Though the title Festival might suggest an upbeat romp of an album, Backyard Committee’s second release actually captures eight relaxed, jam-worthy songs perfect for performing live at a summer festival. The New Haven, CT-based group creates roots rock that leaves plenty of opportunities for improvisational jamming at live shows, making the title fit perfectly. The group, consisting of Mike Sembos and a rotating lineup of his musician friends, is best compared to a modern-day Grateful Dead (the electric piano even comes out on a couple of songs.) Sembos writes all of the songs, provides the vocals, and plays guitar.
The guitar is the star of this album; it takes the lead on each song, it even takes the spotlight off of the vocals at many points and distracts from all of the instruments making up the background. It gets a solo in most of the songs, which is where there could be some great improvisation and experimentation at live performances (“We Had Our Fun” even acknowledges improvisation with the line “Forget the tune and play what’s in your head.”) Despite being considered an improvisational roots rock band and leaving that room for jamming, the songs are well-defined and succinct, they don’t devolve into disorganized experimentation. The songs are perfectly timed at around three to five minutes each.
Though the album is mainly roots rock, there are some other influences present. The electric piano-heavy “Cicadas” (the one song where the guitar isn’t at the forefront) has a pop sound. It starts out sounding like late ‘90s soft rock/pop (and has an inexplicable sample of someone gargling) but soon gets better and the timing of vocals on the chorus make the song unique. “I’ll Never Be” has a touch of bluegrass to it; it reminds me of a much more relaxed, folksy version of “Rusholme Ruffians” by The Smiths. “4am Blues” is a gritty blues track that really conveys that tired feeling at four in the morning. The vocals don’t come in until about two minutes into the song; before that the guitar gets to set the dirty, late night tone. “Will Not Know” is pared down with just vocals and guitars: an acoustic guitar takes the lead while an electric guitar stays in the background. “Avalanche” is like roots rock mixed with power pop; though it wasn’t my favorite song, its energy made it a total earworm and I found it stuck in my head for about a week.
Despite the fun-sounding title and the laidback sound to the songs, the lyrics seem to suggest being worn-out. Even the title track says “The festival was more than you could handle, even though you said that you were fine.” It goes on to describe commuting between New York City and New Haven, a grandfather’s urging his grandson to find an occupation, and things that would wear on a person (not quite the subject matter you would expect in a song called “Festival.”) Many of the songs are written about a time after a performance or tour is done: “We Had Our Fun” is mostly in the past tense; “Avalanche” describes rushing home after a tour; “I’ll Never Be” is about traveling between cities overnight; the title “4am Blues” kind of says it all, but the gritty track takes place “after the afterglow” and having to leave after making memories and drinking beer; “Will Not Know” says “I don’t want to see backstage anymore” and notes a bad dream about being late to the show. Despite the lyrics about being worn out or the time after a show, I get the impression that Sembos and his friends love what they’re doing. It’s a relaxed, feel-good album overall. The lyrics in “Lost Weekend” put it into perspective: “You’re working overtime, while everything’s half-broken we’ll pull through.”