|The Talent is Madness | Posted December 05, 2013
It's been more than two years since Bryce Avary decided to take his one-man band, The Rocket Summer, independent. The decision was a "wild ride," he said in an early 2013 interview with NRT, but overall enjoys the creative freedom it provides.
His first flex of those unshackled creative muscles came in the form of his latest full-length album, Life Will Write the Words, which performed lower than expected, but still received critical acclaim and some charting success. Yielding songs like "200,000" and "Revival," the record was one of Avary's most personal and most important.
Earlier this year, he told me in an interview that he'd never felt more creative in his life, and had the makings of 20 demo songs in his iPad for a future project. Songs came in large supply, it seemed, but when would some new tunes surface?
Then, out of nowhere, on Nov. 7, Avary posted on his social media accounts that he had decided on a lark to write, record and release a Christmas EP in just a matter of weeks. While most artists dedicate their summers to the production of Christmas projects, Avary called his shot for a quick turnaround.
He gave himself three days to write three songs and 10 days to, in his words, "learn how to properly engineer a record."
The result is the Christmas Madness EP that brings three brand-new songs and one cover tune to The Rocket Summer's library. So what would such a quickly created project sound like? What would the production quality be? Would the classic "summer" sounds of Avary translate to the winter vibe?
With the exception of some subtle jingle bells accompanying the percussion, the opening track, title track "Christmas Madness," sounds like classic The Rocket Summer, with the kind of high-energy guitar licks and driving beat that has fueled Avary's biggest hits.
In an interview with Alternative Press, Avary said "Christmas Madness" is about "the financial pressures that come with Christmas." It's a song from a man to his sweetheart, telling her that although they don't have any presents under the three, they have their relationship, and he swears on a snowflake that he'll eventually make her dreams come true.
With lines like, "My lady wants her wedding ring / Spent all my money on a drum machine / We'll be good one day, just stick with me / Set for life if I can sell a few beats," you wonder if there's some autobiographical content in there from an earlier time.
Musically, it's what you'd expect Christmas in California or Florida to sound like. It's warm, fun and upbeat—not a dreary "bleak midwinter" sound at all. It's shiny pop/rock at its finest. Oh, and there's a sweet saxophone solo from Avary's longtime friend. As for the rest of the instruments—Avary played ALL of them. Impressive for newcomers, but not surprising to fans familiar with The Rocket Summer.
Next comes "Elf Creep." This piano- and-drum-pad-driven song, essentially, is the confessions of an elf obsessed with a girl that he sees every year when he tags along with Santa. The first time I listened to this dark pop song, I was mildly disturbed, as I listened to this elf talk about how he crept into the window, stood in the shadows and watched this girl. But the more I listened to it, the more it grew on me, as I realized that the little elf was just in love. As he says in the song, "I'm not a stalker, I promise; I'm just a real, big, fan." I'm sure that's a line Avary has heard during his career.
He tells a great story with this song, and it's just a bunch of fun to hear how this elf gets "banned for life from hot cocoa." It demands a music video; I really want to see the scene where the elf finally gets the courage to appear to the girl.
It's a departure, for sure, for Avary to write a fun, fictional song like this, and he does a great job. Christmas purists aren't going to find anything about the manger and wise men on this song, but if they relax for a second and just enjoy the hilarious story, they'll love this tune. It's a standout on the EP, and one that deserves serious mainstream play.
Probably the biggest stylistic departure for The Rocket Summer is third track, "Grapevine Christmas Eve." It's also the most lyrically enigmatic, although it certainly has something to do with all the thoughts and emotions that come flooding when you come home for Christmas.
Avary ties his thoughts together with the following phrase: "Downtown and snowing / Christmas is coming / Everybody needs to be at home / Cold wind blowing / A warm homecoming / But oftentimes the place you feel alone."
The song is a a chilled-out, contemplative, easy listen. Over boom-bap synth drum sounds, Avary deploys the softer side of his voice. Just before the three-minute mark in the song, he breaks out into a rap-like bridge that feels equal parts Beatles and hip-hop.
The only cover song on the EP closes it out. "Silent Night" capitalizes on another one of Avary's many strengths and that's his simple acoustic-and-voice-only performances. Although he's incredible on many different instruments and using technology—heck, technology is what made this EP's existence and success possible to begin with—Avary excels at even the simplest instrumentations and arrangements.
With the tender strumming of a buzzing, crackling guitar as his only accompaniment, you get the feeling that you're listening in on a time of Avary's intimate Christmastime worship as he sings, "Fall on your knees / Oh hear the angel voices." It's a great way to end the EP, as Avary reflects on the real reason for the season, stripped away of all the "madness" we tend to add to it.
I was already a fan of The Rocket Summer, and I'm much more so now, as I'm blown away by the sheer talent and drive of Bryce Avary. He not only accomplished his goal of writing, recording and producing the EP in just a matter of a few short weeks; he produced something quality, something better than many projects that artists devoted their summers to creating. There's a massive library out there of Christmas music, and Avary did more than just add to the noise; he made something worth listening to.
Spiritually, "O Holy Night" says it all. While the other songs are not overtly about Jesus/manger/Bethlehem/Mary, they're distinctly The Rocket Summer in that they address real-life things we all go through. "Christmas Madness" gets us to focus on the fact that relationships are more important than trinkets, and "Grapevine Christmas Eve" tugs at all our emotions of going home again. These are life things that many of us can understand.
As for "Elf Creep," well, it might just be "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato." Or it might just be awesome.
Song to Download Now:
"Elf Creep" (Get it on iTunes here.)
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