| It was a surreal
moment to cap off a year of surreal moments for Yellowcard. The
Beastie Boys had just announced the winner of the MTV2 Award at
the 2004 MTV Video Music Awards, and the band was having a difficult
time processing what was happening. Violinist Sean Mackin didn't
actually hear their name being called out. He only heard their wildly
successful single and title track, "Ocean Avenue," being
blared out across the American Airlines Arena in Miami. He turned
to see their drummer, Longineu Parsons III, or LP, wide-eyed in
disbelief before realizing that they'd better start making their
way to the stage.
For singer and guitarist
Ryan Key, the experience felt overwhelming, and more than a little
pivotal. A year since the release of their major-label debut,
Ocean Avenue, and five years since the band staked out
from its Jacksonville, Florida hometown for Los Angeles, Yellowcard
had grown (very quickly) into full-scale rock phenomenon. With
three hit singles under their belts, sold-out tours across the
globe and Ocean Avenue going on to sell 2.5 million copies
worldwide, it felt like the closing of a very successful chapter.
While it's nice to have Jay-Z slap you on the
back (under the right circumstances), Key found himself preoccupied
by what he calls the distractions, or "lights and sounds,"
that suddenly surrounded the band. After nearly two straight years
of touring, Yellowcard began writing in earnest, exploring that
theme and others, into a new album aptly titled Lights and Sounds.
"When you're in Hollywood and young and
in music and entertainment it's easy to get wrapped up in a big
scene pretty quickly if you let yourself," Key says. "I
think that's the quickest way to forget why you wanted to be an
artist or musician or actor or whatever. Letting the scene that
surrounds you swallow you up will make you forget what you were
doing in the first place."
To prepare, principal songwriters Key and bassist/keyboardist
Pete Mosely moved to New York City at the start of 2005 to clear
their heads and begin the songwriting process. They'd tossed around
a few ideas while on the road, but this was the first time that
the two would have time to sit, relax, and think fully about the
direction the music would now take. Somewhat familiar with the
city, but by no means experts, Key and Mosely took to the streets,
stayed up late drinking and talking, and watched more than a few
sunrises. The band had grown considerably in just a few short
years, and Key knew that he wanted the new record to be more introspective
and a lot less safe, with fewer layers obscuring what he wanted
to say. In time the other band members would join them, expanding
on ideas, stretching them musically and thematically.
"This album is much more about what's actually
going on in my head," Key explains. "I needed to let
go of a lot of stuff and force myself to drag some things out
that I was afraid to write about. I think there is a little bit
of fear on the record -- fear of the future, fear of change --
and I think all that came out in New York because I was trying
to be as confident and positive and forward-thinking as I could,
to actually let go and ask ?eWhat if it all goes wrong?'"
In Mosely's eyes, the new album presented an
opportunity for Yellowcard to rejoin the present tense after endlessly
touring their 2003 breakthrough, and to showcase what had become
formidable musical growth during those years. Just as Ocean
Avenue encapsulated a significant period in the band's life,
Lights and Sounds ushers in a new period of change and
The band had recently added a new guitarist,
Staring Back's Ryan Mendez, to their lineup. "We were really
thirsty to be bigger and better musicians?\to really embrace what
we're capable of as individuals and then bring it all together
as a band," says Mosely, who counts the Beatles and Brian
Wilson among his musical heroes. "We're a rock n' roll band.
And the beautiful thing about rock n' roll is that there's so
much amazing history and there are always new forms surfacing
somewhere. You can choose to take inspiration where you find it
or shut it all out and go your own way. On this album I think
we kinda did both."
The result is a tougher, more thoughtful and
at times challenging album that finds Yellowcard moving away from
songs about breakups and into more expansive themes of artifice,
war, and adulthood, as they exude the confidence of seasoned musicians.
After the album's lush string intro, title
track "Lights and Sounds" explodes with Parsons' relentless
drumming and a buzzing guitar attack before swelling into its
massively infectious chorus: "Stop, turn, take a look around/At
all the lights and sounds/Let 'em bring you in/Slow burn, let
it all fade out/And pull the curtain down/Wonder where you've
been." Its startling burst of energy, fueled by Mosely's
meticulous songcraft and Key's flair for sharp hooks, peaking
again and again throughout Lights and Sounds in different manifestations.
"Sure Thing Falling" turns its gut-level
fear and sadness into something transcendent with sweeping layers
of vocal harmonies and a cascading crescendo, "Martin Sheen
or JFK" quells its twin-guitar stabs with a stirring string
arrangement and "Rough Landing, Holly" erupts with a
hornet's nest of guitars and a soaring chorus that drops down
to Key's lone voice urging "Let her go!"
At another point in the album's dynamic spectrum
is the gentle, grandiose "How I Go." Backed by acoustic
guitars and a 25-piece orchestra, Key sings to a child he has
yet to have: "Son, I am not everything you thought that I
would be/But every story I have told is a part of me."
Musically, the song represents a huge jump
for Yellowcard, and for Mackin especially, who conducted the orchestra
complete with a full string section and woodwinds, without assistance.
During recording, the others joked that he looked like a mad scientist,
with glasses and wild hair askew, as Mackin worked feverishly
into the early morning hours to compose string parts for tracks
as they were being laid down. More than previous albums, Lights
and Sounds integrates Mackin's skills as an arranger into the
fabric of each song, rather than as a simple flourish of violin.
"A big point of pride for all of us on this record,"
Key says, "is that we really incorporated the strings into
this record, in a way that I think we really started to hone in
and develop a lasting sound for our band."
Another feat for Yellowcard is "Two Weeks
From Twenty," a fictional story about a U.S. soldier killed
in Iraq just two weeks before his 20th birthday. Along with the
subject matter, the music itself represents a departure for the
band. It's an engaging story told beautifully with jazzy instrumentation
and a loose and truly unique melody -- inspired in part, Mosely
says, by Brian Wilson's knack for fusing off-kilter arrangements
with beautiful harmonies.
Meanwhile, a recurring character on the record
is a girl named "Holly Wood," who plays many different
roles on the record, from a hopeful L.A. actress, to the girlfriend
of the soldier killed in Iraq, to the city of Hollywood personified.
On the climactic "Holly Wood Died," Key recounts her
sad story with poignancy: "Night life, that high life, she
just wants a good life/So someone remembers her too/But somewhere
she heard there was someplace to go/When you die when you live
like we do." According to Key, Lights and Sounds isn't so
much about Los Angeles or any specific person or place, but rather,
the state of being hopeful and hopeless at the same time. It's
intended to be interpreted in different ways by people willing
to apply it to their own lives. "On the last record, a lot
of the songs ended with sort of a resolution and a way to fix
the problem," he explains. "And I think in the songs
on this album, which has only a couple songs with a political
or global theme to them, there's really no solution offered, which
is a different thing for us."
But that's not to say that there's no hope.
Lights and Sounds just offers a fuller picture of at
life's triumphs as well as its tragedies, both big and small.
"I think a lot of what we try to convey is that there's always
the other side, and it's just about getting there," Mosely
adds. "And you really have to believe that that's where you
want to go, and that it's gonna be better there. Nobody else can
do it for you, but you have to get there. And it's possible."