You Say Goodbye, I Say (Rambling About Sayonara)

If you recall back to last month, I wrote a post about being contacted by the frontman of a little indie group called Midwestern Dirt ahead of their new album, Sayonara. It was pretty damn sweet getting to hear some new music from a favorite band of mine ahead of the album’s actual release (in fact, so ahead, they hadn’t even thrown the trumpets on it yet!), but since I didn’t really want to give anything away, I couldn’t talk much about it. Since all I do is talk, this proved a minor problem.

Midwestern Dirt's Sayonara

Is all good though; Sayonara came out yesterday. You can now go buy it (and I did, because it was a Bandcamp Friday and lossless audio is always worth paying for), stream it, all that good stuff. Given that I was let in early and I’m probably the one person outside the band who’s actually had time to sit and digest the music, I think I’m in a pretty prime position to recommend this one to you. In some ways, it bests my beloved Down the Stairs! Let’s ramble about it for a bit.

Firstly, I have to say–it always gets me how this started as a little indie solo project in 2017, because it just sounds so incredibly full and organic. People these days love to take the easy way out with software drums and going all-in on digital, and it really makes for sterile, airless albums. On the other hand, pretty much all of Midwestern Dirt’s albums involve a full band on tape in a studio, and it really makes a difference. You don’t get ’em like that anymore. I was initially picky about not being able to hear the guitar quite as much as I liked or the drums being a bit clean this time around, but as I got used to it, all was fine.

Speaking of the drums! I really love the drum arrangements on this album. I love the way the clicky percussion on “Milk & Sugar” goes into that disco beat, I love the way that rock solid beat starts out “Black Lotus”, I love the incessant ride in the verses on “After the Movies”. It’s simple, but it’s effective. There’s also just a lot more melody in the guitar, more leads and layering and less simply leaning on the riff. I think the trumpet was a good call–you can still hear the initial mix of “Iceland” I was sent on Spotify, and the outro’s definitely a lot more empty without it.

One last bit about the performances–the way Patrick shifts between his vocal registers on this album is great. I feel like he wasn’t doing that as much on their earlier stuff, but he definitely goes low on the verses for “Milk & Sugar” and “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes” (and finds a vocal melody in that Leonard Cohen song in the process!) and much higher in the choruses, and it really helps them soar. The “calling me” part in “Siren Song” is another great example. Very good vocals on this one.

What really jumps out at me about Sayonara is its directness. As far as pacing goes, Down the Stairs felt oddly slow at times. “Salinger”, “Compassion”, “Dead Leaves”–these songs usually stuck to a single groove without much contrast in their B part. In the case of “Dead Leaves”, it also ended with an extended, jammy coda. I’m not taking issue with that at all–the songs are all lovely and moody, their overall sound still evocative–but they’re songs that work best when you listen to the album all the way through. Certainly by the end of my time with it, I was mostly skipping around, leading to an album where I really wore out about five or six songs, and which five or six depended on the day.

Sayonara, on the other hand, feels much sharper, much more focused on songs that build and pop out of the speakers in much shorter bursts. “Dead Leaves” approached seven minutes; only “Black Lotus” goes over five, and it still feels fairly tightly wound. Things just feel a lot better structured. When “After the Movies” kicks into its chorus, you don’t mistake it for the verse. “Iceland” in particular reminds me a lot of “Act Like You’ve Been Here Before”, not just for its chorus harmonies, but because both are prime “that’s a single” material. Most of the songs here have that spark to them.

That’s not to say that they’re all out-of-the-gate barnburners–despite the better pacing, Sayonara is also surprisingly atmospheric. The “oohs” and “ahs” of the chorus on “Act Like” sounded like backup on stage; on “Iceland”, it sounds like the backup singer died and carried on anyway. “Black Lotus” is exactly how it sounds, icy, with the lines in the chorus, almost like a ghost ship. “Siren Song” is probably the best bridge between the two albums, feeling like a Sayonara track with that city of ruin vibe that so much of Down the Stairs had, no doubt in part thanks to the lyrics.

One of my favorite traits of Midwestern Dirt songs is the tendency to mention real places in the lyrics; “Down the Stairs” stumbled out of the Barbès in Brooklyn, and “Siren Song” gets stood up on Bowery. With the way they’re worked into the lyrics, they really help to ground the songs in a specific headspace, almost retelling events in a way I’m really fond of. I’d be curious if there’s a specific thread of concept running through these songs like Down the Stairs seemed to have with all the Salinger references, but even without one, they all work together nicely.

I always come out of a Midwestern album with a couple of lines I’m really fond of, so I’ll just toss a few out since I’ve been singing this stuff to myself for so long:

  • “Been staring at black mirrors alight/Said “Come meet me on Bowery tonight”/Waiting on the F train” (“Siren Song”)
  • “Two ghosts left to ossify/With the hope left or denied” (“Black Lotus”)
  • “Sleep is the cousin of death/And I am not singing for you” (“Milk and Sugar”)
  • “While I’m stuck inside a room with the plans/We make them every week, but they go nowhere” (“After the Movies”)
  • “I have heard “The worst thing someone can say is no”/But really, it’s nothing at all” (“Sayonara Pt. 1”, and boy do I know that one)

I think if there was an issue I had with Sayonara, it’d be the two “Sayonara” tracks, funnily enough. They’re by no means bad songs; taken together, they play off each other’s sounds and themes, one solemn and one celebratory in a neat way. I just feel like with the way the album’s sequenced, they kinda get lost together like new lovers, and don’t feel as tied into the rest of the album as a result.

I can’t think of a way you’d really fix that–my first reaction would be to shift “Pt. 1” to be the opener, but “Siren Song” is the better opener. Strange situation. At the end of the day, like the slower songs on Down the Stairs, they work well enough when the album’s taken as a whole. It just means I tend to stop at “After the Movies”. I guarantee you they’ll click and I’ll probably have them on repeat at some point though. Took me forever to come around to “Life in the Hive”, didn’t it?

If you like your indie rock dusty and atmospheric but not quite as aimless as the dream poppers tend to go these days, you’ll love this one. The band behind it has really gelled into a complete unit, the performances are great, the songs are strong, and it stands out in a genre where being modern means adding more synths to it. A welcome return to a band that means a lot to me.

I like it a lot. Buy this album and go see them live…if they’re ever allowed to play live again. What was that about being stuck in a room?

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