The five band members in Houseguest have earned their sea legs. Since the early 2000s, the group's style of irreverent geek rock and its notoriously merry live sets have made them captains of the Akron music scene.
Spin Houseguest's third album - the just-released Welcome, All That's Difficult - and you'll hear a band braving even more uncharted waters. Listen to a new song like "Little Brother Nautilus," and you'll find the five-piece sailing on the high seas of innovative prog-pop music with waves of ivory keyboards, salty six strings and pounding drums crashing the ship's hull, as singer Theodore Mallison howls a chorus to his crew. It's one of 14 new tales the band has about discovering its new voice and cruising unknown oceans between Montreal's Islands and England's XTC.
"I'm starting to feel like there aren't a lot of bands that sound like us - for better or for worse - and I feel like we're finally starting to sound like ourselves," says guitarist David Rich, drinking a Busch Light with his four bandmates at a practice space in West Akron. "My mom keeps asking me to give her a date on when I'm going to give up playing music if we haven't made any money. But this record is the first really good thing we've done, so I feel like we're just getting started."
Welcome, All That's Difficult is Houseguest's first album as a solidified five-piece - the first time the current lineup (together since 2005) has actually wrote and recorded songs in the studio together. With the help of Akron's up-and-coming producer Benjamin Vehorn (who's worked with Brooklyn's Love as Laughter and locals like Goodbye Ohio), the band's become a cohesive crew.
"I'm not interested in doing something unless we're doing something together," says bassist and keyboardist Gabriel Schray. "We're five individuals, and this is something that couldn't be made without the five of us."
The album is Houseguest's second release on Audio Eagle - the Akron label owned by Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney. These new power-pop anthems bridge the fractured and frenzied gaps of their last release, High Strangeness, with a more masterful musical sophistication. A song like "Proud Utility Infielder" replaces the band's love of speed and energy with more power and impact, revealing ornate spirals of guitars, keyboards and drums bouncing back and forth over Mallison's cleverly cryptic lyrics about catapults, suits of armor, cannonballs, boiling seas, pagans and "a billion bad moons on the rise."
"I'm really into medieval history, and there's a void in my life because nobody around here wants to play Dungeons & Dragons," shrugs Mallison, whose wicked afro makes him look like Akron's answer to the Mars Volta's Cedric Bixler-Zavala. "I don't think we care what we sound like anymore. I know I don't give a shit what kind of band people think we are. If people think we're a ska band, I don't care. Whatever you think it is, if you like it, then we don't care what you call it."
None of the new songs break the five-minute mark, but each is stuffed with lots of instrumental noodling and musical imagery - from "Medieval (AF)Faire" to "Heir of the Dawg."
In the past, live sets turned into awesomely raucous affairs, where drunken fans storm the stage for the set's final bare-chested sing-along; the new album actually has a crowd carol called "Ex-Gentlemen." With a new record of precocious pop gems, the guys are ready to take their stage act to the next level. But only to a point.
"We don't open up for the Black Keys covered in spaghetti," assures Rich. "We spend so much goddamn time arranging these songs, messing with them and practicing every single week. I don't want to shortchange the band by showing up completely obliterated. I don't want to shortchange Akron and my friends."
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