Right now couldn’t be more appropriate for a new Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties album. Given how The Wonder Years have been moving towards transposing their hefty emotion to a more straightforward rock context on Sister Cities (and doing it wonderfully, at that), it feels as though Dan Campbell’s side-project serves as more of an extension than its own entity, and that’s no bad thing. Campbell has a songwriting skill and knack for channeling deep passion in his voice that’s basically unrivaled, and scaled back to the more intimate, rustic folk-rock of Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties, it offers a fresh dimension to how that same idea is presented in The Wonder Years, but in a context that’s unequivocally more personal and zeroed in on the Aaron West persona. In a way, it frames Routine Maintenance as something of a companion piece to Sister Cities, not only in terms of sonic proximity, but in a lyrical style and field that only looks to be strengthened here.
And that really does seem to be an accurate representation of Routine Maintenance, an album that sees its protagonist exploring his own view of the human condition while beaten down, lonely and simply looking for some kind of compassion. On paper, that could come across like a retelling of what Sister Cities did with its narrative direction, and while that isn’t exactly untrue, Campbell is canny enough as a writer and a musician to know how to eke out whatever possibilities he can from that sort of subject matter and still have it feel compelling and affecting. As such, the assertion of Routine Maintenance being a companion piece isn’t a wrong one, but to reduce it down to just that would be ignoring how great this album is on its own merits.
And, as is to be expected, a lot of that is down to the writing, the trump card that’s always been a key factor in any Campbell has ever done, and even if a handful of more faithful touchstones can make some of Routine Maintenance’s moments feel a little less distinct, the poetic sense of flow and progression can’t be denied, particularly in how Campbell’s vocal timbre that’s not afraid to get full-throated and raw, but often plays to quieter, more insular tones. It works on a track like Rosa & Reseda in a sense of triumph at finding a friend in a new city despite the overwhelming odds, but also scaling back and diminishing said triumph when that friend has to leave, and the narrator is alone once again. In terms of writing, this isn’t that far removed from folk-leaning introspection that’s become the bread and butter of many a frontman looking to break out on their own, but Campbell’s knowledge of range is what ultimately sends Routine Maintenance over the top. It’s not like these are emotions diving into the minutiae of these feelings either – there’s a sense of pain that wants the dying relationship of Just Sign The Papers to just be over, while Bloodied Up In A Bar Fight and God & The Billboards both look to frame vulnerability and loneliness in different situations – but Campbell really is fantastic at getting to the core of what makes these concepts effective and giving them so much power. There’s a degree of depth here that goes the extra mile, and that can be appreciated.
Of course, that’s often the case with albums like this as a means of keeping equilibrium against a simpler, more barebones instrumental pallet, but Routine Maintenance feels a lot better than a more average album in that regard too. The Bruce Springsteen homages are present as always in the rollicking Americana of Runnin’ Toward The Light, but there’s also a greater pliability with this range of sounds that feels fresh without losing any of its burnished, homegrown charm. That’s established right from the start with Lead Paint & Salt Air and its heavier, more tense churn in the guitars and pianos, while the bracing country bounce of Rosa & Reseda and the downbeat lament of Wildflower Honey play in different lanes, but ultimately still feel cohesive and concise. The warmth and personality that comes from this album is its key factor, driven by battered but indelibly charismatic acoustics and brassy accompaniments to fully nail down the sense of quintessential American timelessness. It’s definitely an easy album to pin down (no less because this is a sound that’s been given plenty of legroom already), but it’s hard to deny how much it works and how well Campbell is able to carry it.
And in a way, it’s Routine Maintenance’s familiarity, both to The Wonder Years’ recent output and this scene as a whole, that allows it to work as well as it does. With Campbell playing to his strengths in almost every field, there’s an expectedness to how this album turns out that never feels overly safe or toothless. Rather, Routine Maintenance feels like an excellent culmination of what he’s achieved as a musician up to this point, scaled back and given a sense of melancholy and personality that works wonders for it across the board. It might be one that’ll slip under the radar for some, but among a scene that can so often feel like it’s simply going through the motions, Campbell is able to bring in a crucial amount depth and heart.
For fans of: Bruce Springsteen, The Weakerthans, The Gaslight Anthem
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Routine Maintenance’ by Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties is released on 10th May on Hopeless Records.