When progressive rock slowly devolved into separate classifications -- technical masters, conceptual metalheads and jam-band wankers -- the actual songcraft that made the genre listenable disappeared.
What Houston's Blue October manages to do is bring the song back to the fore, utilizing arrangements with enough crunch to appeal to 21st-century rock fans, boasting enough folky ambience to appeal to 'heads, and casting enough hooks to snag Joe Button-Pusher and Julie Teen-Queen. The songs on the band's major-label debut, Consent to Treatment, aren't a revisitation of the pomp of yesteryear. Each is steeped in emotion and buffed to a shine by producer Nick Launay (Silver Chair, Semisonic, Midnight Oil).
Not bad for a band that just two years ago was talked about as the next best thing in the Houston scene -- the same band that less informed scenesters confused with early-'80s Celt-rock outfits like the Waterboys or Dexy's Midnight Runners.
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"I don't like to judge music by the way the world judges it, I guess," says Justin Furstenfeld, Blue October vocalist, guitarist and songwriter. "I would always put us into a rock category. The new album's not necessarily so rocked up as to be Korn. It's more of a bounce off of my emotions. The last album [The Answer, self-released] was very sad. I can't even listen to that album. And it's a little whiny sometimes. This one is a little more grown up. It's got a lot of different styles, but I would definitely say that we have beefed it up a little bit."
Released on Tuesday, August 15, Consent to Treatment (Universal) is chock-full of anger, observation and irony, plus the occasional profoundly uplifting moment. "If you think about it, this is more like revenge," says Furstenfeld. "If you get mad at someone, instead of just being mad and thinking about that anger and how bad they hurt you, you say, 'Okay, what can I do, in the weirdest way, to tell you really how you hurt me, and get you back at the same time?' I guess that makes me spiteful. But so be it. At least I'm not killing people. It takes a lot of observation to figure out where you're going to plant the body and stuff like that. I guess this is my way of being able to murder somebody."
The album revels in extremes. "James" is the darkest and heaviest song. Propelled by brother Jeremy Furstenfeld's straightforward drumming and by Matt Novesky's searching bass line, the song erupts into a sort of psycho hate-fest against some poor dude named well, you know. "Independently Happy," meanwhile, is a jaunt. The musicians take a simple march and turn it into an engaging, self-affirming call to arms. "Angel" evokes true melancholy, in which an upbeat bounce is juxtaposed with a never-quite-resolved series of lyrical questions. Ryan Delahoussaye's work on both violin and mandolin is almost always present, yet so perfectly integrated into the overall sound that if you didn't read about it, you wouldn't know it's there.
Blue October's familiar quartet has been expanded by one: Brant Coulter joins the band on lead guitar. Furstenfeld has a reason. "I wanted to get off the guitar," he says, "so I could get further into the audience." First Coulter learned the existing songs, then Furstenfeld wrote another ten with the new guitarist as contributor. No mean feat when you consider that Furstenfeld is both a hugely prolific and very protective songwriter, with literally hundreds of complete songs already written, most of them precious in some way. "It's all I do," Furstenfeld says with a laugh. "When people are peeing, or taking a shower, I'm peeing on myself and writing music."
Expectations, both within and without, are naturally high for Blue October. Fans, the label and the band itself can do only so much, as the marketplace decides where the group will ultimately land in the commercial hierarchy. Blue October can only hope it doesn't fall into an all-too-common rut: When a band achieves certain goals, like getting signed, it can often consider its job done. The attainment can be the beginning of the end, rather than the launching point for the next achievement.
"I take it from day to day," says Furstenfeld. "If I wasn't doing this, right now, what I'm doing, sitting in an Oriental Laundromat doing an interview about what I do for a living which is art, that to me makes me an artist. Someone's interested in my work. That's a hell of a lot better than going to college for me. I am going to go to college. I swear to you right now. But this is my calling. This is my mission. People have religions. I have my own religion, and I'm on it right now. I've got to keep doing this. Just for the sake of being. Or else I'll be so pissed at myself for not doing it."
There is little doubt that Furstenfeld's focus remains fully intact. "I didn't ask for this big-label shit," he continues, barely pausing for breath. "I didn't ask for a million albums. I wanted fuckin' 4AD/Elektra to sign us so I could make small albums like Red House Spanners and Cocteau Twins. But if we get success, I'm gonna dance around it. I'm going to dance around like I'm on glass. Because you've got to be really careful. If it's something this serious that I'm trying to say, you can't promote it. You can't publicize it like normal shit. It has to be really thoughtful. And I'm not sure if the world's ready for it, if Houston's ready for it, if my fuckin' parents are ready for it. But I'm ready for it."
Consent to Treatment
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Read the title, Consent to Treatment, literally. Rarely are group albums as pointedly personal as with this, Blue October's major-label debut. Every single song allows the listener to witness vocalist-songwriter-guitarist Justin Furstenfeld as he undergoes art therapy. What's remarkable is that the bulk of the material is almost instantly accessible, compelling and likable. He's not asking you to feel sorry for him. He's just asking you to listen.
Furstenfeld and band cover all 12 steps -- and some of their own. "Independently Happy" is a prescription for empowerment, "James" a description of revenge, "HRSA" a journal entry during rehab, and "Breakfast After 10" a glorious realization that if anyone thinks about himself long enough, he's bound to become depressed. Furstenfeld's therapy becomes yours, too. "Balance Beam" is a step-by-step guide to romance for those who have been knocked off the apparatus one too many times, while the swaggering, low-slung rocker "Holler" is for those who realize the pearl they thought they found is merely a slug in disguise. Each tale is accompanied by soaring and organic musicianship, courtesy of Matt Novesky (bass), Jeremy Furstenfeld (drums) and Ryan Delahoussaye (violin/ mandolin). The constant, of course, is main man Furstenfeld. Never so forceful that he overwhelms the musicians around him, yet powerful enough to hold your attention continuously, Furstenfeld pulls off some magic. He empowers without preaching, hates without alienating, and continues to love without quitting. Oh, yeah, he also somehow manages to do this in only a few minutes each time.
There are a couple of songs that just plateau out, tunes that move too linearly from point A to point B to stand out in the company they keep. But these tracks are few and ultimately are consumed by the whole that surrounds them.
It's difficult to imagine the smart pop-music fan who wouldn't love this record. Setting aside intangibles -- depth of label support, band members' idiosyncrasies, pop culture's whims and countless other omnipresent and uncontrollable variables -- Blue October could turn into Houston's biggest musical export since ZZ Top. The music itself is limitless. Now it's up to the machine.