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Andrew Cedermark, ‘Home Life’ – Album Review

Andrew Cedermark’s terrific new album, ‘Home Life,’ owes little to his work as guitarist on the first two Titus Andronicus records. His past is no secret, but it’s hardly relevant to his solo music, as the only thing Cedermark really has in common with his old New Jersey mates is that both he and Titus frontman Patrick Stickles can easily be mistaken for a 2000-era indie rock legends.

But rather than adopt Stickles’ Conor Oberst-like emotion-over-tonality vocal style, Cedermark opens his second full-length with vocals bound to have listeners questioning whether Jeff Mangum has extended his comeback and started recording under a pseudonym.

The similarity to Neutral Milk Hotel might be less the result of influence than of coincidence, but the comparison speaks to Cedermark’s intent as a songwriter. One of Mangum’s most beloved lyrics is the observation, “This is the room one afternoon I knew I could love you.” The emotional importance and weight of that nostalgic statement has always felt more significant than the words mean at face value, and that same kind of self-reflection and honesty are present on ‘Home Life.’

That’s true of ‘On Me’ — an unfaithful recreation of ‘Lean On Me’ that Cedermark seemingly wrote from a memory of hearing the Bill Withers song or seeing the Morgan Freeman flick — and of the vagabond originals that dominate ‘Home Life.’ Cedermark’s tunes are as wild as the world that exists outside the safety of home, and throughout ‘Home Life,’ his commitment to traditional Western pop structures is loose. It often sounds as if he’s writing from the memory of what songs sound like, and while he’s hardly experimenting in the same realm as labelmate Julian Lynch, songs like ‘Canis Major’ and ‘Heap of Trash’ veer just far enough away the expected to make the listener either curious or frustrated.

On the former, Cedermark capably struts through a swaggering guitar-rock shuffle, but at certain points, he gets a bit too free with his vibrating and unpredictable vocals and loses the momentum of the song. The central, repeated guitar riff keeps things grounded, though, and even when Cedermark seems a little lost in his own artistic world, that Malkmus-indebted lead brings it all back home.

The album walks a tightrope between success and failure until the second half, when things pick up, either because the listener gets used to Cedermark’s quirks, or because he loads the back end with the album’s highlights. ‘At Home’ is almost an anthem, and while it’s still too fidgety for satellite radio stations to put in rotation, it’s easy to imagine the tune providing a transcendental listening experience in the right setting. It’s anchored by the closing line, “I am going home to nothing,” a sentiment that recurs on ‘Come Back,’ when Cedermark offers a slightly modified version of a cliche that’s never seemed more true: “Once you go home, you know that you never can come back.”

These lines speak directly to the record’s theme, as closers ‘Men In Jail’ and the ambitious ‘Memories, Ah!’ find Cedermark using his emotional delivery to hammer home the same point. The “Ah!” in the latter’s title appears literally near the end of the song, as if all this heavy subject matter and self-reflection finally make Cedermark want to scream.

It’s a cathartic moment for the listener as well, and it’s as if Cedermark is asking listeners to forgive any frustration he may have caused to that point. He’s not trying to outsmart anyone, and on the contrary, he’s trying to express very real, very complicated emotional experiences in a way that feels right to him.

‘Home Life’ is ultimately a challenging listen, but it’s a rewarding one, too, evoking indie music of the ’90s that was tough listening for then-residents of Alternative Nation. Most of the artists Cedermark references didn’t get the recognition they deserved until much later, and if he must suffer the same fate, a pretty great album awaits the youth of the 2020′s.

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