The Long Winters are one of the most fascinating quirky pop bands to come out of Seattle, a town well-known for its twisted, hook-filled songwriters, in the 21st century. Frontman John Roderick’s creative wordplay and knack for memorable melodies have attracted a who’s who of Pacific Northwest musicians, all looking to help bring his tales to life.
The Anchorage, Alaska native spent time in several Seattle area bands of the ’90s while studying history at the University of Washington. Late in the decade, he fronted the Western State Hurricanes, who gathered a solid following throughout the Northwest but split on the verge of a label deal. Discouraged by that failure, Roderick went to Europe in 1999.
When Roderick returned to Seattle late that year, he struck up a friendship with Harvey Danger singer Sean Nelson, and was invited to join the band as its touring keyboardist. On the road, Nelson and Roderick started playing brief acoustic sets together, which led the pair to record a collaborative album in early 2001 with Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, who needed a project to inaugurate his new recording facility. Consisting entirely of Roderick’s songs, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm is a diverse and at times messy affair that does sound like the product of three men trying to get a new band and a new studio off the ground. It veers from lo-fi moodiness (the opener, “Give Me a Moment”) to fully realized bright-sounding pop gems. But whatever the sonic quality, the focus is strictly upon Roderick’s atypical yet hummable rock lyrics. The characters he sketches run on the seedier side of life: common thieves, murderers (“Government Loans”), drunks and junkies (“Medicine Cabinet Pirate”). Roderick takes an unflinching look at all of these people (who may or may not be stand-ins for himself), but doesn’t look down at them. “Carparts” (with drumming by Death Cab singer-guitarist Ben Gibbard) is an absolute standout, especially with the chuckle-inducing line “I’m leaving you my carparts / I didn’t have any money or I would have gotten roses.” All in all, a fantastically addictive debut album.
When I Pretend to Fall features the lineup that toured behind Harm, with bassist Eric Corson and drummer Michael Shilling joining Roderick and Nelson. Walla co-produced with Posies singer-guitarist Ken Stringfellow, who used the Long Winters as an opening act and his backing band for a solo tour. (Fall also features Seattle stalwarts Jon Auer and Scott McCaughey as well as Peter Buck.) Stringfellow’s influence is immediately felt on “Blue Diamond,” with his distinctive high harmony vocals coming in on the chorus. The album’s more polished sound fleshes out songs with such touches as a horn section, multiple keyboard overdubs and one aggressive sounding string section (on the epic “Blanket Hog”) yet manages to comes across as a more cohesive and live-sounding effort. Roderick’s material is even catchier: the chorus of the nonsensical “Shapes” (“Rice won’t grow at home and the Moon doesn’t favor girls” is the opening line) sounds instantly familiar. Other songs describe relationships in various degrees of coming together and falling apart, but the choruses and music sound so upbeat and happy (“New Girl,” “Stupid”) that even the bad times sound like a whole lot of fun.
The Ultimatum EP — recorded by only Roderick and bassist Corson — is a substantial stylistic departure. “The Commander Thinks Aloud” sounds like Roderick spent a lot of time listening to Dave Fridmann’s production work with the Flaming Lips. His distinctive vocals soar over off-kilter drum loops and orchestral samples with lyrics that could have been cut and pasted together at random. The title track is not as frantic as “The Commander Thinks Aloud” yet is still packed with multiple overdubs of keyboards and strings. (A live solo version is included at the end of the EP.) Ultimatum pushes the boundaries of what the Long Winters have been up to this point.
The artistic detour Roderick took on Ultimatum is nowhere in evidence on Putting the Days to Bed, which he produced by himself. One glorious pop song follows another, with guitars chiming all over the place, multi-part harmonies on every memorable chorus (of which there are many) and a bouncy, happy vibe throughout. Roderick cuts back a bit on the wordplay, going for a simpler approach while still retaining the qualities that make his lyric sheets a pleasure to read. (From “(It’s a) Departure”: “I like the old days / But not all the old days / Only the good old days!”) New drummer Nabil Ayers (Alien Crime Syndicate) puts a driving beat to much of the album, with “Rich Wife” easily being the hardest and fastest song in the Long Winters’ catalog. Another version of “Ultimatum” turns the downbeat original into a powerful rock anthem. Putting the Days to Bed is as pleasing as indie power-pop can be.