Today’s Tuesday Tunes features the band formerly known as Cedar Avenue, a Minneapolis group I saw open for Quietdrive in 2011, when I was a student at Gustavus Adolphus College. Back then, CA had a solid Lifehouse vibe, which really resonated with me. (Their sound also reminded me of my friend Corey Bjerken, who was preparing to release his one and — sadly — only album, at the time.) After the concert, I was fortunate enough to get to talk to the band members and get them to sign the insert from the CD I’d just bought (I had never heard of them before that night).
Some time ago, I remembered the band and looked them up, only to discover they had shortened their name to “Cedar,” but they didn’t seem to be making any new music. I was disappointed, but then I kind of forgot about them…until a couple weeks ago.
On Nov. 15, I saw a Facebook ad promoting a new song, “Dream of Love Scene,” available on YouTube. I clicked, and I was shocked. That was certainly Jesse Mathews’ voice, but the sound of the music was totally different. What was once an openly Christian pop-rock band now sounds more like an existential, new wave/electro-pop group that would fit right in on an episode of Stranger Things.*
Since their 2007 debut EP Running Home and their first full-length album, Someday Soon (featuring one of my favorite sad songs, 7 Years, and released in 2009), Cedar has produced two more EPs†: Human/Nature in 2013 and Siren in 2014.
(According to a Facebook comment from the band, founders Jesse and Kyle [Wachter] and drummer Shawn Burtis were joined by Justin Lansdowne on guitar and Nathanael Raway on keys for these and current albums. Sadly, Jesse’s wife Derrin no longer plays/sings with them, but they are still married.)
Human/Nature is clearly a transition album, and shows the band’s roots while foreshadowing their synth-pop future. On their YouTube channel, the band said they were going for “something a bit more primal” than their earlier work, with “a little less suburban Diet Coke and a little more whiskey.” They humorously and yet poetically claimed to have “jettisoned their pop songwriting roots, lit them on fire, and thrown them into a back yard Minnesotan snow drift” with the EP.
The first song on the album, “Young Roman,” has some clear and sweeping ambient threads, which continue through the short transition track, “nature,” that leads easily into “Irishman.” This third track is the only one from the EP that was released on YouTube, and its music video aptly takes the focus off the face of the musician(s)/actor and emphasizes the cool, ethereal distance effected by their changing sound. “Fastest Light” and “Gold Again” mostly return to the Someday Soon feel, and that’s the end of the album.
By contrast, Siren opens with “Rerun” (a kind of ironic title, considering), which is flush with retro synth and Stranger Things vibes. “Original” is where Jesse starts to slide into that vocal “scoop” I for some reason associate with Matthew Healy, but is more present in Meg Myers’ “Running Up That Hill” and ARIZONA’s “Cross My Mind,” though it’s still subtle at this point. “Stray Kids” and “Western Shore” are similar, but hearken back to their earlier music more by returning to more traditional instrumentation. Overall, I’d say this is an improvement over the previous album. (None of these songs were released on the old Cedar Avenue YouTube channel, but you can listen to them on Spotify or on their new channel here.)
This week, Cedar is releasing another EP (why won’t they produce a full album already?!), which they’re launching at Amsterdam Bar in Saint Paul on Nov. 30. All five tracks were released on Spotify on Monday, Nov. 25, and the music videos have been released on YouTube over the last couple weeks: “Dream of Love Song,” “Oxygen,” “Machine Heart” (heavily featuring that “scoop” I tried to describe earlier), “No Clear Survival” and a re-imagined version of “After All” from Someday Soon.
The first four songs once again serve up that new wave groove — this time more akin to the early ’80s English duo Yazoo — but are still true to Cedar’s pop-rock past. The music videos for all of these are significantly more abstract than their previous releases, and again remind me of the lights and colors in videos like The 1975’s “The Sound” (not to mention, uh, Tron, and, you know, all the dystopian-cyber-sci-fi movies of this generation).
The new version of “After All” definitely fits the new vibe, while preserving the emotional lyrics of the original, and perhaps improving upon the mood — despite the strong feeling of regret/”I told you so” in the words, the song as a whole sounds a bit more positive this time around. My only complaint is that the album was over too soon!
In any case, I’m glad Cedar is back, and I’m excited to hear what they have in store. I won’t be attending the album release, since I don’t live in Minnesota anymore, but if you’re in the Twin Cities this weekend, check it out!
*Technically, they’re both still listed as pop-rock bands, but I would say the sound is so much more modern than the pop-rock of the early 2000s that it has to be something different! Anyone care to make a genre suggestion?
†It looks like Mathews is also responsible for the 2010 Alternate Endings and the 2007 Temple Songs, but the sound of each is so vastly different from Cedar’s other work that I’m not sure they’re looking to associate with those albums anymore. You can find them on the new YouTube channel here.
Copyright © Cait Buxbaum, 2019