Small stakes and musical amity can be a recipe for mush, and that’s why a lot of bands are over before they begin. But adding a calm “why not” to a mature “what if” can work, especially if everybody is relatively free of hangups. So it goes for John Davis and Chris Richards, two former Q and Not U members who have reunited under the name Paint Branch and recorded a dignified, deeply ’70s influenced album called I Wanna Live.
Neither guy is at a career point where he needs the other to pull him out of a hole. Davis recently cranked out two memorable power-pop albums with his band Title Tracks, and his first post-Q band, Georgie James, was all about indie ambition. Richards, meanwhile, has hit his stride as the Washington Post‘s pop music critic. And with those things in mind, it should be no surprise that Paint Branch veers toward the golden age of vinyl for inspiration. These guys have had plenty of time to ponder Harry Nilsson, Wings, Rumours, and The Notorious Byrd Brothers—-but as pros, not curious kids.
They know that tension matters and that small-scale tension can be just as interesting as the multilevel agitation that Q and Not U dealt in. And so I Wanna Live is full of personal moments that verge on the obscure, and the songs sound like they were sorted out collaboratively—-and maybe puzzled over at times—-instead of yanked urgently out of someone’s head or written with catharsis in mind. When there’s piano (“Take Your Time,” “Raymond”) it’s not too precious. The guitar solos (Davis and Richards each get one on “Cherry Blossom”) are deliberately understated. The album as a whole lacks a pose; the production by Chad Clark and Nick Anderson favors simplicity over sheen.
Davis and Richards each contribute lyrics and vocals, and both guys tend to paint around the edges of whatever or whoever is at hand. The single “Brighton Beach,” a bighearted Richards tune and the album’s loudest moment, is about a couple that can’t find what it’s looking for but isn’t necessarily breaking up, either. Davis’ deceptively sweet ballad “Witnesses,” likewise, is about an unresolved situation: “By the time you get a feeling/The coffee is cold/All the pennies that they’re stealing/Are plated in gold.” It’s the kind of thing Los Lobos got good at in the late ’90s.
Sometimes Paint Branch’s biggest challenge is avoiding the sonic snowdrifts that trap acts like Iron & Wine or Fleet Foxes. The duo gets perilously close on the acoustic “Run,” but the song is gorgeous nonetheless. Each guy gets a verse, with Davis singing from the vantage of somebody who is leaving, and Richards playing the role of somebody who has left. It’s one instance where Richards’ vocals—-which can be an acquired taste, given how he sometimes impatiently slides notes together or squeezes out vowels—-have the right amount of eternal-teenager vulnerability. (On Purple Blaze, his quiet 2005 solo album under the name Ris Paul Ric, a lot of echo effects kept the vocals in line.)
A couple of songs probably should’ve been back-burnered altogether: Davis’ acoustic “Orange Vapor” crosses into think-global/ act-local musings at times (maybe it would’ve been better as a Q and Not U ripper), and the jaunty “Cherry Blossom” combines too-familiar lyrics (“‘Cause I’m never coming back … You still won’t be my friend”) with all-over-the-place vocals by Richards. Those songs fit with the overall program, however, at least in the sense that they’re interesting missteps. Although I Wanna Live takes its cues from an era when rock ‘n’ rollers sometimes prized craft to a fault, the album still remains the work of two people who understand punk. And sometimes punks make songs just for themselves.