(photo: Isaac Turner)

January 9, 2015
by Bryne Yancey

Joel Tannenbaum, an accomplished songwriter with a back catalogue that stretches back nearly two decades, is experiencing doubt for the first time in a long time. Those moments still happen,” he tells me. “I listen through these songs every few weeks and depending on my mood, how much I’ve slept and whether somebody said something shitty about me on the internet that day, and I can hear it and think it sounds good or totally embarrassing.”

He’s referring to his new project The Rentiers, whose debut EP will be out soon via Square of Opposition/Death To False Hope. Many musicians and writers lean on the “departure from one’s previous work” talking point like a crutch, but in this case it’s true: These four songs are far more stark than anything Tannenbaum has written or recorded for his other bands, Plow United and Ex Friends. Those two groups stuck to a fairly stringent formula: Quick tempos, melodic and aggressive instrumentation, a near-constant unwritten rule of “two minutes or less.” Most bands with such an approach leave their music feeling frazzled and overstuffed; for Plow and Ex Friends, the songwriting ability of the band’s members, Tannenbaum chief among them, never allowed those pitfalls to exist.

Meanwhile, using slower tempos, thick acoustic guitars and spritely keyboards with the Rentiers, Tannenbaum is stepping outside of his comfort zone as a songwriter and performer, something we often say we want as fans right before we then decry their new direction. Fans, this writer included, have an unfortunate tendency to turn our backs on the musicians we admire for simply trying something new or being real with themselves and with us. It’s the ugly part of being a fan.

These songs feel and sound more distant and much less direct than anything Plow or Ex Friends ever recorded. As a listener, there’s an odd kind of comfort in that. The blink-and-you-miss-it tactic can work great for fast punk songs about inherently finite relationships, but more reflective material requires breathing room to be effective. And, coming off the (still ongoing) Plow United reunion as well as the dissolution of Ex Friends, Tannenbaum seems as though he needed to exhale while facing those aforementioned doubt head on.

“You have to keep in mind, in 2011, when all the Plow hype was going on, I was being told by a lot of different people in a lot of different ways that things were going to be different this time,” Tannenbaum says. “That was the context in which I started Ex Friends.”

“2014 was the year where I realized that actually, no, things weren’t different at all. These songs are very much the soundtrack to that realization and so yeah, that kind of implies a degree of doubt.

But with that doubt comes a degree of relief. The pressure for the Rentiers to do, well, anything beyond this EP is essentially zero, something that Tannenbaum seems to be embracing after a whirlwind few years of uncertainty. “In 2011, it was like, okay, despite what I’ve been telling myself for the last decade, people actually care about these songs and this way of doing things, so fine, I’m back. Let’s play some punk music,” he recalls. “I was writing faster than Plow could ever accommodate—Plow has three songwriters—and so I started another band (Ex Friends). And when I said earlier I thought things were gonna be different, what I mean is that I thought that if Ex Friends wrote good songs and just generally, like, gave a shit, the momentum would carry us forward. But it really didn’t play out like that. We did a ton of stuff but, by early 2014, it was pretty obvious we were circling the drain. And I thought to myself, ‘this feels familiar.’"

“I remembered how painful it can be to have expectations. So now, once again, I have none…it’s a bummer but also a relief. I recorded these songs on my own dime, handed them off to the labels paying for the pressing, and that’s how it’s gonna go. My only real goal is for those guys to make their money back. Other than that, I expect nothing.

To record the Rentiers’ first songs, Tannenbaum took the demos to a Tyler Pursel. Pursel currently serves as the guitarist/vocalist in Philadelphia locals Goddamnit; he also spent time as a touring keyboardist for Gym Class Heroes. He records bands at Walnut Room, a studio in the sleepy suburb of Mont Clare, Pa., directly across the Schuylkill River from Phoenixville, about 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia. “I met Tyler through Arik Victor at Creep Records, around two years ago, when he joined Goddamnit,” he explains. “The first thing I knew about him was that he’d been the touring keyboardist and bandleader sort of guy in Gym Class Heroes for a long time, and I thought it was pretty awesome that his next move after that was to just go play in a local hardcore band that he liked. I had known for a while that I wanted to work with him on something and this was the first thing that came up. Tyler is basically a really smart, somewhat introverted guy who thinks about music pretty much every minute of the day, [and] I gave him a lot of leeway because I wanted to see what he heard in the songs.”

“He took something very basic—me singing and playing guitar to a click track—and built up these whole worlds around it of guitars and keyboards,” he continues. “And although we ended up bringing in Mikey [Erg] for the drums, Tyler’s prints are definitely on the way the drum parts were arranged. He also coached me pretty hard when I was laying down my vocal parts. And he and Anika [Pyle, of Chumped] definitely worked together to compose her backup parts. I think most importantly, Tyler listened to the songs at each stage and heard spaces, and thought very carefully and very non-dogmatically about what should be in those spaces.”

“I think when he sat down and listened to the original demos, which were just me singing and playing guitar into an iPad, he picked up on the fact that the songs are all stories—like stories with people and places and things that happen, and I think when he set out to arrange the songs he had that in mind.”

Mikey Erg, he of the Ergs! and about a dozen other bands at any given point in time, lent his time and skills to the percussion of these four songs. Anika Pyle of Chumped, whose debut full-length Teenage Retirement, intentionally or not, inspired or simply reignited all sorts of discussion surrounding punk’s gender inequality problem at the end of 2014. Tannenbaum is somewhat hesitant to play up their involvement in The Rentiers for pretty obvious reasons: Both are busy with their own projects and while he thinks they will eventually play a few shows together, he wants to manage expectations about their involvement going forward. But what they add to these four songs is undoubtedly palpable; Erg’s always seemed like an underrated drummer, somehow, and even in a less frenetic musical setting than we’re used to hearing him in, his playing adds some—but never too much—teeth when necessary. Pyle’s smooth backup vocals, meanwhile, seamlessly complement Tannenbaum’s weathered voice and add a welcome brightness to each song.

Lyrically, many parts of these Rentiers songs feel very illustrative and rarely obtuse, especially for those of us living in Philadelphia. Nods to specific places where things happened, what they were like, why they happened there and not elsewhere are prevalent throughout. Close your eyes while listening and you can see the Huntington El stop on the Market Frankford line referenced in “Stories of Adam,” or the West Philly bodega at the end of Woodland Avenue in the excellent “Votive Candles.”

“‘Stories of Adam’ is really about people who choose to just walk away from something,” says Tannenbaum. “Are they doing it because they have principles, or because they are just tired, or bummed, or afraid? Do they even know for sure why?” ‘Votive Candles,’ like ‘Adam,’ is semi-semi-semi-autobiographical. It’s about West Philly, and how it’s changed, and how it will keep changing, because that’s what everything does.”  

The EP’s other two songs tackle slightly less personal, more academic topics, at least on the surface. “The Legend of Molly Pitcher,” according to Tannenbaum, is about “just total anarchy. It’s about memory, and how unreliable it is, and what that maybe says about history.” Meanwhile, “Margaret Stackhouse” is “kind of different,” he explains. “Margaret Stackhouse was a real person. She grew up in north Jersey in the 1960s and ‘70s, and had a weird 15 minutes of fame in high school when she wrote an analysis of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and showed it to one of her teachers, who was so impressed he mailed it to Stanley Kubrick, who actually read it and claimed to be super into it, and would often cite her as the only person who even kind of understood the movie. She went on to have a very bookish, grad student kind of adulthood until she was 32, when she died in India, very suddenly. It’s the weirdest story and there’s something really amazing about it but I can’t quite put my finger on what. I wrote the song to try to figure it out, I guess.”

That sort of academic curiosity fuels Tannenbaum’s songwriting for the Rentiers. Reading the lyrics, there’s more to digest than in the average punk song about girls or someone’s hometown.

“In the morning, in the evening, I can picture Margaret Stackhouse
I can picture Margaret Stackhouse and she’s reading and she’s thinking
Of monoliths and obelisks and skylines full of minarets
A bricolage of languages, assemblages of meaning
And she’s reading in the morning, and in the evening”

Few this side of Greg Graffin are weaving so many fifty dollar words into their lyrics, and in songs as inherently austere as these, they stand out quite a bit. That lyrical approach is just another reason why the Rentiers has the potential to be a really special project, expectations aside. As exhilarating as inherently and intentionally dumb punk rock can be, it’s good to know that some of the smart ones are on our side, too, unconsciously urging us to think.

The Rentiers’ first show will be during DTFH Fest in Durham, N.C. Buy tickets here. Follow The Rentiers on Instagram.