What bands do you think of when I say “heart-pounding, foot-stomping, folksy”? Maybe Mumford & Sons, The Head & The Heart, The Avett Brothers, The Lumineers? More bands are jumping on board. We can’t seem to get enough of what I call “wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve” music. One friend described Mumford & Sons as music that makes him want to tear his shirt off and run down the street with his hands lifted to the sky, a good description of this kind of music and why we enjoy it.
But if I’m honest, it’s getting a little old. Do we need or want another band that features a banjo? If so, someone needs to recapture my imagination. Do more than just jangle another banjo at me. Shake it up. And for crying out loud stop saying anything that rhymes and say something meaningful. Write a lyric that punches my gut and makes me think. Somewhere along the way some of these bands found out they could sell the sound and that was enough. It’s not.
Enter Saintseneca, straight out of southeastern Ohio (Appalachia) and more recently the Columbus, Ohio punk scene. They are making music with banjos, ukuleles, and the rest, but it’s not your brother’s Mumford.
The first words out of frontman Zac Little’s mouth, before a foot ever stomps, sets the tone. It’s heavy with religious imagery:
You’re drenched in blood
Still warm with wear
and God caught in your hair
Emergent from this sea of wheat
The flesh of God is flayed for you to eat
Soon after, the foot-stomping begins. You rip your shirt off, raise your arms and run, but as if trying to escape something dreadful. Maybe you are trying to convince yourself that you are “Happy Alone” in your isolation from the world. The entire album is a juxtaposition of style and substance. It’s subversive, kind of Banksy. I can’t help but think that this is similar to what the church should be doing in the midst of our consumer culture. We should be taking the shiny, happy things of this world and breaking them, showing they aren’t what we think they are. We should be stripping off the varnish, seeing through the luster. Wilco warned us,
When the devil came
He was not red
He was chrome and he said
Come with me
(“Hell is Chrome”)
Saintseneca takes the form of joy and celebration, and speaks about the deadly serious:
If only the good ones die young
I pray your corruption comes
swift like a thief in the night
right I pluck my right eye right out
(“Only the Young Die Good”)
Zac Little calls Dark Arc (note the juxtaposition in the title) “a meditation on doom”, setting dark themes up against uplifting pop structure. Elsewhere Little has talked about “joy in doom and doom in joy.” Sounds a lot more like real, gritty life-stuff than most of what we get in popular music. We should enjoy the tension.