At the Foot of My Rival is the sixth album from THE NEW AMSTERDAMS, but for frontman Matt Pryor, it’s a milestone. “This album represents something I’ve been working toward for a long time,” he says.
Story Like a Scar, from 2006, sounded like home, but At the Foot of My Rival was actually written and recorded at home, “underneath middle western moons,” as Pryor sings in his affecting regular-guy tenor on Lay on the Rails. “Over the past couple of years I’ve been changing, trying to find out who I want to be,” he reveals.
The star-maker machinery behind pop music would have you believe that the only family rock stars have are their bands and that a wild life on the road is the ultimate goal. Pryor, however, has purposely removed himself from the artifice that attends life in the star-fucking meccas of N.Y. and L.A. (see track 11, Silverlake); he’s settled down in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife and kids and bandmates Dustin Kinsey (guitar), Eric McCann (bass) and Bill Belzer (drums), “trying to be away less, trying to find balance,” no longer the “prodigal son by trade” he calls himself in Lost Long Shot. “Trying to capitalize on something you used to be – an adult pretending to be a kid for the money – would mean failure to me,” he says.
Lyrically, much of At the Foot of My Rival feels like a man shedding circumstances, relationships and illusions that no longer fit. The song Hughes, which sounds like it’s being played on a ramshackle veranda as the sun sets and the fireflies rise, takes to task the director of such classics as Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, lamenting, “Hughes, you ruined me/ You promised me make-believe.”
In short order, though, the doors of this hushed, front-porch elegy are kicked in by A Beacon in Beige” and [i]Story Like a Scar, which reiterate Pryor’s status as a writer of sticky pop hooks and recall the tumbling urgency of The Get Up Kids, which he co-founded as a teen and with whom he toured for a decade. Story Like a Scar – yes, there was no song called Story Like a Scar on the album Story Like a Scar, but there is one on Rival – remembers “a friend who’s gone.” “Someone who begins to drift, doesn’t return phone calls, and then one day, no one can find them. It can make you angry that you’ve been so easily forgotten. It’s a hard thing to come to terms with. But at the same time, you can’t chase them down – you have to let go.”
At the Foot of My Rival was recorded in his living room, with Revenge, Hughes and the junkestra underpinning Lost Long Shot sounding particularly homemade (full disclosure: the latter, actually a space heater and the chain on a trash-can lid, was devised in Pryor’s garage, which used to be a practice space and has become a studio since Rival was recorded). The disc was produced and engineered by Pryor and Colin Mahoney, a veteran New Ams collaborator and Lawrence local who also mixed. By contrast, Story Like a Scar was recorded in Nashville by Roger Moutenot (best known for his work with Yo La Tengo.)
As hearth-warmed and rootsy as Rival is, however, The New Ams have a deceptively sophisticated sense of sonic architecture. Bassist Eric McCann, for example, has emerged as a gifted arranger (note how he ramps up the intensity of Dead or Drunk with strings and horns.) Likewise, Pryor understands how more can be less when transmitting the intimacy of a song like Revenge, which is a demo recording he made with “the crappy little talk microphone on my laptop.”
And though Pryor is content in his home studio, writing material for The New Ams, his band The Terrible Twos, as well as producing songs by other artists and seeing to his own label (Elmar, named for his son Elliott Marshall), he’s certainly not immune from those dark thoughts that come in the night and refuse to leave.
Lay on the Rails, Drunk or Dead and The Blood on the Floor all address mortality. “This vested trust/ Beyond us/ So show me then/ I’m waiting,” he sings, almost chanting, in a chorus of reverb-soaked four-part harmony on Rails. “I guess it’s kind of a conversation with God,” he confides, saying, “I’ve lost this person and I don’t understand why. It’s not fair. I’m supposed to believe that everything’s going to be okay, but I need some kind of sign. Where is it?”
Nor is he blind to the Red State politics that surround the relatively liberal confines of the college town he calls home. “What if the world’s gone back to the darkness before the enlightenment?” he wonders in Wait. A Beacon in Beige, meanwhile, finds him reflecting on human rights of all sorts, singing, “Do you love all your brothers? Do you? Or did you miss the light?”
Pryor even concedes that, left to his own devices, he tends to dwell on the downside and that he forced himself to write a happy song for At the Foot of My Rival. The result, [i]Fountain of Youth, is nonetheless much more than that; it also suggests the easy musical and personal camaraderie he enjoys with Kinsey, McCann and Belzer (who are also his conspirators in the aforementioned Terrible Twos).
It’s telling that this idyll has nothing to do with fame or fortune or status or power or the other things deemed essential in our pursuit of happiness. To the contrary, the scene is simply one of friends hanging out by the water on a summer day, sharing a case of beer, having a laugh, living in the moment.
“We spent three months on the road touring for Story Like a Scar, but that was over the course of a whole year,” Pryor says. “We love playing shows and seeing our fans – we know how lucky we are that people come to see us, but that’s not real life; real life is home, and home is now the center of what we do.”
THE NEW AMSTERDAMS:
Matt Pryor, vocals, guitar, piano
Dustin Kinsey, guitar
Eric McCann, upright bass, string arrangements
Bill Belzer, drums, percussion
Arctic Rodeo releases:
THE NEW AMSTERDAMS – “At The Foot Of My Rival” – CD / LP+CD (arr008)