The Big Easy Blends Garage Rock, Pop Punk, and Emo and Makes Something Greater

The Big Easy Blends Garage Rock, Pop Punk, and Emo and Makes Something Greater

The Big Easy’s energetic and heartfelt debut A Long Year is angst at its finest and most honest.

Indie rock can be a really insufficient label. Two indie rock bands might sound nothing alike, but the label “indie rock” could be the only thing to describe them both well enough. That being said, the Big Easy is an indie rock band, but they freely fill their sound with pop-punk energy and influences and even stir in some emo to the mix. It’s bright and loud and distorted, but Stephen Berthomieux, songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist, writes songs about pain, loneliness and emotional turmoil. It sounds contradictory, but the Big Easy packs their sound full of heart, and the brightness and darkness go hand in hand beautifully.

 A Long Year, the band’s debut album, is newly out, and while the songs tell of a breakup, it never feels like it’s trapped by that theme. There’s some serious self analysis and personal growth depicted in the lyrics. Berthomieux is joined by fellow guitarist Stephen Adams and drummer Pete Clark. It’s a loud, cathartic album. Berthomieux’s voice is sometimes cracking and hoarse, but he makes it all feel real and authentic and honest. The Big Easy has pop-punk energy, but they’re all heart.

Right off the bat the guitar, bass, and drums crash in on “It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Hurt.” A high, electric riff squeals over the hammering distortion, and you can tell immediately that this album is overflowing with energy. When Berthomieux’s voice breaks in, he’s belting with force and heart. Sometimes nearly screaming himself hoarse, sometimes more gentle, his style matches his lyrics’ honesty and openness. He sings about a person who doesn’t return his feelings anymore, and he’s left clinging to a thread. It’s a common enough theme, and given the Big Easy’s periodic pop-punk feel, it could easily become whiny or annoying. But it’s real emotions without venom, and a repeated line drives that home: “And I won’t hold it against you / Even if I tried to.”

The next track, “A Drink for Two”, is just shy of two minutes, but it packs a lot of flavor in its short duration. It starts off blasting, but  continues the story of loneliness and unrequited feelings from the last track. In the second verse, the power chords, bass, and drums fade, leaving Berthomieux’s voice and scattered guitar. There’s shades of talk-singing in his vocals, but he fills his voice with genuine vulnerability. The song shifts back with some easygoing power chords under a synth riff, but retains its earnestness. The Big Easy’s mix of indie rock, emo, and pop punk isn’t dripping with irony and sarcasm, but fueled by perseverance and honesty.

“Fake It Till I Make It” starts off with some guitar that’s pretty quiet by the band’s standard. It’s electric but lowkey, and Berthomieux’s voice echoes overtop. If the last track was ruled by vulnerability, this one is dominated by loneliness bordering on desperation. Berthomieux’s lyrics capture the unbearable feelings of being lost, listless, and confused: 

I try to find out how long I don’t need sleep

Cause everything is so different from last year

I wish it sounded so simple through my ears

And I can never be peaceful with myself

I’m just another book to put back on your shelf

The distortion ramps up as the song goes on, with drums and bass bursting back in. There’s a brief moment of cohesion, but the final break down under the line, “I guess I’ll fake it till I make it,” feels scattered and chaotic in the best way possible.

The confusion of the last track gives way to just plain suffering on “Alone.” Berthomieux howls over thundering bass and bare drums, but when the guitars start riffing, they sound bright and rocking. It’s a wild juxtaposition between Berthomieux’s emo lyrics and vocals and the instrumentation of a loud and shiny rock song. It gives you pause, but the two sounds meet in the middle. The guitar’s riffing becomes more desperate in a strange intangible sort of way, and Berthomieux’s wails are joined by backing vocals repeating the final line of the song “With my face in my palms.” This track shows just how effortlessly the band mixes and freely borrows from genres, creating a sound that’s familiar but new and fresh too.

The next track, “Basement,” starts with an almost clockwork sound that becomes a chunky bassline, joined by Berthomieux’s low and subdued voice. After the first verse, the song bursts open, with pop-punky power chords. But it never quite settles on one sound. It’s a song that brings the unsure feelings of the lyrics alive. The track acts like a mid-album breather in a way. It’s still full of energy and distortion, but the song signals a shift from the emotional spiralling we’ve heard so far on the album. It’s full of self analysis, and it has a killer verse that’s unexpectedly hopeful: “I was living in the basement / And I could never see outside / But I was happy in a weird way / I’m on a road to recovery.”

“How Do I Get You Alone?” shows that this road to recovery is not a short or easy one. The raw emotions return for this track, but it’s more thoughtful and critical. Berthomieux sings about loneliness, not hoarsely wailing this time but still packing the lines with intense, genuine emotions. The guitars are loud and bright, and the drums and bass have plenty of energy. The song has a feeling of perseverance. It feels like things are going to be okay, but there’s still plenty of hurting left to happen. I particularly like the line: “I wouldn’t wish you the same but are you lonely too?” There’s a maturity and lack of bitterness, but it still shows the anguish that’s hard to avoid after a relationship ends. 

Clean, electric guitar strums open up “The Low Tier God,” but you know the distortion can’t stay away for long, and the power chords crash in quickly after. Berthomieux’s hoarse howling is back and as raw as ever. This track is heavier on the self loathing, but it keeps the instruments bright and snarling. There’s even a few flashes of acoustic guitar between the verses that keep the song’s sound ever changing. When the final verse rolls around, things go down a notch. Berthomieux’s voice is low and subdued and the bass rumbles out with hints of guitar feedback behind. But the song can’t resist bursting open one more time, before a nice acoustic coda, with an appearance from some jingle bells. It’s a sweet little touch, and shows yet another sound this band is capable of.

“If I Knew It Was the Last Time” starts with driving, irresistible guitar and never lets up. This song is ruled by feedback, but it keeps things moving always. Berthomieux has a talent for writing and singing lines that feel like they’re going to be too unwieldy but end up totally working for the song. On the other hand, he’s not afraid of writing a chorus that consists entirely of: “I always feel like shit / It always ends like this.” It’s emo and punky and great. The second verse is more muted, but it never loses its energy, with the drums crashing away underneath it all. You might think it would get old or repetitive to listen to so many songs about the end of a relationship, but each song has a unique feel. The emotional journey Berthomieux takes you on keeps finding new emotional veins to mine.

Feedback opens “New Year’s Day,” followed by an amazing high riff that seems to sum up all the pain and self-loathing in one beautiful musical phrase. The whole track has a way of reaching inside me and grabbing my heart. Berthomieux takes angst and honesty and combines them in a way I’ve never quite encountered. The first half of the track with just the riff and his voice blows me away every time. 

Cause I don’t think I’ll make it another year if it’s anything like how it was last year

Cause we all need a little bit of somebody

But I don’t think that I need anybody else to show me how to be somebody else

And I can’t even recognize myself

I feel like I’ve become somebody else

It’s a lot but he makes it feel so relatable and real. Then the drums crash in and bring the bass and guitar along. The song breaks open and Berthomieux sings more aggressively, but he retains all that raw emotion he does so well. The lyrics go back and forth line by line from hopeful to hopeless but lands on hope as it fades out slowly.

The penultimate track “Something to Do” is different from everything else on the album. Berthomieux’s voice rings out clear and cracking and honest, but this time it’s joined by a chorus of synth sounds. Bells, glockenspiels, voice effects, moans, and a drum machine all form an aural tapestry for Berthomieux to sing overtop. He packs a lot of words and thoughts in this little two minute song, but in a way it sums up the emotional journey of the whole album. There’s the desire for the way things used to be, wishing nothing had changed. But there’s also an acknowledgement that things just didn’t work and probably never would. It’s an odd but wonderful little song that ends with acceptance.

The album ends with “Rodeo,” and the guitars smash away with a brightness that feels earned, capturing the feeling of coming back to life. There’s still pain under the surface, but this is probably the most hopeful song on the album. Berthomieux’s vulnerability on this track gives it a triumphant feeling. There’s still hints of difficulty. Nothing is for sure, and the final lines of the songs are Berthomieux singing two different lines over the top of each other. It’s disorienting, and it feels like things are going to be okay but they could also fall apart at any second. The two dual vocals are at first only joined by a synth line, but the guitars, bass, and drums return for the final distorted outro. 

A Long Year is a mishmash of all sorts of sounds telling the story of a broken heart. The Big Easy freely combine pop-punk and indie rock with dashes of emo, all backed by undeniable heart. Angst is not an easy emotion to capture. It can so easily turn whiny or disingenuous, but Berthomieux has found the best way to do it. He sings loudly and is vulnerable and honest, never shying away from his emotion. It’s heartfelt, angsty, and killer. The distorted instruments can sound bright and rocking, or muted and troubled, but it all comes together for a brilliant album.

Top photo by Mark Jaworski