learning love songs

est. 2008


aaron west and the roaring twenties


So I’m sitting here alone on New Year’s Day trying to finish writing about my favorite albums of 2014, and I’m trying to care about these little moments I can remember with these songs and why they matter and why I liked them, and I keep stopping myself, thinking what is the point? What does a list like this even mean? Especially when published on a blog no one reads?

At the moment, I guess it is something to do with my hands. But I also know the importance of reflection, of finding meaning in our memories. I am so attached to my music. I am so inspired by it and connected to it, it sorts the feelings into boxes and puts them where they need to be. I am never alone when I have songs in my ears, in my head, or my heart, and this is a lifesaver, in no uncertain terms. If that sounds insipid or overdramatic to you, then you have never wrestled with emotions so intense you can’t breathe, so overwhelming you cannot think, only to be brought back down to earth by something other than yourself – for me, that something is most often music. I may be struggling today but I won’t be struggling forever, at least, not anymore than I always was or ever would be, and sitting here typing, replaying my favorite songs of the year, might be the best way to stay grounded tonight. So here goes, here’s what I loved in 2014, with the best reflection my tired, tragic memory can provide:

This Wild Life – Clouded
So emo, so angsty, and still so pretty. This was an evening record, mostly, or a Saturday afternoon jam. These songs are little stories you can wrap your head around, and harmonies you can sing along with, easy chords to strum. These songs lash out with some serious spiteful lines, but they’re so gentle in their own way.  Just a lovely little record worthy of attention, especially in sadness.

“And I just need a day, to shed this dead weight, and to get my head straight
I just want to let go, I just want to be left alone.”

Coldplay – Ghost Stories 
Chris Martin at his most maudlin gave me so much solace this year. I don’t care of the critics panned it. I thought “Ghost Stories” was beautiful, and sad, and strange and even trendy, at times. It didn’t try too hard, its muted drums and elegant little trills are so soft and rich. This record is the middle of the night and early in the morning, it is the hours no one else needs to see.

“Call it magic, cut me into two
And with all your magic, I disappear from view
And I can’t get over, can’t get over you
Still, I call it magic, such a precious truth”

Have Mercy – A Place of Our Own
Please keep pulling my heart strings, Brian Swindle. I sang-screamed so much to this record and it felt so good every time. I love how this band manages a scene-appropriate aggression with poignant, intelligent metaphors and lyrics. They’re so dramatic. I love the way they toy with dynamics, not afraid to get too loud or too soft in anticipation of what’s to come. “The Earth Pushed Back” has its own relevance in 2014 but this new release gave me something to hold onto. Expecting to play this more in 2015, starting tomorrow, probably.

“I’m the pawn and you’re the rook, 
And you played me like a crook, 
I never wanted it to end this way.”

Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
Some people are just born gifted. Ryan Adams is one of those people. No matter how long he stays away he comes back with something brilliant and beautiful, like it just pours right out of his soul to play excellent guitar and write heartfelt, resonating songs. “Gimme Something Good” was an anthem of sorts, as was “Feels like Fire,” but its the slower, very songwriter-y moments that make up the meat of Adams’ self-titled,  and he shines in this kind of arrangement. He is troubled and sad, he is older and wiser, but I will never tire of the lessons Ryan Adams has to offer, from the structure of a pre-chorus to the capacity to live with regret.

“Just so you know, you will always be the hardest thing I will let go 
Driving past your church and all the houses in a row, feeling in my chest is fire.” 

Taylor Swift – 1989
It’s so good. It’s so, so good. Of course it is. She’s something of a generational icon at this point, I’d say, and I’m not going to join the ranks of the eye-rolling haters who are probably just jealous there’s someone talented and beautiful out there. I’ve never heard a Taylor Swift record I didn’t like and “1989” is full of so many excellent, smart, full-feeling moments that prove what a great songwriter she is. This album is vulnerable and mature, but also quite hopeful, and for that I’ve found it a pretty reliable listen in most moods.  It is also draped all over my last quarter of 2014. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to this album and not remember the feel of a hand in mine, singing to someone who seemed not mind listening, the way the hillsides along the Ohio River shone in the afternoon sun.

“So it’s gonna be forever
Or it’s gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it’s over
If the high was worth the pain.”

The Hotelier- Home, Like No Place There Is
What a fantastic find this band was….I am hooked on their tenor and tones, I am floored by their words, and I am wishing that I had more to say about this record that I’ve listened to so many times. I hope we hear more this band, because I think they’re onto something with the big-time choruses, and the drawn-out melodies, and the scathing honesty of pain and promise and self-destruction that lurks all over this record. I’m glad young, scrappy bands like The Hotelier are still out there making excellent indie rock music. I’m glad they give off something dark and just a little tormented, unashamed to be equal parts fragile and aggressive, which is really something of a combination, when you get down to it.

“I called in sick from your funeral 
The sight your family made me feel responsible.”

The Menzingers – Rented World
If I were in a band, I’d want it to be like The Menzingers. I fell hard for this band in 2013, in Pennsylvania, their home state, and I’ve only grown more attached to them. “Rented World” felt heavy and dark compared to their past productions, and maybe it was a little more serious than the pop-punk, mosh-prone crowds of their youthful fan base could handle, but I took it to heart, I embraced it fully. Really hope this band continues to tour, continues to write, continues to wow me with their mastery of the pop punk song, although their sound transcends, mostly through vocals and the hint of jams, into something a little more broad sometimes. “Rented World” is a jaded record, it is over everything, and I fucking love everything about it, because that is the kind of company that is  hard to find in a world where faking it is so damn profitable, so damn easy, so damn common.

“I’ve tried running, I’ve tried hiding, I’ve tried everything but dying
Damn the days we took for granted, never again will I let alone close to me.
Yeah, me and the rodent in the wall have more in common after all.”
The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
Sprawling, echoing and gorgeous, how could anyone listen to this and not fall in love? What I love most about this record is how contemplative it is, but with a layer of lonely discovery somewhere close to the foundation. It never loses its cool but dips into darkness, exploring all sorts of strange sonic places yet unheard by modern audience. There’s influences aplenty, but the sound is something of its own creation – it is so damn difficult to make something this effortless. This is easily one of the most acclaimed records of the year, but I will love it always for other reasons, too, for the wistful state its mere mention, let alone a listen, inflicts on my mind.

“Love’s the key to the things that we see
And don’t mind chasing
Leave the light on in the yard for me”

Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties – We Don’t Have Each Other
For when you heart is at your knees. For when your head is in dark places. For when inspiration can’t be found. In a critical sense, Dan Campbell’s side project is an incredible display of passion, intensity, talent and literary guise; from a personal standpoint, this album is a friend in depression, a companion for constant sadness. The scenes of New York and cars and bars are so vivid to me, and there’s something cinematic about the narrator’s desolation that I find quite a familiar story. I won’t ever forget meeting Campbell at the Four Chords Music Fest this year, and telling him how great I thought this album was. “Thank you,” he said, nodding slightly, and an hour later he’d go on to tear it the fuck up fronting The Wonder Years. I might not work in the business, I might not surround myself with musicians and bands the way I once did, but I do know a true talent when I see it. This guy’s got it.

“If I lay here long enough, maybe the bugs will eat me whole.
If I stay here long enough, maybe the night would take me home.”

Copeland – Ixora
It’s difficult for me to explain how much I’ve loved this album in the latter of this year. I can’t think of any other record that came out in 2014 that was so closely intertwined with my mornings, my nights, my thoughts and feelings. It is sad, it is sweet, it is symphonic, it is oddly experimental and it is strength is subtle. There’s no question this is my favorite album of the year, because no other has been as much a comfort. This album is hearts too heavy to sleep and knees to weak to stand, it is compassion and kindness found in the most unlikely places, it is desire mixed with perspective, which is such a strange, beautiful combination. I love how serene even the most heightened of moments are. I am so happy this band came back, especially now, at this time, when the sound of something familiar and fresh is so necessary, and also because time has only made their accomplishments more pronounced and produced. The tapestry of strings, guitars and drumskins is balanced so perfectly. You hear so much of the room on this record. I smile to think of all the studio hours spent pouring over this, because to me, that is dedication to perfection and striving to make your work shine the brightest it can, and I am inspired by that. I am in love with the love poured into this record, and its story of sensual struggle. Can’t wait to get it on vinyl. I hope to get lost in “Ixora” over and over again, hope to feel comforted by it and feel satisfied by it. Something tells me, reflecting on the moments I’ve spent with it so far, that might be the soundest start to this next year I can hope for.
“You’re still a breeze upon my skin, close my eyes, breathe you in.
I’m still the shadows in your night, taking over, until I fade into your light.
But you won’t erase me.
Heaven or hell will have to wait.
You won’t erase me.
So you just color me from grey.”

Honorable Mentions

Modern Baseball
I saw this band three times in 2014. The only other bands I’ve seen that many times are Brand New and Jimmy Eat World, which are my favorite bands ever, which is funny to me, but they tour like animals and their songs are fun as heck. Definitely a standout act of the year.

Angels & Airwaves
I am so hooked on The Wolfpack but haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of the album. Just glad they’re back, as I will never tire of this band’s spacey, delay-fueled aesthetic.

Ingrid Michaelson
“Lights Out” has some really excellent moments.  That hook in “Girls Chase Boys” is some kind of earworm. She continues to a preeminent songwriter.

I’ll never forget the look of Jason Alan Butler dropping rose petals from his hands around the mic, and when he climbed up the speakers to the balcony at Altar Bar, latching onto the base only to shimmey across with a mic cord around his neck, then crowdsurf back to the stage. More shows like this in 2015, please.

Brand New
I saw Brand New at Stage AE in Pittsburgh this year. They continue to amaze.They continue to toy with their fanbase in these miserable little ways, teasing recordings and studio time and old-new tracks. Brand New is going to put out an album next year Actually, they probably won’t. But they could. They should. They will. I think.

Here’s to all there will be to listen to in 2015, and all the hope, comfort and companionship those albums, too, will provide.


An impending visit home, and the impending close of a tremendous, tumultuous year has me nostalgic for things I don’t miss. It has me wondering what I’ve got to hold onto. It has me questioning if this newfound lightness is adjustment or apathy, maybe it is a little bit of both. Either way, it feels effortless but perfectly unnatural, like tripping off a cliff and falling so far and so fast you may as well be flying. Even though you were born without wings.

I’ve found the more ordinary and commonplace a feeling becomes – be it sadness or euphoria – the more you start to wonder what you’re missing out on with the other extreme. Was the emptiness that bad after all? Wasn’t it, in a way, kind of inspiring? Or, is crippling loneliness just a convenient cover for feeling sorry for yourself? And all along you were just missing out on where you were supposed to be?

Is there a better get-lost-in-the-pensive album this year than Aaron West? I answer with a resounding no. In a year where I’ve spent significant time working hard and trying to focus – always, always trying to focus – in the face of balancing combative emotions, I’ve found myself consistently coming back to this record for something stirring. Its emotional triggers are strong and significant and its composition is an unoffensive brand indie rock that is equal parts gruff and graceful.I like “Runnin’ Scared,” it makes me want to run, not scared, and feel a little fresh and free and fiery in the face of all this frozen snow and icy feeling.  I like the subtle references to desperation mixed with the outspoken appeals to it, like the line about the broken taillight. The story of Aaron West is a heartbreaker, to be sure, but I see something inspiring in all this empty, something.What is it to feel anything at all, if not that?

“I’m stuck on a memory,
Of you dancing in a backyard in North Jersey.
You’re holding sparklers,
And silhouetted by the porch lights on a summer evening.

So, while I’m pulling my gloves off with my teeth,
It occurred to me you used to be happy.

I curse the dashboard heat,
It’s fucking freezing.

Asleep in the backseat,
Oh god, I’m shaking. I’m empty.
I feel so damn empty.

I keep thinking
That I’ll feel better when it’s warmer across state lines.
Now I’m scraping ice off of the windshield with a piece of broken taillight.

Oh, I wouldn’t quite call it homesick
but I keep seeing your face in the northbound traffic.

I curse the dashboard heat,
It’s fucking freezing.
Asleep in the backseat, 

Oh god, I’m shaking. I’m empty.
I feel so damn empty.

I’m gonna go to Georgia.
I’m gonna smile in the sun.
I’m gonna pick you some wild day-lilies,
And I’m gonna hold on to them.
I’m gonna keep them in my pocket
Til you let me back home.

I’m gonna go to Georgia,
And I’m coming back whole.

I curse the dashboard heat,
It’s fucking freezing.
Asleep in the backseat,
Oh god, I’m shaking. I’m empty.
I feel so damn empty.”

~Runnin’ Scared
Aaron West and the Roarin’ Twenties, We Don’t Have Each Other


“If I lay here long enough, maybe the bugs will eat me whole. If I stay here long enough maybe the night could take me home. I won’t let go, even if you say so.”~Divorce and the American South

I often wonder what it’s like to be the kind of person who can be happy just by being present, those yoga-minded folk who can see a blue sky and sunshine and feel at peace, who don’t need anything more than the breath in their lungs to feel happy and grateful to be alive. Moments like that, for me, are hard to come by. I’ve just never been that calm of a person. But, I do get that feeling from certain albums; at least they can chase away the constant companions of anxiety and complication, often through commiseration.

I’ve long admired the work of Dan “Soupy” Campbell, for his ability to tease out the hardest feelings in realist scenes, his brutal self-awareness and his ever-emotive vocals. I’ve loved The Wonder Years for a long time now, I’ve drank in all they offer, and loved them more and more along the way. The news of his solo project, Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties, made me excited and nervous. Listening to it makes my heart hurt in the best way, with the saddest kind of tale of loneliness and regret. Musically, it’s the most mature, full, and experimental we’ve seen from Campbell yet.

The first few times I heard this record through I knew instantly it was fabulous but I couldn’t tell why. It took a morning or two of feeling unsettled and a little desolate myself before it fully washed over me, as if I needed some kind of target before I let the arrow drive through my heart. That’s because it is really fucking sad. This fictional narrative is fueled by emotion of the most broken, busted kind. This is an album told from a lost and lonely soul from the bottom of an empty bottle. Each scene symbolizes defeat, if not admitting to it directly.

From start to finish, Campbell gives imagery to desperation with his story of a man whose lost seemingly everything but the conscious awareness of how fucked up his life has become. Songs like “Runnin’ Scared” and “The Thunderbird Inn” are testaments to what it means to be hopeless, a feeling that shouldn’t translate itself to sing-along choruses. But this is where Campbell’s storytelling abilities come in, with his full-fingered grip on how emptiness manifests itself in drinking, sunken eyes and late rent checks.

“Well I know I’m a coward and I feel a bad night coming, didn’t know that I looked that pathetic.” ~Runnin’ Scared

When discussing this album, Campbell talks about the “expansive tonal palette” he wanted to create, which I think he hits dead on. For all its loneliness, “We Don’t Have Each Other” is incredibly warm, satisfyingly so. His strained throat and acoustic strumming are a pretty constant presence, with background vocals and plenty of build in the rhythm section adding a folk-rock weight. I’m always a bit cautious when I hear about musicians tinkering with horn sections, as they can become gimmicks. But here, they add dimension, a depth just theatrical enough to soundtrack the desolate Aaron’s journey through his own depression. Even from this depth, though, the album is never frantic or madcap. The timing on this album is so measured and I think that adds to its literary capacity. We’ve heard TWY take it slow before, but I think Campbell sounds great in this mid-tempo world, with its varied roots of punk and folk creating this indie alt-rock tale, more in the style of The Mountain Goats or Neutral Milk Hotel than his Warped Tour compatriots.

This is a story told in front of stained glass windows and bartenders, crying out from abandoned streets and motels with memories of nurseries, mother’s kitchens and old cars. Each turn around the corner stumbles on a little more smoke-tinged heartbreak, like the regret of watching it all fall apart, the strange mix of pride and guilt of your roots, and the slow, sudden sink into drunken depression. This is captured lyrically, with Campbell-as-Aaron’s direct cries for help from God and his departed love Dianne, but musically as well – exemplary of this is “Get Me Out of Here Alive,” a slow-burn full of pain and restraint, never erupting but wallowing on the brink. This might be my favorite track, at least it is this week. “Carolina Coast” is similarly heartbreaking as a closer, one that gives just a glimmer of hope that our anti-hero won’t give up, as if he’s realized there’s nothing else to do when your choices are to chase ghosts or let yourself drown.

“Hey, Holy Ghost, why’d you leave me? Where’d you go? I know we ain’t spoke in so long, but I’ve gotta know if I’m alone. If I start drinking, I’m gonna be the town drunk. You always said I should lighten up, so I’m gonna lighten up. I’m gonna lighten up. So long. I’m sorry that I wasn’t who you want. If I can’t make you happy, I’m no good for anyone. So long. I’m sorry that I was who you you’d want. If I cant make you love me..” ~Grapefruit

I haven’t read many, or any, reviews of this. It was a highly anticipated release from one of the most popular artists in my favorite genre, so I think in many ways I was predisposed to fall all over it. But listen after listen, I hear more and more of the story behind this all this and how it was built, the channeling of pain and the setting of a scene. The story of Aaron West may be an artist’s invention but the resonance is powerful when it taps into this much forlorn defeat and vivid imagery. It’s always interesting to see where your favorite musicians take their side projects. The results can be very disappointing or simply forgetful. This, though, is fulfilling and dramatic, well-thought out and incredibly produced, and mostly just the product of careful, gifted writing.

I’m going to go find a physical copy of this CD today. I think I’ll be holding onto it for awhile. I think I’ll be singing along for sometime. I think this kind of sadness, captured in a bottle, is timeless and transcendent, like a fire-orange sunset that burns up the sky, and maybe for a moment, lets you get lost in something other than yourself.

“When I met you we were young

And like gasoline to matches
Waking up drunk
Sleeping through your early classes
I grew up and grew dull
And you say you wished I hadn’t.

Well I’m drunk again
And you’re guilty like you’re Irish catholic

You ain’t no saint
I ain’t one either
Guess that’s why I’m lying here

‘Cause I know that I’m banged up
I got bruises I can’t place,
Oh, I’ve been coughing out blood.

I know that I’m banged up,
I got bruises I can’t place,
Oh, I’ve been coughing out blood.
I got a gut full of ulcers
They’re gonna burn out like dead stars
and turn to dust.

~You Ain’t No Saint
Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties, We Don’t Have Each Other

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