Cleveland, Ohio-based band You’re Among Friends are most definitely among friends at this blog. Their laid back style of funky, blues-infused folk rock seems to channel Steely Dan, The Grateful Dead and even a bit of Elvis Costello, and always makes for a pleasurable listen. That comforting low-key vibe, combined with their thoughtful, down-to-earth lyrics about this crazy thing we call life, has a way of making me feel that everything’s gonna be alright. And boy, we can all use more of that right now!
I’ve had the pleasure of featuring them twice on this blog, first in June 2017, when I reviewed their 2016 album As We Watch the Years Go…, and again in January 2018 when I reviewed their EP One Day You’ll Look Back. (You can read those reviews by clicking on the links under “Related” at the bottom of this page.) They’ve just released their latest album Start Making Sense, which dropped May 8. It’s their first release in two and a half years, and they sound better than ever.
You’re Among Friends was born in 2007 when guitarist and vocalist Anthony Doran and bassist Kevin Trask – who’d both played together in another band – rechristened it with a new name and began reworking songs from the previous band’s repertoire. They released their debut self-titled album in 2007, then soon followed up with an EP and double single. As the demands of life, work and starting a family took more of their time, however, the band went on a hiatus in 2011 that lasted four years. Once they reconnected in 2015, they began working on the album As We Watch the Years Go…, with songs inspired by their life experiences as well as the passage of time and how it affected friendships, relationships, and the band itself. Their follow-up EP One Day You’ll Look Back continued to explore some of the themes first addressed by the album.
Like more than a few bands, You’re Among Friends has struggled since their beginnings to find and keep drummers. They’re now on their seventh drummer in the person of Mike Janowitz, who appears to be a perfect fit. In a recent interview with Jeff Niesel of Cleveland Scene, Anthony commented “Mike is great. We have had some drummers who are great technical drummers and skilled, but they often treat us like we’re a stepping stone to the next gig. And then, we’ve had some cool, nice guy drummers, who aren’t that great at drumming. Mike is the best of both worlds. He’s the best drummer we’ve ever played with.”
Anthony wrote the music and lyrics for most of the songs, and all three members worked out the arrangements together. They began recording songs together for Start Making Sense this past January and early February at Kevin’s house prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Anthony later overdubbed his guitar parts and vocals at his home from late February through early April, then Kevin mixed the recordings from late April through early May at his home. Anthony noted: “We haven’t been in the same room since February. It’s really weird, but we kept going with the album and let it happen naturally.” Mike came up with the album title, and Kevin designed the artwork using a photograph he took during one of their sessions.
Opening track “Trying to Take It All In” speaks to the pressures of trying to keep up with the constant flood of information that can be downright overwhelming these days, and coming to the conclusion that’s it’s really not all that important in the end: “Things move fast these days. And folks who try to say if you’re not keeping up the pace, you’re in the wane. But I’m beginning to think that I could handle the shame. Getting kicked out of the race might be okay. But if I ever move too slow, you should probably know I’m trying to take it all in. It doesn’t matter who’s the fastest, when there’s this much information to process. The avalanche rolling down the mountain is gonna bury us all just the same.”
Their song titles let us know exactly what the songs are about, and I really enjoy the almost conversational flow of their lyrics, which are easy to understand and relate to. On the toe-tapping “Waiting For Life to Start Making Sense” they tell us to lighten up a bit and not take everything so seriously: “Take life as it comes. Don’t get uptight. Just keep moving on. Never know about what’s coming next. Seems like the worst could turn out to be the best.” I like Anthony’s guitar noodling on the track as he lays down a catchy little riff, as well as his endearing vocals that remind me of Randy Newman.
The short and sweet “Once the Toothpaste is Out of its Tube” uses a simple but brilliant metaphor to describe how our words and actions can sometimes have more impact than we might realize: “Stuff you put out into the world, might come back around to you. So don’t forget what happens once the toothpaste comes out of its tube.” “Why Do I Dwell on Things?” asks why some of us (me included) focus on the negative rather than all the good things in our lives. “Why do I dwell on things that I can’t change? What good does it do, it just winds me up, and life has to go on anyway.” The funky guitars and bass on this track are really good.
One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Hills You’re Willing to Die On“, not only for Kevin’s wonderful bass-driven groove and Mike’s jazzy drums, but also its message about how so many people today choose to blindly cling to their political beliefs: “Carefully choose the hills you’re willing to die on. Those coattails you ride on get more torn and frayed by the day.” About the song, Anthony explained to Cleveland Scene: “It was during the impeachment hearings that the lyrics came to me. We’re all divided, and we can’t communicate any more because we’re all set in our ways.”
The first thing we hear on “Just Keep Being Nice” are the faint spoken words “That does not count against me. This is the one.” Whether intentional or not, it reveals, to me at least, how funny and real these guys are. They also serve up more funky guitars and jazzy rhythms as Anthony advises us to not let the blowhards and assholes get to us: “Life is too short to give anything they say a second thought. Smile and pretend you agree that their message has value and meaning as it goes in one ear and out the other. Just keep being nice. And pretend to play the game. Act like you want to win, although none of this means anything.”
On the sweet “On Again, Off Again“, they touch on how some friendships and even love affairs can wax and wane, yet endure through time: “We go from the closest of friends to the coldest of strangers. But whenever we find our way back here again it seems like no time has passed and nothing’s changed between us.” From a musical standpoint, “String a Few Nice Words Together” is one of my favorites, as I love Anthony’s funky guitars and Kevin & Mike’s cool, jazzy rhythms. The lyrics, however, speak to the singer’s shortcomings with regard to his actions not living up to his words: “Talk is cheap, but that’s always been good enough for me. I understand when you say that my apologies don’t mean anything because things never change. They always go right back to the way they were before.”
Kevin wrote the lyrics for the final track “My Best Friend Is Never Coming Home“. It’s a poignant song about remembering a best friend who’s gone: “So much has changed since you left us. I’ve got kids now. You would have loved them. They would have loved you too. But now you’re gone. I’m all alone. My best friend is never coming home.” It has a languid melody that suits the wistful lyrics quite well, without sounding maudlin or depressing.
With Start Making Sense, You’re Among Friends have delivered yet another thoughtful and pleasing album for us to enjoy. As their name implies, it’s like the return of an old friend with whom we’re able to pick right back up from where we left off. And that, my friends, is a mighty good thing indeed.
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