- By Patrick Caldwell Special to the American-Statesman
The Bright Light Social Hour learned the hard way — “the hard way” meaning hundreds of shows across three years of touring — that it’s a rare band that can party all the time.
“When we started out, we played in Austin like once a month, so every show was a huge celebration. So we threw all the writing into that, and the songs and the shows were parties,” says Jack O’Brien, bassist and singer of the local rock and soul quartet. “When we took that on the road, and quit our day jobs, it became immediately apparent that what was really fun at first — a party every night— was not sustainable. We became actors, instead of people pouring out our souls.”
That’s among the reasons the Bright Light Social Hour that seizes the stage at Stubb’s outdoors Friday night — and that packed them in at Waterloo Records two weeks ago for the release of long-awaited sophomore album “Space Is Still The Place”— is not quite the same Bright Light Social Hour that blew up the Austin music scene five years ago.
The Bright Light Social Hour — O’Brien, guitarist and singer Curtis Roush, drummer Joseph Mirasole, and synthesizer player and guitarist Edward Brailiff, who replaced former keyboardist A.J. Vincent in 2013 — turned a hard-won Austin City Limits Music Festival slot into a raucous dance party in 2009. They landed on local radio on the strength of explosively catchy gems like “Back And Forth” and “Bare Hands Bare Feet.” They swept the 2010 Austin Music Awards— netting, among other honors, band of the year, album of the year for their self-titled debut, and song of the year, for slyly political torch song “Detroit.”
The Bright Light Social Hour was the right band for a booming moment in Austin — proud, energetic, joyous and joking guys with a communal spirit and a sound that mashed together Southern rock, soul and bouncing dance vibes. After the release of their first album, they toured extensively, opened for Aerosmith and the Dave Matthews Band, and went viral when they recorded an energetic ode to Wendy Davis after the representative’s famed filibuster.
But they also felt the urge to, if not reinvent themselves, iterate themselves. Life as a good times party band overstayed its welcome.
“A lot of the material we recorded after that first record and touring, we kind of woke up and listened to and just thought wasn’t that interesting,” Roush says. “We realized there was no reason to be bound by the music we made in the past, nor by what anybody expected of us. So we started talking about what we wanted to say with this music, and what kind of music we could make and tour on every night for years.”
“With the new music we had to think a lot more about what parts of ourselves we were sharing,” adds O’Brien. “So we could feel like naked versions of ourselves on stage, instead of versions of ourselves that felt like we were dressed as someone else.”
Hence, “Space Is Still The Place.” Where their first album was defined by memorable standalone songs, “Space Is Still The Place” is a more complete work, a 45-minute Southern psychedelic rock odyssey that at times — the swaggering singalong “Ghost Dance” — sounds like the Bright Light Social Hour of old, occasionally sounds like a trippier Black Keys, and sometimes nods to the electronica of English duo Disclosure or the psychedelic soul of ’70s Detroit rockers Black Merda.
“It seems like a lot of the options for Southern bands is to either be a throwback act, or to sound like a coastal band. Like, you may be from Austin, but if you want to be hip you need to sound like a New York band,” says Roush. “And we just don’t like that choice. We’re attracted to the idea of chucking that dynamic altogether and trying to synthesize something outside those choices.”
“Space Is Still The Place” is more carefully sequenced than its predecessor, more focused on building and sustaining mood. And it’s more concerned with contemplation and theme. Its lyrics — though more poetic than polemical — tackle the weight of history, the often-bleak economic and political landscape faced by young people, and the need for community. As the Sun Ra-referencing title suggests, “Space Is Still The Place,” is also shot through with ideas about transcendence. Astronomical references, using outer space as a metaphor for evolving above the fray, abound — the soaring final two tracks are titled “The Moon” and “Escape Velocity.”
“Getting out into the country, meeting a lot of people and going into so many cities provided us with so much more perspective to expand our impression of the political and cultural climate of the country,” says Roush. “The first record was based on the observations of some dudes who went to college and lived in one city. Our horizons broadened a lot.”
One thing the band encountered in its travels was a seemingly endless procession of people struggling financially, trapped in jobs with little potential for advancement or self-actualization. That resonated, and led to the album’s weightier themes.
“We’ve struggled a lot, but we are kind of in our situation by choice … compared to a lot of the people we stayed with, a lot of them were working jobs that were really a grind for them, totally out of necessity, and they didn’t have the luxury of being able to tailor their lives around a project of passion,” says O’Brien. “In that sense we’re extremely fortunate. Everything we do is out of love or passion for the music, which makes us a lot more privileged than people who don’t have the freedom to explore.”
For “Space Is Still The Place,” “freedom to explore” also meant making the album in the band’s home studio, which let the Bright Light Social Hour pour more time into the recording, an opportunity that pays off in the final product — and even makes the debut album sound retroactively sparse.
“A lot of bands will go to the recording studio and take a month to make a full-length record. Putting it on our own clock let us explore a lot more. We got more deep into synths and drum machines,” says Roush. “We spent days working on vocal effects, or different ways to get new sounds out of a guitar. If we’d been in a studio counting the clock I don’t think we would have gone that far.”
“We probably spent way over 260 studio days working on the record,” adds Mirasole. “At the rate of a few hundred dollars a day, it would have been impossible to record like that.”
For all of the changes noticeable on “Space Is Still The Place,” though, the virtues that have always defined the Bright Light Social Hour are still there. The live show is still energetic and rollicking, and the band is still defined by the communal ideal represented on “Bare Hands Bare Feet” — their fundamentally positive outlook is just a bit more nuanced.
“I think that optimism is a lot more meaningful once you take a look at the gritty, ugly parts of the now that need to be changed. The last record is a bit more, ‘Hey, forget the bad times, let’s all get together and have a good time’” says O’Brien. (“Pollyanna,” interjects Roush.) “… To me, this album has a stronger message of optimism, because it has that tinge of reality accompanying it.”