Woodpecker!: Thanks Anyway

I think I’ve managed to drive away enough of my readership so that the three or four people who are reading this, with the possible exception of one, all know the background of Woodpecker! and me.  Woodpecker!’s lead singer, Josh Steinbauer, and I were in the same graduating class at our arts high school.  He’s a good friend and I have been a big fan of his bands since I first saw him perform with Loin Groove.

Fast forward 14 years to Fourth of July 2007 and Josh e-mails me Woodpecker!’s F-hole.  I go so apes**t over the thing that I break my longstanding rule to not review the work of friends, leaving it just shy of five [clowns] due to imperfect sound.  Over the past five years I’ve repeatedly come back to that album and been re-wowed by it, at least once even being so moved to write to Josh again to profess my love for it.

Which brings us to Memorial Day 2012 when Josh sends me Woodpecker!’s latest, Thanks Anyway, a very different album.  I’ve been processing it for the last six weeks, and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that it was appropriate to break my rule for F-hole but not for Thanks Anyway.  So I won’t be reviewing this album, though I will be describing it.

The title, a sarcastic remark dripping with bitterness borne from impotence, and the cover art of middle-aged hands reaching up for rescue, which is nowhere to be seen, from drowning in the ocean set the tone of this album immediately.  Thanks Anyway is a 33-minute long sigh.  There are moments of acceptance (“If You See Something,” “GH1 With A 20mm Pancake Lens And Whatever Else We Lost That Day”) and even a positive-light song (“Matt & Ben”), but through it all is a theme of exhaustion, both satisfied and dis-, wrought from diligently working through our inexorable journey through time.

It’s an honest, unflinching, though not altogether negative, look into the thirty-something experience.  There’s identification and appreciation of what’s good, but also a yearning for what was, both in the recent and distant pasts.  And it feels like not even a yearning for the good times as described, but almost for the inability to know and understand what was good then or what is good now.  In “Old Photos Of Coney Island In The Queens Museum V. Coney Island This Afternoon,” Josh, amid being perplexed about those who came before him, asks for understanding and forgiveness from future Joshes:

Did the modern age get fixed in post
Is the way we proceed dignified if it’s so cheap
So is the heart of a scene in the past
That has lasted (that’s still stands
In front of your eyes)
If everything dies?

“Married To The Movies” captures another dichotomy and stubbornly holds it up for you to wrestle with, refusing to tip its hand.  The lyrics are a celebration, albeit a subdued one, about a relationship that fits, even if in a way not celebrated by our cultural media.  (“You sit next to me every night of the week/And we chew our way through another movie/…/It just hasn’t come up where I could pull you from a pool of piranhas/But I would.”)  However, the music, even the melodic line, belies the levity and acceptance of the lyrics, as if to taunt a self-delusion.

In addition to the larger discussions of God, faith, death (both of loved ones and strangers), Woodpecker! still gives us several songs in the vein of F-hole.  At least four seem to be explicitly about the dissolution of particular relationships, and this album replaces “Mankato” with “Matt & Ben” as the song inspired by Josh’s childhood.

And it’s that latter song that brings me back ’round to why I’m not reviewing this album.  A song for the unsung, “Matt & Ben” is a sentiment I could have written for a few of my friends, including Josh himself.  It’s always been a powerful, mysterious experience to me that these friends have made some of the best art I’ve experienced in my life.  I’m not talking like top half or awesome-considering-the-circumstances, I mean legitimately holding sway as my ultimate favorites for years–decades–at a time.  Matt Marka and Ben were that to Josh, so here’s their shout out.  The theme of the album pervades with the palpable, dull disappointment of half-fulfilled dreams, but Josh pulls up out of it at the end, his head coming up above the surface to shout to us, “Let the CD-R releases stacked on our shelves/Remind ourselves that we make music for our friends.”  And so, to me, this CD isn’t so much a CD, it’s a reminder.

Filed Between: F-hole and Wu-Tang Clan (Wu-Tang Forever)


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