Bad Ties Makes Poetry Cool(er)!

During my freshman year of college, one of my favorite professors invited me to read at an event called “PoJazz.” If my freshman self had ever heard the musical creations of Bad Ties, I’m sure she wouldn’t have hesitated at all to join in!

Based out of Asheville, North Carolina, since 2017, Bad Ties takes PoJazz to a new level with their experimental mix of spoken word, jazz, and post-punk to create a brand new style of beat poetry. The work of Garland Wells (Poet), Jacob Moran (Producer), Billy Reed (Bass), and Jason Chrisman (Tenor Sax) is truly one of a kind.

The band’s latest release, titled Music 4 No One Vol. 1, is their fourth LP. The record, mixed and mastered by Sid Saravanan, focuses on themes of heartbreak, displacement, and substance abuse, and was released on December 14, 2019 at a celebratory hometown show.

“Just Goofin” plays with tempo and empty space in a way that crafts an utterly unique listening experience. Mixing white space with a dragging, stilted melody, the instrumentals of the track add a lot to the poetry’s lyrical twists and turns, creating layers of rhythm that the ear races to understand: “Tenuous, terrible, / Marble faced shame! / Ride along, bridal song, / Warbled mouth dame. / Step away, entry way / Nothing was the same. / Nonsense words, all preferred, / All parties were game. / Simmer down, abandon crown, / Gyges is dead. / Staccato walk, bravado talk, / Disregard what he said. / The ring was turned, Republic burned, / I’ve died a hundred times. / A monster’s life, this constant strife, / I’ve lied a hundred rhymes.”The saxophone outro takes the staccato backing and turns it on its head, producing a flowing, mellifluous contrast to give listeners a lot to think about.

“Critical” continues the flow of the ending notes of “Just Goofin’,” allowing Garland’s storytelling abilities to shine over a bed of twinkling notes. He tells of a kind of self-doubt and failure artists know all too well, and the sense of hopelessness that comes with it: “We found out on the long train ride back from Brooklyn, /  Reeling from a show that only sold seats / To staff and ghosts. And / A fear hits me in the chest / That grows from marble to fate / And all with the flick of a baton. / Were we doomed? / Is this early reaction a kindness from peers? / Do I see the words about to burst, only for them to ring all hollow? / What the hell are we doing here?”

“Critical” is one of those tracks that makes you wish you could come up with lines as nuanced as Garland’s. It’s easy, as a writer and a music lover, to appreciate just how much thought and skill was put into every word.

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[Image by Ivan Basil]
“Allure of the Abyss” continues the musical themes found in the previous tracks in the form of rhythmic white space and slightly off-beat instrumentals that create an ideal level of dissonance. Instead of storytelling, “Allure of the Abyss” focuses on character development. Avoiding cliches and relying heavily on metaphorical descriptions, the lyrics paint a picture of a woman in specifics: “She’s no believer, /
But she’s deeply spiritual. / She prays to her stones, / A rock solid miracle. / She says they enlighten her, / Clear away fog of mind. / Deep down she’s just lonely, / She has far too much time. / She’s a corpse during sunlight, / She’s radiant in the moonlight.
/ She hums arcane melodies, / Reads death dates for fun. / She struts down back alleys, / Dances down by the docks.” The characterization in “Allure of the Abyss” creates a woman I want to learn more about in future songs.

“Cigarettes and Coke” is another well-produced track that illustrates the offbeat talents of Bad Ties. Featuring the bass in prominence, the instrumentals are deep and psychedelic underneath dreamy spoken-word vocals. On the surface, “Cigarettes and Coke” is a strange and perilous journey into strangeness. When analyzed further, patterns emerge in the seemingly random musicality, all driven by the relationship between the bassline, following instrumentals, and rhythm of the vocals. “Cigarettes and Coke” is the perfect Alice in Wonderland track for poetry and music fans alike.

To many bands, a song the length of “A Lifetime Position” would be a throwaway interlude. To Bad Ties, it’s a whole new story, this time a rhyming ode to the life of a poet set to the deep drone of a bass: “I implore to you all, / Raise me up like Lazarus. / Though I have to warn you / This small man is hazardous. / Loud, quiet, / Sunk low, stuck in this canyon. / Committed for life, / The poet D’Artagnan.” The exploration of the speaker’s life juxtaposed with that of their peers creates a lovely dissonance within the track.

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[Album cover designed by Quin Terry]
The beginning of “Gods on the Fritz” features a 90’s sitcom-style voice over, including a laugh track. What follows are clubby wavelengths, overlaid by the story that reflects the title, which invokes many allusions and plenty of mythology: “Burnt to a crisp / Icarus carrying the sun. / You can call me Copernicus, / Party of one. / Fly me to Hermes, / I’m feeling this brandy. / Shrug on me, Atlas / I’m feeling Ayn Randy.” I enjoy the poetry of “Gods on the Fritz,” but the well-placed chaos in them makes the track one that I, personally, wouldn’t be able to just listen to without purpose.

“Wicked Eyes” brings back the slower flow of some previous tracks that I enjoy. Smooth, warbling instrumentals guide the song through its 1:40 running time, their continuity reassuring as we move through the story within the poetry. The delivery of the lyrics of “Wicked Eyes” is truly what makes the track unique. Garland’s intonation and attitude are clearly practiced, every bit of emphasis well-placed, especially through lines like “There are couples everywhere / These two, those two / Whose Boo? That’s MY Boo. / How can I be sipping / This witches brew? / At what point in the trajectory / Did I stray askew?” Songs like “Wicked Eyes” are great to really show a band’s personality and make listeners feel more connected to the group and their work.

The dark bell tones that kick off “Funeral” create a dramatic setting for the building of tensions within the song. The description of setting stands out within the poetry of the song: “The coffin coma, / An oft rotting aroma / The ropes creaking slowly, / The submerged bed eternal. / The 6’ by 2’ hole, / Was drowned in a flash, / The crowd disengaged, / The proud priest enraged. / The dirty river vertical, / My lost love now lateral.”Mournful, twisting saxophone notes emphasize the tangle of feelings found within the lyrics, a perfect combination and one of the most effective uses of the instrumentals of the album.

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[Image by Luke Gura]
“Soul and Time” brings back the rising and falling instrumentals and plodding beats of previous parts of the album. The slow, jilted rhythms and depth within the bass notes create an interesting ambiance for the vocals. Long lines and well-phrased lyrics make for a solidly-paced track with an abundance of rhetorical questions such as “Are you my Cleopatra? / Does venom flow within your pretty veins? / How does this love pretend to function? / How does her memory paint me in her mind? / Be it a charming villain? / Floundering nebbish? / Cynical fool? / And how did your portrait fare?” Bad Ties’ exploration of love and loss is definitely a deep one.

“Outward Hands” is the final track of Music 4 No One Vol. 1. White noise and birdsong lead us gently into lyrics, followed closely by a tense, deep thrum at the heart of the song. Although most albums typically end with a track that wraps things up nicely with a bow made up of the previous themes of the album, it is clear that Music 4 No One Vol. 1. is not meant for that. Instead, measures of gentle saxophone, the flutter of a page flip, and dark vocals leave us, all at once, both satiated and and starving for more.

Bad Ties plans to tour for Music 4 No One Vol. 1 throughout 2020. To catch a show in your area, stay tuned on their social media for updates!

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***Like the majority of my reviews, a submission fee was charged for this post.***

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