Make new friends, but keep the old

by Jennifer Schneider

Don’t ask the members of Friends Like These to discuss in detail their musical backgrounds or philosophies. These boys are much more interested in letting their music do the talking. When asked what inspired him to pick up the drums in seventh grade, drummer Matt O’Laughlin loquaciously replied, “I just thought it would be fun Ö and it is.” But get the band up on stage, and they have plenty to say.

Guitars, pianos, banjos, hand claps and violins: These are just a few of the instruments that coalesce to form the textured sound that is Friends Like These. Kansas native John Solomon and Wisconsinite Adam Switlick formed the band in 2001 after playing together in a more casual setting as fellow English majors at St. John’s University. Rounding out the band are its newest additions, O’Laughlin on drums and Steve Murray (formerly of the Dust Bunnies) on bass.

Above all else, this Twin Cities band strives for astuteness and passion.

“We’re all intelligent guys trying to do emotional stuff,” said Solomon, a classically trained musician. One of the band’s primary goals is to prevent conventional boundaries from restricting its sound.

“It’s not, ‘I’m a bass player; I should hear a bass part,’ ” Solomon said of their songwriting process. “If we need strings, give it strings. If we need a lap pedal, get a lap pedal. If you need random voices, it’s gotta happen.”

In fact, that desire to draw from a range of talent is what prompted the band to call itself Friends Like These.

“Our focus is getting great musicians to do stuff,” said Solomon, who enlisted a range of musicians to assist with the creation of the band’s first full-length album, “I Love You.” Eric Fawcett (Spymob, N.E.R.D.) played drums, while John Hermanson (Alva Star, Storyhill) not only produced the album but also stepped in on bass, violin, piano, guitar and vocals.

“It’s about one-third John Hermanson,” Solomon points out. “He’s part of the band, almost.”

If you don’t pay attention to the lyrics, you might mistake “I Love You” for an optimistic recording. Most of the album’s songs, however, draw on heavy topics, such as the death of Solomon’s best friend from high school and musical partner-in-crime (“Afternoon Funeral”). The heavy-on-radio-edits “Whiskey Pie” is another tune whose singsong melody and catchy hooks contrast with darker themes of mistrust and infidelity. Ironically, Switlick wrote that song on the night of Solomon’s wedding.

Solomon and Switlick employ vastly different approaches to songwriting, and it’s not difficult to determine who wrote which song as one scans through the tracks. Switlick, who pumps out an average of 10 songs a week, according to Solomon, tends to write bouncier ditties that invite the listener to belt out the choruses with unabashed confidence. Solomon’s compositions, on the other hand, are moodier and more disturbing. But his tormented wails possess a soothing quality, like a backrub that hurts so much it feels good.

The best moments on “I Love You” occur as a result of the band’s willingness to experiment with multiple layers of sound. The band tries to draw from the improvisational nature of hip-hop and jazz, Solomon said, and tracks such as “Burning Sun” and “Get With It” sound refreshingly spontaneous even in their polished album format.

At times, though, this “everything but the kitchen sink” approach can be overwhelming. Halfway through the album, I felt the need to press the pause button and tune into Minnesota Public Radio’s classical music station to catch my breath. The album drives on at one steady pace, and this lack of dynamics can get to be too much for one sitting. Also, the vocals are often a bit difficult to discern beneath the distorted guitars, which is a shame, because you feel as though you’re missing something really good.

These concerns aside, the new album by Friends Like These provides listeners a chance to heal old wounds by slashing them open and allowing the bad stuff to fall to the ground. “I Love You” can best be summed up by Switlick’s introduction to “Whiskey Pie” at the 400 Bar last Friday night.

“This is a rough one,” he said, “but it’s fun to play.” The album’s songs are rough indeed, but they sure are fun to play.