Album Review: The Connells – Steadman’s Wake

North Carolina’s The Connells sprung from the same southern college rock scene of the 80’s that gave birth to R.E.M. and Pylon, and like those peers, the group became critical darlings through their jangling, alt-rock meets power pop sound. After a twenty year hiatus, the group has reunited for Steadman’s Wake, a new album that holds onto the same meaningful lyrics, subtly addictive melodies and emotional hooks that propelled them to fame in their heyday.

While the groups from the early college rock days rarely wrote pure, upbeat pop songs (or when they did, they could often be disasters – see R.E.M.‘s “Shine Happy People”), but on the album’s intro track “Really Great”, The Connells pull off a bright and uplifting rocker without any cheese to go with it. The song beams with positive energy that starts things on a high note.

Most tracks on Steadman’s Wake are more complex lyrically, tackling existential feelings of doubt, regret and a search for connection. The steady rocker “Fading In”, with lyrics like “I’m fading in, and there’s never really been that much of me” manages to feel comforting in this admission of vulnerability, with the wispy harmonizing on the chorus recalling classic power pop, with a twangy guitar solo thrown in. There’s an equal vulnerability to “Song for Duncan”, with it’s deep, reverberating tom-tom drums adding weight to the tracks pleading vocals (“Please be steady, please be stable, please be everything I’m not”).

The band’s songwriting conjures plaintive scenes of Americana (“Rusted Fields” impassioned farewell “I’ll see you across the rusted fields”), and moodier references to our current divided climate (“I showed up to Charlottesville. You make of it what you will” on the melancholy title track). Whether looking inwardly or dealing with more universal concepts, the lyrics on the album always manage to connect authentically, welcoming you to relate and feel instead of trying to force a reaction.

Musically, it’s easy to hear the sounds of Big Star, R.E.M. and Gin Blossoms (who were likely influenced by The Connells) all over Steadman’s Wake. “Gladiator Heart” finds dual, folksy electric guitars playing off each other and leading up to a sunny chorus. “Burial Art” rides classic rock riffs through to an endearingly funny chorus (“You like burial art. Me too! You’ve been falling apart. Me too!”). There’s a darker tone to the excellent “Universal Vibe”, with its rollicking sixties rock vibes and perfectly folk harmonies on the chorus.There are other great touches throughout the album; the melancholy horns on “Stars”, the quirky guitar line on “Helium”, harpsichord during the bridge of “Steadman’s Wake”. All of these give each song its own personality while never disrupting the cohesiveness of the album.

For longtime fans of The Connells, this album will be well worth the wait. These are the kind of songs that stick with you and grow in meaning and stature on repeat listens. They feel timeless and nostalgic at once. The Connells may be one of the last bands of their era to still be standing and running on all gears. Hear the whole album when it drops on September 24th, and listen to the pre-released songs here!

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