Features > Artist of the Month > January 2006


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   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 embattlement.

   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."