No matter how many decades pass since its 1960s heyday, our collective fascination with the jam band refuses to die. One only has to look at the ever–increasing number of street fashion brands reinterpreting the Grateful Dead bootleg lot tees of yesteryear to get a sense of the innate allure that the jam band lifestyle still holds in our psyche (even if it means people are spending more money to see John Mayer than they could have ever imagined). Of course, beyond the hypnotizing tie-dye and the communal joy of taking psychedelics and dad-dancing in a field with your caravan for three hours, there’s the music. The best jam bands have always stirred the ingredients of the American songbook into a psychedelic porridge, with an emphasis on the magical, spontaneous inspiration that arises out of improvisation. Bands like the Dead were experimental in a way that still stands out in the pantheon of classic rock music, making them enduring icons of the DIY world—particularly for young searchers like brothers Andy and Edwin White of Tonstartssbandht.
But while the Dead have long played in the realm of massive stadiums and extensive lineups, Tonstartssbandht channel this same energy on a much more intimate scale. As with other lo-fi journeymen of the late 2000s like Sun Araw and Eternal Tapestry, Andy and Edwin White reinterpret the concept of “jam music” for the college basement show, stirring a spoonful of bizarro noise pop into their guitar hero worship. Though they easily slid into the slacker rock boom of the ‘10s with their punny track names and funny haircuts (the brothers were even roommates with Mac DeMarco), Tonstartssbandht always pushed their sounds to more transcendental ends, taking lessons from krautrock and noise as handily as they did from country music. Their focus on live performance has meant that for the most part, the best way to hear Tonstartssbandht was either in the room with them or on one of their outstanding live records, which captured their sprawling psychedelia in all its shaggy glory. These live documents, as well as their 2017 studio effort Sorcerer, are daunting beasts, consisting of sidelong tracks and songs that bleed into each other like a black hole by way of “Bad Moon Rising.” With Petunia, however, Tonstartssbandht have finally figured out how to translate their vision into a tight, cohesive studio album without losing the ambling spirit that’s fueled their music from the start.
Whereas previous Tonstartssbandht albums had a ramshackle giddiness straight out of the Meat Puppets playbook, there’s a sense of melancholy to Petunia. Recorded in their home city of Orlando in the midst of the pandemic (as opposed to being pieced together on tour from multiple cities, as their records usually come together), the White brothers’ Byrds-ian church boy harmonies sound more wilted than ever, like road rock anthems sung from the end of the tracks. From the moment “Pass Away” slowly rumbles to life, Andy and Edwin’s twin falsettos carry a foreboding tone, dueting about how “some folks are born who can taste their days/Me, I can’t wait to pass away.” Over the song’s nearly eight minutes, Andy pulls new riffs out of his 12-string as if making them up on the spot, each section flowing with a gentle, swelling tranquility. All of Petunia’s songs carry this quiet sense of discovery, as on the casual swamp boogie “Hey Bad,” which culminates in a fluttering riff that bears more than a passing resemblance to Jerry, or the spiraling arpeggios of “Falloff” that effortlessly build to a highway-careening blues rock sprint, before a string-bent melody brings the whole song to a dazed, sighing finale.
Petunia’s finest moment is the wistful, tremolo-driven elegy “What Has Happened,” a song that sounds unlike anything Tonstartssbandht have previously laid to tape. Over Edwin’s brushed, subtly shifting drum patterns, Andy sings softly of time slipping away, his voice barely rising above a low-hung murmur. The song’s cycling melody may seem simple at first, but its sense of sorrow slowly creeps in like a mist, conjuring those long autumnal walks where one’s thoughts inevitably drift toward the existential. “Honestly, what has happened to me?,” he asks in a quivering falsetto, before the brothers lay a fountain of gorgeous harmonies and weary chord changes, turning the song’s bare few elements into a mournful chamber of self-reflection.
On previous albums, the White brothers might have slathered these moments of clarity in a lo-fi smear, stretching them out and making it impossible to tell where they begin or end—as if we were hearing the idea of what the perfect two-man psych rock band might sound like. Now, Tonstartssbandht brush away all the echo and distortion, focusing instead on rich and complex songwriting as the foundation for their endless jamming. They haven’t lost their ability to channel classic rock’s penchant for epic mysticism, but they have learned how to make it work on a more earthly level, revealing the human emotions that lurk behind their happy-go-lucky noodling. It stands as a testament that the best jam sessions can take you on a journey, even from your living room.
Buy: Rough Trade
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