COVER ART BY JOE GALUPPO
“I Won’t Cry Alone” is the seventh full-length release from Metuchen-based Roadside Graves for the New Brunswick-originated indie Don Giovanni Records, also the home Jersey acts Screaming Females and Teenage Halloween. In 2011, Roadside Graves released “We Can Take Care of Ourselves,” based on S.E. Hinton’s classic novel “The Outsiders.” During the heart of the pandemic, the band collaborated remotely and again returned to Hinton’s writing for inspiration, this time drawing from her more painful and surreal book “Rumblefish.”
“I Won’t Cry Alone” mashes up narrative features of the book with an emotional seesaw of morbid and triumphant personal experiences. The haunting, jangling pulse of the opening “Closure” introduces a third element, intertwining book threads with bits from the tragic lives of songwriters Jackson C. Frank and Sandy Denny.
Produced by Paul Simon, Frank’s only album was released in 1965. The New York singer-songwriter subsequently was plagued by a series of personal issues, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and protracted depression that prevented him from maintaining his career. He spent his later life homeless and destitute, and died in 1999 from a combination of pneumonia and cardiac arrest. Though he only released one record, he has been cited as an influence by many singer-songwriters, including Simon, as well as Denny. The lead singer of the influential British folk band Fairport Convention in the late ‘60s embarked upon an equally inspiring solo career cut short by her 1978 death at the age of 31 after battles with alcohol addiction and mental illness.
“It’s a shame to survive and have nowhere to go. Forgive me I want to be alone. Here’s the trauma I have known.” That’s just about as hopeless as a lyric can get. Drummer Colin Ryan adds to the emotional roller coaster of “Closure” with a Keith Moon-like rhythm that snakes around singer-songwriter John Gleason’s aching vocal. A pedal steel by sought-after YouTube guitar teacher Eric Haugen does much of the same as a vocal choir rises around it.
The rousing string-driven single, “We're Not Here,” is like a tennis match between melancholy and force. The resulting tie is another great example of Roadside Graves’ fine folk-rock.
The stomping “Fight Clean” expresses the need to escape from life’s hardship, particularly rejection. A gang vocal toward the end of the punk-tinged track shares a sense of empathy.
“Steve's Song” is inspired by Steve Hays, the friend of “Rumblefish” main character Rusty-James, whose point of view is expressed as he describes his dysfunctional upbringing and desire to drop out alongside his older brother, Motorcycle Boy. Throughout, a vocal harmony between John’s tenor and guitarist Jeremy Benson’s baritone adds to the characterization of the siblings.
The angst of such lyrics as “What a strange way to die / You just fold it up from the inside. No trace left behind of who you were” are drowned in a bar, while Colin’s deft cymbal rhythms rattle the spine on “Feel Everything.” I love the cowboys vs. aliens-like outro that combines spaghetti western guitar with spacey synths by Johnny Piatkowski, making for a song within a song and an excellent segue into the somewhat similar-sounding intro of “Here for the Lights.”
Morphing into a Roy Orbison-like lament, “Here for the Lights” features another fine baritone harmony by Jeremy within a tune that examines memories and the loyalty, enlightenment and pain they inspire. I love the way Jeremy’s deeply moaning guitar matches his voice.
Next up is “Patty's House,” a Dylanesque folk-rock ode to Rusty’s girlfriend, Patty, whose house is the only place where he can be himself. Meanwhile, Patty prudently desires him to be more like his colorful dreams than his black & white life. For now, from violent non-direction, Patty’s house is a happy haven where Rusty steals her father’s beer and his daughter’s kisses.
John Gleason and Colin Ryan’s Lowlight band mate Dana Sellers guests on keyboards on “Patty’s House” and sings back ups throughout the album, which her husband, Lowlight guitarist-producer Derril Sellers, co-recorded at their Cako Studios, a converted church in South Bound Brook.
On “Long Death,” Rusty seems to be saying that he’d rather live a long life amidst fields of marigolds, but more likely will have a long death buried beneath them given the violent ride he’s on, fueled by his older brother and their friends. The dichotomous tune is a nice showcase for the subtle, tasteful rhythms of bassist Dave Jones and Jeremy, who ends the song with a sweet Spanish-style guitar.
“If You Know Where To Look” contemplates death and belonging. Rusty seems torn between the two, then asks the listener/reader/viewer to sing along.
“Nothing Happened” perhaps is wishful thinking that Rusty could forget the tragedies that befell him and the friends who remind him of them. Beautiful organ by Johnny and piano by Jeremy open the closer, while a rad Neil Young-like jam closes it.
Hinton is credited as the pioneer of the young adult novel, books about teens for teens but strongly written enough to attract adults. Oscar-winning “Godfather” series director-screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola was so inspired that he created 1980s film versions of Hinton’s 1967 debut “The Outsiders” and its 1975 counterpart “Rumblefish.” But Roadside Graves seem even more inspired.
Like “We Can Take Care of Ourselves,” “I Won’t Cry Alone” is passionately, poetically powerful in its examination of misdirection and how its pain can steamroll redemption. The emotional album was recorded, mixed, and mastered by Derril and Rob Lombardo (Mon Goose). They mined it like diamonds, softly and subtly, no cracks.
Most of Lowlight was involved in “I Won’t Cry Alone.” In addition to the Sellers, John Gleason and Colin Ryan are members, as well as a side project called Last Legs, which Derril also has produced.
Roadside Graves are educators, an environmental scientist and a tech guru who hail from all over New Jersey with one stray up in Providence, RI. They’ve been a band for 25 years and have no intention of ever stopping because, why not?
Having recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of Don Giovanni with several label mates earlier this month, Roadside Graves will celebrate the Nov. 10 release of “I Won’t Cry Alone” on Nov. 11 at Pino’s in Highland Park with RGD and Son of Dov and Nov. 12 at Old Franklin Schoolhouse in the band’s hometown of Metuchen with Karl Blau and Best Bear.
For more about Roadside Graves, visit them on Instagram.