Ambient forest noise. A lonely bell tower ringing. And stripped guitar chords. So starts “Nightmare in a Healthy Brain,” from Beaujolais’ 2008 debut, “Love at Thirty”.
“No one can take that from me…least of all you,” says Joe Ziemba in the opening track of his one man project before drums, cello, and keyboard enter into the framework of this complex, multi-part five minute track.
Joe Ziemba’s former band, The Like Young, was a husband-wife power pop duo that had garnered enough national recognition to warrant a handful of pitchfork album reviews. Joe and Amanda were cute on stage, Joe tall and lanky, spitting out guitar licks and singing with a nerdy punkster edge, while Amanda, petit behind her drumset, added flowing pop vocals. When the band broke up, it was not the end of their marriage, but rather a resignation of the fact that they could not sustain themselves financially through their music.
However, not long after the 2006 disbanding of the Like Young, Joe and Amanda were divorced. While the exact details are not widely known, it’s pretty hard not to piece together what happened from listening to the two Beaujolais albums that have come out within the past year. “Love at Thirty” very clearly discusses in great detail the reason for the break up (hint, he got cheated on).
The album highlights the events of a very bitter divorce, with melancholic imagery throughout (sample lyrics include, “’My name is Joseph’ I scream to the mirror,” “I’m becoming a vegetable”, and an entire song discussing a witnessed sexual rendezvous utilizing the chorus “I found out” ending with the echoed sentiment of his wife saying, “Oo we just fucked”).
Despite all of the above, the album does not fall into a category of “emo.” It is not a vain portrait of despair, instead, the album comes off as a man struggling to rationalize the events of his life. Musically, the songs use broad paint strokes, some tracks echo with sporadic interludes, a focus on piano instrumentation and ambient noises, with deliberate motifs, some primarily employ straight up guitar rock, while others still are written in the vein of early 60’s chart topping pop rock. Very few tracks are singular, with each song having differing segments. It’s surprisingly consistent in it’s portrayal of an emotional breakdown—ultimately, this is an autobiographical concept album with recurring themes (Friday the 13th, the loft) appearing throughout the course of the fifteen track run.
Crisp production and professional mixing polish the album to the point that you fail to realize the anger and mistrust behind the writing—early live performances of the songs had Ziemba, for lack of a better word, losing his shit each time he played, utilizing a raw emotion that, while making an incredible concert experience, left the viewer wondering, “…fuck, is that guy okay?”
In a show in May, after Ziemba had (more or less) gotten over his betrayal and had found someone else (see also- theme for next album), he was still playing with a lot of animated, eyes-closed anger, while offering up such cheerful(?) sentiments as, “This show is an important show for me, because it’s the first show I’ve played since I’ve learned to trust again.”
Ultimately, Love at Thirty throws just enough bile at the listener to grab their attention, while mixing it with agreeable, if somewhat helter-skelter instrumental accommodation that works more often than it doesn’t.
Which leads us to Beaujolais’ second album, “Admirations,” the continuation of the Joe Ziemba life story with just as many playlist-worthy tracks as Love At Thirty. Time, it appears, heals all wounds, as only lingering, passing references of Amanda appear throughout the album. As Ziemba summarized while performing his new material live, while the first album was about heartbreak and betrayal, the second is about getting laid and skinny dipping (I’m paraphrasing, but it’s not that far off from the original quotation).
While both albums begin with depictions of nature (“Nightmare in a Healthy Brain” has Ziemba sinking into grass trying to form the words “Thank You”, while “The Hereafter”, which opens “Admirations” takes a more “naked man running in the woods” approach) Admirations does not start off slow like its predecessor, instead it launches right off with a pulsing beat, asking, “Where are my clothes?”
There is less bitter irony throughout Admirations- Love at Thirty paints a bleak look at the destruction of a marriage, with that underlying belief that things will never get better that characterizes the immediate mindset after the most painful breakups we all encounter. The difference between the two albums is like recording conversations with your best friend after the break up of a long term relationship, and again after they has fallen in love again. It’s all in the same voice, similar tone, but it comes from a radically different mindset.
In reality, the two albums are practically a double album, instrumentally similar, with the same characters and motifs, with a “dark” album and a “light” album. While the more memorable tracks of Love at Thirty are in the vein of 60’s and 70’s rock and roll, the synth beats and chorus structure of the best tracks in Admirations are almost, dare I say, smart-top-40. You can see yourself dancing to them at parties (if people were familiar with the song), which is a point you never quite reach in the first album. It’s lighter, it’s happier, and even though early tracks such as “When I Lost My Innocence” and “I’m Splitting in Two” hint at the despondency of Love at Thirty, tracks such as “I’m Feeling Romantic” (with lines such as “I must have passed out from the joy/ I know longer need assistance”) and “Night of A Thousand Firsts” paint a picture of a guy, well, once again in a fulfilling relationship. As a cohesive story, there’s a beginning (heartbreak) a middle (devastation) and an end (redemption/happiness).
The redemption part of the story, though, is not as fun. At least lyrically. When we see romance crumble and die in cinema or fiction, the collective we demands resolution. A new love, a new hope, something that isn’t so…dreary. Pop music doesn’t really work on that front. Believable heartbreak is perfect for pop music. You can’t cram a whole story in a three-to-five minute song, so you focus on what the majority of the audience can relate too. So Love at Thirty’s biting lyrics grab your attention. Yes, the music is great, the melodies are enjoyable, but there’s something cathartic in listening to an album that is essentially a forty minute “Uh, fuck you”.
And let’s face it. “Fuck you” makes for a better song than “I feel appreciated”. It’s why artists are better when they’re young, poor and depressed than when they are old, rich, and famous. Most bands need an edge to be appealing, and it’s hard to keep that when your life is pretty much an episode of MTV Cribs.
Combined, Love at Thirty and Admirations are a great ying-yang musical experience. Two sides of one coin, centered on a tangible storyline that create a cohesive whole, with single-worthy tracks on each album. On their own, Admirations spends too much time checking it’s rearview mirror to remind us of Love at Thirty, which frankly is the superior album. Which isn’t to say it’s a poor album- if I were to give out grades, Love at Thirty is an A-minus, while Admirations still scores a solid B. But when given the choice between the two, I generally know what I’ll be popping into the CD player. Because let’s face it. An album by someone pissed off at life is more interesting than one who is content with it.