it’s not all that bad generic indie rock. ‘Satellite’ has a really good melody. ‘Hang on’ has the potential to be a serious it’s-all-gonna-be-allright anthem.
I’ll always prefer the old Guster, and ‘Parachute’ will always be my favorite album (it overcame a serious challenge when I was 16 and heard “Aeroplane over the Sea,” and it’s still going strong). But I’m almost ready to accept this new incarnation. They’re still chill, still funky, and Ryan’s voice is still whiny and Jewish. But without the djembe grooving…they’re not mine any longer.