During my early days of high school, around my freshman or sophomore year, the bands I was mainly listening to were all from the 90’s—alternative rock (or ‘grunge’ if anyone wants to bring back that old term) such as Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins. I was really into music that was ‘sad’ and related to my angsty-teenage boyhood that was lonesome and incapable of getting a date. But when you listen to music by bands that no longer put out any new material (or simply bad albums like the Pumpkins with Zeitgeist), you begin to ponder what’s being put out by your generation of underground acts that could still relate to you like the veterans did. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon Paper Rival, but they were my first, true taste of indie-rock. Hailing from Nashville, in 2007 the group put out a five song, self-titled EP that opened my young and impressionable ears to new sounds that I never knew could exist. It offers grandiose compositions without heavily distorted guitars and vast, sweeping emotions of reflection and outcry without being self-loathing.
The first thing you hear is the simplistic drum beat of “Alabama,” a lonesome song that sways and discusses “white-trash sunsets.” Apparently this track was a huge staple for shows and I can see why. Never in a song before had I heard lines like “trailer suburbia,” or “a state where fast is always slow, so the wind can’t ever blow, hopelessly yours, Alabama.” The song builds to a melancholic anthem with the repeating line of “hopelessly yours, Alabama,” with a bright chorus mourning over the state in which the song negatively describes. It’s a perfect introduction for the band, as it was for me—giving the impression of “this is something different, I should explore this.” From there you’re swept into “You’re Right,” which is a pretty standard indie rock track that would, nevertheless, also be a good show staple to transition into more unique songs like “Home is Right Out Your Window.”
What I like about this song, as with a lot of Paper Rival’s stuff, is the lyrics and the dramatic ‘push and pulls’ that are, in a sense, unorthodox for most indie rock bands in terms of guitar strumming patterns for certain time signatures and where (you as the listener would figure) the song is musically heading. The chorus is a sort of breakdown with intense strumming and the repetitive moaning of the title. But the part of the song that always makes me smile is this small section before the last chorus where the lead singer repeats the line “maybe I’ve been a bad little boy,” which somehow works and doesn’t come as cheesy or dumb. It mocks the taunting that parents give, to us reckless youth, while wagging their fingers with chastising tones.
“A Fox in the Garden” is a sad cowboy tune with the confessional lines such as the lead singer saying he “drinks too much,” and drags with the stale, southern heat during the middle of July. Some of the best lyrics on the EP are featured on this song: “There I was like a holy lantern, I was held up bright but I was held up battered…There you were like Sunday mass, all the boring little hymns that’ll never pass…There I was like the devil’s mouth with a terrible like that I want to announce.” It’s hard to explain, but this song shows off the band’s southern roots through their biblical lyricism and rural lifestyle references. It shows the southern man getting up for work in the morning to labor over his farm, or someone else’s, all the while struggling with some inner demons that have to be put aside for the sake of responsibility.
But the song that really drove this EP home for me is a cover of a Bruce Cockburn song, “Pacing the Cage.” I cannot describe how much this song means to me in terms of the memories that are tied to it, and the chills it still gives me through its sense of truth of how we’re all dragging ourselves through life—that waiting for it to end is sort of like “pacing the cage.” The opening line just strikes you, “sunset is an angel weeping, holding out a bloody sword.” I don’t know what it is about this song that makes it so haunting—perhaps it’s the electric piano or clever use of instrumental layering that makes it bare, hollow—piercing to the soul, as it’s relatable to all despite its cryptic lyricism. I wish I could just rattle off the whole lyric sheet for you to read, but that wouldn’t serve much purpose. I think the fourth verse should do though: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you, you can’t see what’s around the bend. Sometime the road leads through dark places—sometimes the darkness is your friend. Today these eyes scan bleached out lands, for the coming of the outbound state.” I don’t know if Cockburn has heard this version of his song or not, but if he isn’t impressed by it than it has to be out of some egotistical strife. Paper Rival’s version, in my opinion, far supersedes the original.
Paper Rival is, indeed, a short record from the south. It captures the essence of southern living, without having the stereotypical ‘Nashville sound,’ through its lyricism and attitude. It’s the perfect EP to throw on when lounging out in the Alabama sun as it sets over the American horizon after another a long day out in the fields or trailer parks. It invites you in and doesn’t talk about itself, but you and everybody else. It taught me, in terms of songwriting (during my days of wanting to be ‘rockstar’), that songs are more powerful when they don’t focus on just on your own woes—but, instead, relate to others and the human condition itself. Sadly the pitchfork broke for the band after three years (2005—2008), as they only put out one full-length effort a year after this release. The lead singer decided to give up on the band and go back to school to “further his studies,” and what a shame, too, because Paper Rival is truly a magnificent, short record that captures something of the Bible belt that isn’t actually commercialized or overdone—it discusses the mundane lives we all live and refuses to romanticize any of it. It’s completely original and difficult to replicate. Ah, another tragedy of musical America—another talent swept over and drowned by the fatalities of adult responsibility and the impossibility of dreams.