Sound Scene Express

Jeremy Caywood Offers Sincerity and Skill on Intimate Live Album, “Over and Under”—Track-by-Track Review

Jeremy Caywood
“Over and Under”
Release date December 2

Review by Melanie Stangl

If you’ve ever been to the Acoustic Open Mic Night at Hambone’s in Lawrenceville, you know Jeremy Caywood as its ubiquitous sound guy and occasional host. In addition to his live sound expertise, which he puts to use at many venues around the city, Caywood is part of the talented and ever-growing group of local singer-songwriters. His newest record, “Over and Under,” comes out on December 2nd, with a release show the same day at The Funhouse at Mr. Smalls.

The fourteen-track album is a live recording made by Caywood’s label, First Flight Records. Owner Adam Levine, who oversaw the show’s recording, remarks, “We wanted to do an intimate recording that represented the full experience of attending one of his shows—there’s a lot of improvisation and spontaneity—and I think we were able to capture that feeling pretty well.” He’s spot-on. Live albums, of course, always risk imperfection, but they provide an honesty and rawness that slick studio versions can lack. Caywood’s and the crowd’s mutual appreciation gives the album heart and intimacy. The occasional moments when the audience sings along are lovely—you can feel the sense of togetherness and community come through.

It’s a fitting accompaniment to the openness and self-awareness that pervade Caywood’s lyrics. With a penchant for storytelling, he sings about his fears, his lessons, his faults, and his loved ones, inviting you into his life in the hope that you’ll hear something that makes you nod and say, “Me too.” And chances are high that you will. Wrapped up in a strong voice with impressive range, skillful guitar with inventive rhythms, and occasionally accompanied by other instruments that add welcome texture, this release sets a great example for what a live singer-songwriter album can be.

The concert took place at Chris Leya’s Liveburgh Studios on April 22, 2016. Located in Glenshaw, it’s a charming repurposed house/performance space which has hosted many up-and-coming Pittsburgh acts, bringing our city’s talent out to the suburbs. Leya also provided the drums which appear for a few songs on the album, along with David Dickinson on electric guitar, David Traugh on bass, and Bruce Lebovitz on violin.

The passion in Jeremy Caywood’s voice comes through clearly on the first track, also titled “Over and Under,” and doesn’t waver for the rest of the record.  A syncopated, repeated riff which ascends and descends musically reflects the title in a clever move.  The song explores feelings of futility—he equates himself to, among other things, a dog (“Throw the bone and I will chase it til the end/I keep running and panting”) and a wolf (“Oh you know there’s only one thing that’s gonna happen/You know I’m gonna become extinct.”)  In a pattern that will show up again and again, its complex verses are smartly balanced out with relatively simple choruses; in this case, the title phrase repeated.  The ‘live’ aspects such as pauses, banter, and applause, are well-mixed in, not overdone, adding to the listening experience rather than detracting from it.

“Last Ticket” is next, which Caywood remarks is “one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written.”  The verses assert, “everybody’s reachin’ for the stars/everybody thinks that they might figure it out/But nobody really gets it down,” while the chorus urges the need to “get in line for the last ticket to heaven, now/gotta pay that price.”  Both the instrumental and vocal rhythms alternate between fast and slow, keeping you guessing, while the “na-na-na-na’s” in the middle and end offer simpler threads that guide you through.  The crowd sings along on those “na-na’s,” in the first of several such heartening moments.

Caywood invites Dickinson to join him on the third track, “Just Don’t,” which he dedicates to “those moments when you’re just really tired of the way a person is acting.”  A slower tune that starts him off lower in his range, it incorporates figurative language compellingly for a strong storytelling feel.  Standout lines include, “And I have wandered through this forest/All the dead trees will fall,” and “All the bravest warriors stumble/As they fill up on their greed.”  The emotion described is an interesting combination of restraint and frustration.  Dickinson’s electric guitar accompaniment echoes in gorgeous, spacey fashion, which takes the song to the next level.

“Short Lived” amps up the old-fashioned folk similarities, with Lebovitz’s gorgeous violin appearing in the introduction and in interludes throughout the track.  That vibe is amplified by Caywood’s adept singing of long, melodically drawn-out words, such as, “If I find the ke-e-e-e-e-e-ey/I ho-ope it o-opens me.”  It’s downright pastoral, highlighting his versatility.

“Wings That Spread” is next, and it’s fantastic.  Lebovitz’s violin returns, balancing lower vocals with high, passionate melodic lines.  Caywood’s guitar is also especially lovely here, managing to be both pretty and bouncing with energy.  The lyrics shine with particular insight and creativity: “When you rock the boat/When you’re scared to lose/And the time will go/like an endless fuse.”  As his conviction and passion grows throughout, his voice rises higher to match it: “And wings will grow, over your head/And you will know/where your patience goes.”  The songwriting skill here is obvious; this is a standout of the record.

For the following track, “Been Tryin’,” he calls the band to the stage, introducing and praising them while they set up.  The fuller sound is welcome—they add dimension without overwhelming Caywood, whose high, powerful voice takes center stage in this midtempo song.  Both the lyrics and the passion with which they’re sung reveal a lesson learned and taken to heart: “So I’ve been tryin’ to be a man/I’ve been tryin’ to understand/that I’ve been livin’ with my hands behind my head/And I’ve been livin’…The world doesn’t turn, for me, you see/It turns, it turns, for you.”  Midway through he makes it clear he’s having fun, calling out to Dickinson, “Guitar solo!”  Dickinson obliges.

“Don’t Forget” adopts a somewhat darker tone, which Caywood describes as “kind of gnarly.”  The vocal melodies take unexpected minor dips and incorporate tritones, which offer variety and suit the slight growl he adopts in his voice.  He admonishes his faults (“And I can’t deny/that I’ve been selfish in times/Thinkin’ of myself before others”) while reminding himself of a brighter possible future (“There’s a dream, waiting on me/waiting on me.”)  The back-and-forth between the vocals and electric guitar at the end, where he insists the dream is “waitin’ on you now,” is a nice touch.

The live aspect is highlighted again at the beginning of “Don’t Back Down,” when Caywood asks the crowd, “Where’s Amy?  Will Amy sing?”  When she can’t be found, he calls up his friend Sadie to join him instead, while quietly admitting, “She’s never heard this song before.”  It’s a slower, pretty tune, in which the violin reappears and Caywood asks, “So the world’s changin’/the world’s changin’/Mmm, how ‘bout you?”  Traugh’s bass also gets a chance to shine, and Sadie’s background, improvised vocals quickly catch on to the simple refrain of “Woah, don’t back, down.”  Her skillful, gorgeous voice is one of those great live surprises that give the album its intimate feel.

“Moving Forward” brings back the storytelling vibe, this time with somewhat of a country ballad tilt.  Dickinson’s guitar is plucked and adopts a twangy tone, while Caywood sings higher in his range, referencing a journey of “old pioneers:” “And then they’d dance, until they got home.”  The subject switches from “they” to “we” by song’s end, seemingly learning from the pioneers’ example.  The song ends surprisingly, with an extended guitar solo that transitions from a country-rock hybrid tone to straightforward shredding, which is awesome.

After expressing his sincere gratitude for his house band (“Give it up for ‘em!  They worked really hard with me for twenty minutes to do all of that with you guys!”), Caywood takes the stage alone again.  A man in the crowd shouts encouragingly, “Just go crazy!” to which Caywood replies, “I, already, think I’m halfway there.”  He proceeds to acknowledge both the crowd and Levine, and remark, “Don’t forget your loved ones,” before moving into “Gotta Stay Near.”  Another highlight of the record, this song is vulnerable, contemplative, and raw, with a strong “us-against-the-world” sentiment.  Caywood croons, “Something’s fallen out of line/You say you can feel it too/I’m not the only one/The world, is bigger than us,” then implores, “And I know that sometimes it can be scary/That’s why I want you to stay near/You gotta stay near.”  Sparse instrumentation suits the song well, and the moment when he holds out a long, high vocal note to a silent, spellbound crowd is truly remarkable.

“Passing Through,” a slower, lower, thoughtful number, is another emotional powerhouse.  Caywood’s lyrics reflect on the fleeting nature of life, mistakes he’s made, and fearing that people don’t know who he really is.  Still, the melancholy mixes with strength: “I poisoned all the things I ever loved/And had no choice but to rise above.”  This mixture becomes even more pronounced when the crowd joins him in singing a repeated sentiment: “Don’t tell me why/Just tell me it’ll be all right.”  At song’s end, he stops the guitar and the voices are all that can be heard, for one of the most moving moments of the album.

The pace picks up slightly in “Woke Up New,” a post-breakup song that expertly captures all the confusing emotions that come with newfound independence.  The guitar is fast and slightly muted, focusing yet more attention to Caywood’s voice.  This is a smart move, considering the staggering creativity and honesty of his words: “On the morning I made coffee for just myself/I made too much of it/But I drank it all/just ‘cause you hated/when I let things go to waste.”  I could literally cite every lyric as an example of how great they are, but in the interest of space, I’ll hold back.  Still, these chock-full verses are once again balanced out with a simple chorus, repeatedly asking the most fundamental question: “Oh, what do I do…without you?”

With the crowd’s (and Levine’s) encouragement, Caywood continues his set, tacking on a song from his band, The Way of Life, and a new song that he doesn’t think “anybody in Pittsburgh has ever heard.”  “Day After Day” features a grittier tone of voice; rhythmic, insistent strumming; and the audience singing along to the triumphant ending anthem: “Day after day/day after day/we say, gonna fix up, gonna clean up now.”  After again thanking the crowd and reminding them, “in future months, you will also be on an album,” he concludes with “The Girl Books Only Tell Us About.”  It’s a fantastical, storytelling song, in which he details wanting to be the hero of this girl’s life: “I wish to conquer every evil she endures/be the one she’s clinging to when her nightmares burn.”  The bridge gradually builds in intensity before ending in a triumphant, held-out high note: “she wins!”

Jeremy Caywood’s “Over and Under” is genuine, heartfelt, and packed with talent.  It reveals moments of honesty, heartache, and joy—but above all else, community.  You can experience that for yourself by buying the album, and coming out to celebrate its release at The Funhouse at Mr. Smalls on Friday, December 2nd.  The music starts at 8 PM, and features special guest performers Andre Costello, The Way of Life, Adam Levine, violinist Johanna Chastek, and others.  Tickets can be purchased at the door or for a discount online here.  Check out the Facebook event page here.

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