Something happens when these eight people come together. Put them on a stage, and something larger than even this relatively large band blossoms, ecstatic and cathartic and inspiring. And like the songs on River City Extension's second album, Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Your Anger, it may not hit you over the head from the first moment; rather, it's a journey. It sneaks up on you as these songs breathe and grow and change -- as apt a microcosm of life as any you'll find in music.
"Half of this record is love songs, and the other half is 'I'm sorry that I fucked up' songs," says singer/songwriter/guitarist Joe Michelini. Such compellingly forthright new tunes as "If You Need Me Back In Brooklyn," "Slander," "Down, Down, Down" and "Point of Surrender" confront thorny issues of personal and spiritual struggle in a manner that's both intimate and illuminating, while the band drives home Michelini's hard-won lyrical insights with evocative arrangements that make inventive use of a wide range of instruments and sonic textures.
Both musically and thematically, the 14-song set marks a startling leap forward from the rousing indie-folk-rock of River City Extension's 2010 debut album The Unmistakable Man. That disc helped the New Jersey ensemble to win reams of critical acclaim while substantially growing its audience. Those fans have enthusiastically embraced the band's joyous, uplifting live shows and the brooding, personally-charged songwriting of founder/frontman Michelini, as well as the group's expansive yet intimate sound, which utilizes such instruments as cello, trumpet, mandolin and banjo to bring Michelini's vision to vibrant, dynamic life.
"For the most part, these songs represent a darker period in my life when I really didn't like myself," Michelini notes. "I was still young and still learning, and a lot of people were probably hurt by the person I was at the time. And as I grew up and started to make some changes in my life, I was inspired to write about those situations. I look at this group of songs as a stepping stone, and as a way to put some distance between myself and that part of my life, and to remind myself that I've chosen to do better.
"It was sad to relive these feelings and immortalize them as songs, but I think that overall, this is a hopeful record," he asserts, adding, "The last three songs on it -- 'There and Back Again,' 'Vanessa's Song' and 'Lord, I Have Changed' -- are about resolution. Resolution with yourself, resolution with others and resolution with God, in that order, so the record ends up in a positive place."
Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Your Anger's title paraphrases a Bible quote from Ephesians 4:26, which Michelini's mother would often cite when he was growing up. "I didn't actually know that it was from the Bible until after I picked it as the album title," he says. "I just knew it as this thing that my mom would always say, like, let the problems of the day be the problems of the day, move on, forgive people, forgive yourself, let it go. I dedicated this record to my mom, because she's taught me a lot about forgiveness, and this record has a lot to do with forgiveness."
The group traveled to Chicago's Engine Studios to record Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Your Anger with noted producer/engineer Brian Deck, whose resume includes albums with Modest Mouse, Iron and Wine, Gomez, Josh Ritter and Secret Machines. In addition to drawing upon the band members' varied instrumental and vocal talents, the sessions incorporated an assortment of local players, employing such instruments as pedal steel, bass clarinet, saxophone and tuba, to give the album an expanded textural palette that suits Michelini's increasingly ambitious and accomplished compositions.
"I was heavily influenced by Townes Van Zandt, My Morning Jacket, St. Vincent, Feist'sMetals, Bright Eyes' The People's Key and Akron/Family's Love Is Simple on this record," Michelini states. "We referenced a lot of those artists during the mixing process, especially Feist. But the big one was Townes, who I really fell in love with. He's certainly responsible for a lot of the Americana vibe on this record. I saw Be Here To Love Me, the documentary about his life, and it really made me think about why I was making music, who I wanted to be and what I wanted this record to be."
An abiding faith in the music and an unflinching sense of honesty have been constants for River City Extension since the band's humble beginnings in Toms River. Michelini had already established a local reputation as a solo singer/songwriter when he first assembled a small acoustic combo under the River City Extension banner in late 2007. Soon, his musical vision had attracted an assortment of like-minded souls, and the act had expanded into its eight-person form.
They recorded The Unmistakable Man with a minimum of funds, but an abundance of belief in their musical mission; then signed with Asbury Park indie label XOXO (home to fellow NJ natives the Gaslight Anthem), which released the album in May 2010. The album gained momentum slowly but surely, with accolades from Paste, NPR, Spin andAlternative Press, and by 2011 River City Extension was touring hard, playing major festivals (Newport Folk Festival, Bonnaroo, Warped Tour and more) and supporting artists ranging from the Avett Brothers to The Get Up Kids.
"It's gonna be interesting," Michelini predicts. "We wanted to make a different kind of record this time, and I think that every record we make will be different from the previous one. I still want to work in intense colors, but having done this record, I'm done writing about God, booze and girls. There's so much more for me to explore as a writer, so I'm gonna put a cap on that stuff now."