Portland band Armies released its debut, self-titled album three years ago. It took its time with the follow-up, “Armies II,” and it was well worth the wait. The album was released on Aug. 17, and the band is celebrating with a Friday night show at Aura.
“Armies II” was produced by Jon Roods (bass and keys), Andrew Mead and singer/guitarist Dave Gutter at Rustic Studios in Portland and some individual home studios. It was mastered by Adam Ayan at Gateway Mastering.
I’ll unpack more about the album in a bit, but first a little Armies 101. It’s is a five-piece band fronted by Gutter (Rustic Overtones, Paranoid Social Club) and singer Anna Lombard. The rest of the band is Roods, beatmaker DJ Ellsworth and drummer Ryan Curless. It likes to describe its sound as rock/R&B dance music that has been heavily influenced by hip-hop, gospel, funk and psychedelic French pop of the ’60s.
After listening to the new album on repeat for about four consecutive days, it’ll get no argument from me.
The band name was born out of a tumultuous relationship Gutter had with a girl named Ami. Legend has it that when a friend asked after Gutter’s whereabouts, the response was, “He joined the Ami.” The name suits the band well, as a number of the songs on the first album and the new one get into the trenches of relationship strife. The “Armies II” opening track, “Born Again,” begins with Lombard and Gutter trading the lines “You told me that I hurt you, I could say the same/Instead of moving out your furniture we could rearrange/I know the table’s turned, I can look you in the face/Baby I can learn, I just made a few mistakes.” It’s a funky, fierce song and reinforces my belief in the power of informed sequencing decisions. “Born Again” sets the tone for the album, and I suggest listening to the songs in order for the full experience. Think of it as a multi-course meal meant to hit different taste buds at different times.
The first single off of “Armies II” is “Young Criminals.” It’s a soulful, feel-good tune that recounts childhood days of petty thievery, and although crime is a theme, it’s really a nostalgic take on being young and carefree without adult consequences. Plus, it’s mighty catchy, and Gutter and Lombard’s vocals are stellar. With piano and gospel-tinged backing vocals, “Young Criminals” is a sensational tune and the perfect choice for the first single. “I remember when we were young, when the sun seemed to shine all day/Stealing candy from the corner store, we were young criminals, young, young criminals.” The refrain, “We got it away with it, never caught doing anything wrong,” is meant to be sung along with, so don’t be shy when you listen to it. Gutter told me that the track hit No. 185 on the North American College & Community Chart. Armies also shared on its Facebook page that it’s getting radio airplay in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, California, Hawaii, Wisconsin and Maine, and I have no doubt that number will rise in the coming weeks and months.
My favorite track on “Armies II” is called “Social Life,” an unflinching take on the darker side of social media. Gutter said it was inspired by a Facebook post by rapper Thommy Kane. “It was a harsh look at the loneliness that’s beneath the surface of people’s online personas,” he said. “I loved the irony of a social media rant about social media rants.”
Lombard plays piano on the track, and Gutter said they went for a minimalist approach musically to set the stage for the words to hit home.
Lombard said that “Social Life” is among her favorites on the album. “Maybe because of its relevance in the way Facebook and Instagram has been successfully ruining the social fabric of our society, maybe because it’s relatable: how easy it’s become to portray ourselves and our lives as something other than what or who we are,” she said.
After a couple of haunting piano notes, Gutter’s signature gravelly voice comes in with the lines, “She expresses herself onto somebody else through a link on a phone/There are pictures of bottles of wine the whole time, she’s been drinking alone.” It continues: “It’s always a picture ’cause video shows all the seconds between, and she can’t be exposed if she hides in the moments she edits between/No notification, she’s growing impatient refreshing her screen, refreshing her screen again … that’s the social life.”
Lombard’s vocals are tremendous, adding to the poignancy of the song. She takes lead on the next verse. “Every morning like birds on the telephone wire, it tweets on his phone/He’s uploading some pictures of breakfast that he’s eating alone/Sees a girl in a picture, a friend of a friend that he don’t even know/But he lights up the heart on her Instagram post ’cause it’s only for show.” The line “follow me” is repeated several times with an echo effect, and there’s a whirl of synths and strings in there as well.
Here’s the video for “Young Criminals”
Gutter’s favorite track on the album is “Deeper.” It’s a chill, funky jam that breaks open as it goes along and then closes back in on itself. With sprinklings of electric guitar and a mess of vibey keys and a steady beat, “Deeper” has a lush refrain: “How far are you willing to let me take you? Further than ever before.” “It was one of the first songs we wrote for the album, and lyrically we are meditating on the unknown,” Gutter said. He added that they pushed themselves to dare to go somewhere they’ve never been. “I feel like we accomplished this credo throughout ‘Armies II,’ and ‘Deeper’ really set the tone for that,” he said.
As far as the actual making of “Armies II,” Lombard shared that over the course of making it was the first time she felt confident suggesting arrangement ideas or lyrical changes in a studio setting. “This was largely due to the fact that I’ve learned and grown so much as a writer over the last three years,” she said.
Lombard went on to say that they recorded 37 songs and chose 11 that made sense sonically when grouped together. “The five of us have a really solid vibe,” she said. “We never really faced any real challenges in terms of creating and finishing this record together other than the occasional individual struggles that come into play when trying to lay down vocals or track an instrument. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, those challenges work to your advantage and offer palpability to your studio performances. It’s medicinal.That’s why I do it.”
Gutter said they approached the album on a song-to-song basis, and once they narrowed the list down, they overdubbed instruments to create common threads sonically to tie the record together. “Matching the mood of the music to the lyrics was our main focus: soundtrack and dialogue,” he said. All of the musical beds (instrumentals) were written as a band, and Gutter handled the lyrics. Gutter collaborated with rapper Kane on the writing of “Young Criminals” and “Social Life.”
Gutter likens Armies albums to Bollywood movies in that they feature action, romance, murder, mystery and musical all in one. “It’s all about the songs, and the exploration of genres is the conduit for that inspiration,” he said.
Moving forward, Gutter said the band is going to release most of the songs from “Armies II” as singles and is filming videos for most of them as well. It’s currently planning a North American tour and a remix album of “Armies II.” “We plan on bringing the live show to all the people out there who are already showing us love around the country,” he said.
As for the Portland album-release show, Gutter said they have lots of special treats in store, including 3-D visuals, live remixes, all-star super jams and Lombard’s debut on keys.”I feel like the exhilaration of playing these songs for the first time will be contagious,” he said.
Gutter added that if you’re a fan of dancing, get there on time to catch openers OHX and Kenya Hall, who are “gonna bring the house down.”
Having seen all three of these acts before, I can vouch for Gutter’s assertion. Congrats on making such a tremendous record, Armies. I can’t wait to party with you at Aura.
It might be best to jump on tickets sooner than later to avoid be shut out of this show. I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be a real humdinger. Not only that, I just got word that the band will be filming the video for “Social Life” during the show, so look sharp, people!
Want a sneak preview? Head to Bull Moose Music on 456 Payne Road in Scarborough on Sunday at 5 p.m. for a special in-store performance from Armies.
WHEN: 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7.
WHERE: Aura, 121 Center St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $15 in advance, $18 day of show, 18-plus.