All words: Bryce Rudow
All photos: Alex Anderson
My relationship with The Raised By Wolves began when I received an email from their guitarist and co-songwriter Ben Eskin. After ceremoniously telling me how great I was, he let me know that the two DC-area natives were about to release their first album, and invited me to an online listening party the following night. Unfortunately, I had a hot date/had to write a report for work and couldn’t attend, but I was intrigued enough by their single “Stuck (Song For Him)” that I did a preview of it and invited Ben and his musical cohort, drummer and lead singer Dusty Durston, to the BYT office for an interview and first listen of the record.
The two make for an interesting pair; Ben is short and outwardly nondescript in appearance and attire, quietly articulate but positively absorbing when discussing topics he really cares about. Dusty on the other hand is a stretched-out future rockstar, with a mop of straw-colored hair, boyish good looks, a tattered denim vest, and the kind of elusive coolness that only drummers and bass players can pull off. When he talks, it’s pensive and soulful. However, when they tell me that they’ve been friends since high school but went to different colleges, Ben to a “small liberal arts school in Minnesota” and Dusty to NYU, it all makes sense. I think about how much I changed in the four years I was at school and wonder what almost a half a decade away from each other did for them (Later, after hearing the record, I will wonder if their complexly-written songs are a product of two very different styles coming together or if they are both responsible for its intricate arrangements).
As we talk and they open up a bit more, I begin to see them as a very self-aware group who are dealing with the double-edged sword that youth wields; they’re simultaneously naive but resolute and wide-eyed but determined. Dusty admits, “Sonically, we’re super conscious. We’ve sat on these songs so long that everything has been thought out to death.” And it makes sense. There has been so much time since some of these songs were originally written (some riffs are as old as 2009) that their own expectations for them must be monumental. They’re not just their songs anymore, they’re their babies. It’s personal.
We listen to the album, and I can hear that time spent on each song. Precision and care was put into every note and rhythm. Most of the time, this leads to heartfelt, intelligent pop-rock that simultaneously homages their ’90s-soundtracked upbringing while cultivating a refreshing, modern spin on the style. There are times, however, when songs feels over-thought or clumsy, becoming cluttered with unnecessary additions or rhythm changes, but fortunately, it’s almost endearing because these hiccups fall more in line with the “good intentions but poor results” camp. If anything, it reminds me of my own high school best friend, Michael Holsey, who grew five inches in a year and was able to win a national championship in basketball with Amherst while occasionally still tripping over his own feet or periodically bumping his head on a low ceiling.
The opening track is a nice example of this. Having already heard the upbeat single “Stuck (Song For Him),” I am a bit taken aback when the album begins with the moody, bluesy riff that opens up “Cowboys, Hombre,” only to be shaken by the churning verse that cracks through it, only to then fall into a Tom Petty-meets-Weezer breakdown and chorus. “We can’t write any song that doesn’t have at least ten melodies we love in it,” they confess, and I begin to notice all the intricate melodies that live in their “simple” pop songs. I also underline a note I had taken earlier about Dusty stating that The Blue Album is one that he particularly admires.
Just as I begin to wrap my head around the bluesy, riff-driven sound coming out of the speakers, the song ends, and I’m treated to the relative comfort and familiarity of “Stuck (Song For Him).” The band was smart in making this their single, as it’s both one of their best songs and one of their most immediately accessible. When I originally wrote about it, I brought up allusions to The Strokes, Ben Gibbard, and even personal-favorites Harvey Danger, describing it as having a “decidedly ’90s simplistic pop sensibility.” What I didn’t hear at the time though, possibly because it’s such an odd reference to make, is a strong similarity to ’90s radio stalwarts the Gin Blossoms. I notice that Ben and Dusty have taken their inoffensively catchy style of melody and wrapped it around a modern skeleton, causing a vague feeling of nostalgia in between foot taps and head nods. It makes for a striking song and a perfect first introduction to the group. Dusty states, “So much of what we are is what we grew up on, whether we like it not; that ’90s, super melodic pop radio…”
The next song, “Freddy Freaker,” named after a YouTube video turned inside joke, begins unassumingly behind a sleepy organ line before sparking into a Police-esque pre-chorus that ignites into a hook whose main guitar melody reminds me that the two have pop-punk roots (Yellowcard would have killed for that riff back in the day). I bring up to them that I hear a bit of pop-punk’s aggressively catchy influence, and, like most former pop-punkers, they fluster with embarrassment that’s only relieved when Alex and Phil begin name-dropping old favorites like Saves The Day and Brand New. I do my best to assure them that I mean it as a compliment, while Ben tells me that it is “one of the forward-thinking old songs” of theirs and that it “propelled [them] into new sounds.”
“Broken Neck of the Woods” begins with one of those tall-and-awkward head bumps on the ceiling in the form of an intentionally misdirecting metal riff that winks away to a standard pop-rock jam that deserves to be simplified a bit. I do my best to keep up with the many parts that make up the song, but eventually I give up, and like Superman learning to block out his super-powered periphery, I am content to focus on specific aspects of the songs and enjoy them individually (like at 2:20when there’s a “Spiderwebs” by No Doubt breakdown).
Luckily, I am rewarded with “Twin Resentful” next. From the onset, this song carries an exuberance in it that’s infectious. I catch Dusty’s satisfied smirk as he sees me thoroughly enjoy him bounce around the line, “and now I’ve got neck pains from perpetual cranes, and now I’ve got neck pains from perpetual cranes” like a pro, setting this song into a swing that doesn’t stop save for its temporarily halting pre-choruses. As the song builds to its crescendo and subsequent resolve, I’m able to hear a band that proudly claims to “put a lot of thought and time” into their songs finally let go and it’s glorious, inaudible background screaming and all. By the time the song ends, everyone in the room has an innocently shit-eating grin on their face. It’s impossible not to.
Which is what makes the somberness of “Hand-Me-Down Caridagans” that much more impactful; the downtempo’d track is self-aware enough to realize “a heavy, hard heart is worth its weight in gold.” While talking to Dusty, the lyricist of the two, it’s apparent how proud he is of this song. Phil comments that this song is the first one in the album that really lets not just the vocals but the lyrics shine, causing Dusty to beam. When we unanimously agree that “I’d never ever leave a stone unturned/and I never didn’t love a girl who loved me first” are some of our favorite lyrics of the album, he does his best to hide how genuinely proud he is of them. My heart smiles for him. “We’re not the most prolific band, but when we do put stuff out, there’s very little filler, which is important to us. We weren’t comfortable putting out something we weren’t entirely proud of,” he will say to us later.
“Shangri-La-Di-Da” follows, and it’s immediately apparent that this is one of their other standouts. It’s a simple, summer love song that relies on flowery melodies and bells to create an atmosphere that perfectly captures the innocence of young love, all over a swaying 6/8 beat that rises and falls rhythmically with the tune. It is Simon and Garfunkel meets The Shins, and I’d be very surprised if it isn’t their next single.
They tell me that the next song, “Strange Acquaintance,” was influenced more by things like Twin Peaks and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles than other musicians, but I can’t help but hear Eliott Smith peaking through. They say, “This song was always this crazy wildcard song that we both really love,” and when I ask for more insight into the song, Ben clarifies, “It’s supposed to make you realize you’re in two different worlds.” So there’s that…
As it fades into the last song, I begin to ask a question about the upcoming track, but Ben is quick to tell me that it’s important to hear the transition between the two. Apologetic, I rewind a bit and realize he’s right. The Eliott Smith influence is still there, but it’s morphed into something a bit…what’s the word?…bleak? It’s a depressive punch in the gut; that is, until the reverb-heavy octave guitar comes bursting in and they let themselves sonically expand. From there, they traverse a monumental landscape and grow to volumes bigger than anything else previously on the record. I nod along understandably when Dusty tells me that the minute they wrote this song he knew it would be the album closer.
Once the last notes of the song finish, Alex, Phil and I let the two know how much we enjoyed the album, and it’s apparent just how excited both Ben and Dusty are. I ask them if they had listened to the album straight through yet, to which they realized they probably hadn’t. When I ponder what that must be like for them, Dusty says simply, “It’s a lot of frustration and a lot of reward.”
Sadie Hawkins may not be the album of the year, but it’s a strong opening statement from a young band with all the talent and determination in the world to build upon. Their eventual growing pains are inevitable, but if you ever ask my friend Holsey if they’re worth it, he’ll show you his national championship ring and let you decide.