I’m going to call it right now. Busman’s Holiday are the American Kinks of the 21st century. What the hell does that mean? Well, aside from the obvious connections (they perform a beautiful and faithful Waterloo Sunset on their free EP “Old Friends” and the obvious differences (no electric guitars, fewer band members), here’s what that means: Busman’s Holiday specialize in story songs with acrobatic, catchy melodies and witty lyrics that flesh out archetypes as deeply middle-class American as the Kinks were middle-class British. To be sure, you will find in these songs everything you’ll find in most good pop songs: love, loss, lust and outer space, to quote the band’s press kit. But rather than coming at the material in the straight-forward I’m a dude singing about my life fashion, Busman’s Holiday prefer to clothe their emotions in the garb of struggling novelists, pining geriatrics (the A-side and B-side of this single, respectively), dying aliens, midlife crisis suffering car salesmen, recently fired corporate hotshots, &c.
Busman’s Holiday also share with The Kinks some serious attention to humor (can you even count how many puns are tucked into “The Last Waltz” ?), and an ability to be funny without disrespecting their characters. If you laugh, you’re always laughing with, never at. It would be beyond easy to make the narrator of “(William Crescent Gets) Fired” into a big joke, a money-grubbing sap who chose the wrong path in life and got what he deserved for putting all his eggs in a corporate basket. But the song doesn’t do any of these things. In fact, it becomes an unlikely fight song for redemption. When William Crescent sings to his old boss I’ll be ahead of the rest I’ll be the best I don’t care I’ll be underrated, you want to cheer him on. It doesn’t hurt their cause, musically speaking, that the brothers Rogers (Addison on a drumkit with a suitcase bass drum, Lewis on guitar) have an astonishing grasp of melody and form, as well as the kind of pristine, telepathic harmony singing that only siblings (and occasional husband-wife duos) seem to be able to master.
A-Side “Daniel’s Lament” follows the progress of a novelist’s attempt to evade a sophomore slump. And there actually is progress in the songs narrative. In the first verse, with our narrator (Daniel, presumably) suffering from writer’s block, the song is certainly a lament: I’ve lost my touch / what will I do? But by the end of the song, Daniel has fought his demons and the novel is worth that much more to him for it: this book has turned my whole world around / I was lost / but now am found. I don’t know when the last time was I heard a song that actually changed in mood from the first to the last verse. Storytelling in song has generally fallen out of fashion these days (except for R. Kelly, bless his soul), but while most of their musical contemporaries rely on vague evocations and endlessly repeated choruses, Busman’s Holiday are writing songs that never stop moving. What really stands out about the lyrics of “Daniel’s Lament” is the wisdom couched in the story. Daniel’s struggles are essential to his success. He succeeds by shutting himself up in a room and working until he gets it done. Hardly the drama you’d expect from a pop song, but it rings all the more true because of what seems like humble subject matter.
And all that is not to even mention the music. From the very first line of the melody, you can hear that the Rogers’ have not only fantastic singing voices (pitch-perfect without sounding glossy or otherwise losing human texture) but a sense of melody that is as unusual as it is lovely. The song’s opening guitar pattern is something we can almost hear without hearing. Pleasant, propulsive, but we’ve heard similar things, and we can’t help but immediately begin to place other, familiar melodies over the top of it. But the second that twisting vocal melody enters, there’s no other song this could be. The verse melodies then proceed to hit the upbeats so hard they practically overturn the song. The whole piece immediately feels as if it’s headed somewhere. By the time the bouncy bass clarinet joins in we’re sure, and when it pours into the lovely chorus melody, we’ve arrived. There is so much attention to detail in the way the word “round” at the end of the chorus so easily and gently modulates, leaving us with a jarring leap back to the original key at the start of the next verse. The Rogers brothers build their songs with an enormous amount of care, and it shows.
B-side “Ode To Sophia” is a goofy, sweet banjo love song narrated by an 89 year old who’s been pining for the same woman since the second World War. In spite of the silliness of the song, there is something moving about the idea of the wish being fulfilled after so long, meaning a great deal less in some ways and a great deal more in others. True to form, the vocal harmonies all ring true, and the harmonic structure of the song is full of twists and turns that are rooted in Tin Pan Alley rather than indie rock. The song also contains a jazz joke so unbelievably nerdy that I’m not even going to explain it because then you will know that I got it and everyone will be embarrassed. No, let’s just forget it.
Addison and Lewis spend a great deal of their time on the road busking (hence the suitcase bass drum), and it comes through in their music manyfold. First, playing outside is the ultimate vocal training. There are no vocal monitors, no walls to bounce your voice back to you, and you have to fill the biggest room in the world with your voice. It’s like swinging a baseball bat with a donut. Three donuts. Made of lead. After that, the bat itself feels like a twig. So it’s no wonder the Rogers’ can sing so deftly and powerfully after years of busking. The other relevant element of street performing is that your audience is not only not made up of paying customers, it’s made up of people who are probably on their way somewhere and actively do not want to stop and be entertained by some kids with a guitar. This means it requires a hell of a lot of showmanship to win their ears in the first place, and even more to keep them there. There is a mention of vaudeville in the bands bio, and this is where it comes in. If you want busy people to stop and listen, you have to make them smile, and a touch of humor will do that like nothing else. But after that, Busman’s Holiday knows how to keep you there with a color-saturated melody or a deft arranging touch. These gentlemen are on a mission to win over the world and they just might be able to do it.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem125/01 Daniels Lament.mp3
Ode To Sophia
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem125/02 Ode To Sophia.mp3