Last week, the indie rock band Great Caesar released its new EP, entitled Scattered Air, featuring four new songs that blend brassy jazz with a hard rock edge. The Brooklyn-based band has recently collected a cult flowing in New York City and in the greater New England area, performing in Boston, New Haven and Hartford to name but a few. Featuring Tom Sykes ’11 on the trumpet, the sextet began as a three-person jazz ensemble in 2000 and with some experimentation and new instruments evolved into the larger band with a unique sound that exists today.
The first song, “Tuned to Break,” features a heavy, dark bass that lends a palpable edge to the beginning of the record. The drum line remains relatively slow and somber, sounding more like a funeral march than anything else. Perhaps the most striking feature of the song, however, is the raw quality present in lead singer John-Michael Parker’s voice. For most of the song, he quietly executes the lyrics, practically speaking to the listener with reserved tenderness. But every so often, the song rises into an explosion of sound, with trumpets blaring and Parker’s voice vibrating with apparent effort. The whole effect is faintly reminiscent of Arcade Fire, a band that Great Caesar cites as one of its main influences. These unexpected moments lie at the heart of Great Caesar’s sound and come up often across this EP.
The next song, “Fact,” features the jazz of Great Caesar more prominently, with an upbeat tempo and soaring brass component. The trumpet plays an important role in creating the tune, bringing balance to a song that could otherwise be too high and too fast. The song captures the utter joy and obliviousness of falling in love, with naïve, simple lyrics that force a smile onto both the singer and the listener. It would be equally at home being performed at a New Orleans jazz hall as a Brooklyn coffee shop.
The third song, “Rearview,” showcases a new feeling of wanderlust and the need to escape. The drums keep the beat fast, almost desperate sounding: In many ways, this song is about moving on and experiencing new things. It documents the impulse to go out and explore on one’s own, without a backup plan. In a more specific sense, it seems to chronicle the band’s recent move to Brooklyn. Again, a soaring chorus allows the entire repertoire of sounds and instruments to be featured and punctuates the normal relative quiet of the song. It imbues the sound with genuine emotion, once again showcasing Parker’s vocal talent.
The final song on the EP, “Son,” has a definite touch of jazz, and the opening could easily be lifted from a Harry Connick, Jr., album. As a whole, the song clearly draws from blues, with a slow and despairing beat and tender lyrics. The bass plays slowly in the background, and the trumpet blares in seeming loneliness. However, an electric guitar slowly works its way in, eventually creating an intense cacophony that strikes the listener in an intensely surprising way and then leaves faster than it came. It ends the EP on an incredibly somber note, yet seamlessly blends the two main musical styles that inspire Great Caesar. It gives both the band and the EP a strong sense of character.
For Great Caesar, balance is key. According to Sykes, their songwriting style is “collaborative,” and while this process may take longer, the finishing sound always makes it worthwhile. They look to their fans to know if they have struck the right chord. When asked whether his time at the College influenced his music in any way, Sykes immediately pointed to the late Artist-in-Residence Steve Bodner, who passed away last year (“Campus shocked by early passing of Steven Bodner,” Jan. 21, 2011). Without his direction and “complete disregard for boundaries between styles and genres,” Great Caesar “wouldn’t be the same band today.”
Overall, the record represents a very good debut. The songs are enjoyable, and even powerful at times. Though music superstardom may not be the band’s main goal – they consider themselves first and foremost live performers – Great Caesar hopefully has a long way to go, so start listening to them now so you can brag about it later.