Matthew Caws and Juliana Hatfield are living proof that some songwriters never tire. For decades, the two Northeastern personalities have entertained small audiences without ever sacrificing their creative voices, and it’s worked well for them. Caws’ resume with Nada Surf improves with age (see: 2012’s The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy), while Hatfield unwraps new material on a whim. In the past year alone, she’s dropped both an adventurous covers collection and her 13th studio album, the PledgeMusic-funded Wild Animals. Now, after tinkering with each other’s tunes for half a decade, Caws and Hatfield have united for Minor Alps — a matchup as natural as two greying neighbors raking leaves under autumn skies.
Their eclectic debut album, Get There, frames this rare companionship by leaving room for expansion. Much like Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner’s Divine Fits, Caws and Hatfield dabble with their respective alternative strengths but never at the cost of waxing nostalgic. Hatfield’s just as independent as she is on her self-released efforts, only now there’s a weight to her melodies that’s been missing since her time with Blake Babies or Some Girls. And while Caws tends to sit shotgun by comparison, it works to his advantage. His singular impacts bruise hard, striking nerves he hasn’t hit since 2008’s Lucky, which coincidentally featured Hatfield.
“I felt a real kinship,” Caws recently told Rolling Stone of the partnership. “We’re different, but there’s some kind of shared musical DNA in there somewhere.” They’re actually quite similar: both are 46, both were raised in the Northeast, and both share an impressive cult history of surviving just outside the door with the sign that reads, “Breakthrough.” What’s shocking, however, is the level of intimacy between them. As Hatfield addressed in an early press release, “It’s a delicate balance to go to that vulnerable place, yet do it in front of another person. That was the challenge, but the more we did it, the more it felt natural.” It sounds like it.
Few musicians could carve out an album like this without at least some level of shared comfort. Brutally honest themes and depressingly vivid images of isolation, longing, and restlessness suffuse the album, which starts off with the very anti-Kumbaya line: “such a loner.” Shortly after, it’s a night with a nervous wreck (“I Don’t Know What to Do With My Hands”), a litany of tragic compromises (“If I Wanted Trouble”), brushes of fantastical nostalgia (“Maxon”), and stabbing hunger pains of love (“Waiting for You”). “The sun’s not working on me,” the two sing on “Mixed Feelings”, a Goo-dirge of a track that aptly captures the anxiety of feeling alone at home, regardless of who’s there. This manic brand of emotionalism fuels the album’s 11 tracks, in which empty houses, stranded islands, and vacant seats are a commonality every other line in each song.
Don’t call it a bummer album, though. There’s too much character in this music to leave anyone crawling out of bed for their therapist’s number. Not only do Caws and Hatfield see eye to eye on emotional crises, but they also have keen ears on what they can and want to do musically. (It helps that they performed every instrument — with the exception of percussive duties, which were handled by Parker Kindred and Chris Egan.) It’s a fiery allotment of creativity: Bookends “Buried Plans” and “Away Again” run on a dusty Roland TR-909; “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Hands” and “Mixed Feelings” knead out the scuzzy alternative that once ruled over cassettes; and “If I Wanted Trouble” and “Wish You Were Upstairs” combine both worlds with relaxed folksy harmonies. In between, fills are parsed out, melodies package ideas, and hooks turn all the right corners — it just doesn’t get more focused than this.
Basically, they did everything right here. Get There is an intelligent, authentic alternative rock album that sounds as enjoyable to live in as it probably was to make. It’s not that we needed this album, but it’s a nicety worth celebrating — like OJ with some pulp, central air, or Vancouver. Whether Caws and Hatfield should evolve this collaboration is up for debate. Personally, I’d rather this be a snapshot moment, like that one photo of a family trip that somehow outlived the memory over the years. That would be nice. And that’ll probably happen, too.
Essential Tracks: “If I Wanted Trouble”, “Waiting For You”, and “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Hands”