Lo Tom is the self-titled debut album by a quartet of veteran musicians, members of Pedro the Lion, Starflyer 59, and various other indie bands you’ve probably heard over the past two dozen years. Fronted by David Bazan, Lo Tom is a melodic collection of eight songs that skips by in under a half hour, but sticks with you and digs in deep, long after the running time has passed.
The album starts off with the thundering drums of “Covered Wagon,” which establishes this instantly as the most ‘rock’ band thing that Bazan has done in a few years. Gone are the electronics or the acoustic guitars of his most recent projects, replaced by two distorted electric guitars, drums, and bass. The arrangements are tight and sound as if they’ve been pounded out in a garage for the better part of a summer.
But that’s not the story at all. Lo Tom is four old friends who wanted to make music together, who carved out two long weekends to realize these songs, over a year apart. These songs don’t sound half-cooked or thrown together. Every player brings their A-game and, pardon the cliche, plays for the song. Every note is well placed and builds upon what the other three players are doing.
Bazan’s basslines are straightforward and anchor the music nicely, with Trey Many using his floor tom like Ringo Starr and locking in with Bazan seamlessly. This allows TW Walsh and Jason Martin to give their guitar parts a little room to breathe, allowing TW Walsh and Jason Martin to deviate a little more from root and barre chords, arpeggiating and inviting a little more melody into the songs.
As always, Bazan’s lyrics are at the forefront, with songs like “Bubblegum” and “Pretty Cool” telling stories that evoke vivid imagery and bring the listener directly into the songs. “Bad Luck Charm” is one of the most brutal and honest depictions of the pointless fights that couples find themselves in at the most inopportune times. The song perfectly conveys the frustration – and wastefulness – of a couple having a fight in a hotel room. You can practically hear the narrator digging in his heels at a certain point, throwing up his arms and saying ‘fuck it.’ It is incredibly real, and feels dictated, not written. For Bazan’s sake, I hope it isn’t.
“Bad Luck Charm” is emblematic of a number of aspects of the album. For one, it feels lived in. As mentioned earlier, the album wasn’t the product of long, sweaty jams in someone’s basement, although it really sounds and feels like it. When playing with old friends, there’s a certain ESP that takes place, and allows some shortcuts to happen, which can add some emotional heft to the songs. That is the case here – Lo Tom sound extremely comfortable playing together.
But not only that, the lyrics to “Bad Luck Charm” showcase a certain maturity required to really appreciate it. I don’t mean that these are overly sophisticated or complex; rather, I can’t imagine the song stinging the same way if you’ve never been one half of the couple Bazan is singing about. “Covered Wagon” is a song about being in a band, and going out on tour and leaving your life at home for a strange ritual that, somehow, becomes normal. Even if you’ve never spent long nights in a van, at a certain age, you understand the weird work/home life balance that only comes when you’ve been doing a job for a long time.
The record’s second track, “Overboard,” is a rousing anthem with the band’s strongest melody, which soars over chiming guitars in a chorus that is destined to get lodged in your head for weeks on end. The song is about having emotional anchors in your life, who don’t let you go off the deep end. This may not sound like a love song, but I think it is. The song reminds me of “The Reasons” by the Weakerthans, another supremely unromantic love song, which focuses on gratitude and the ability to call you on your shit.
And that’s the beauty of Lo Tom as a record – the songs may seem simple on first listen, but that’s a trick. The songs deal with knotty subjects, question basic ideas, and do so on top of anthemic, rousing instrumentals that belie the curiosity and experience that informed them. This is the sound of four men at the peak of their powers, coming together and making something special.