“In my life I’ve abandoned my friends, I’ve crossed the lines I thought I’d never bend” sings John Aulabaugh on “Sanity,” the opening track off of his new record Sweet As You.
This is not Aulabaugh’s first rodeo. In his teens he played in rock bands around Champaign, and played in the punk band The Vigilantes. His previous solo album Of Sins Present and Past was released in 2015 after he started writing and recording music as a way to fill a void in his life that appeared after his kids went off to college. His second album California Rain came in 2017. His new record Sweet As You, released this year, sees Aulabaugh dealing with politics, family, and isolation.
The album opens with “Sanity,” as mentioned above, setting the stage for how raw and honest the rest of the album is going to be. Aulabuagh released this as a live performance album which just adds to the emotion of the record, almost as if he needed to just say what he needed to say and put out the music, no time to fine tune things. It still has a polished sound, as it was recorded and mixed in a studio, but still has a raw feeling to it.
Despite being a live performance album, the record is still mixed incredibly well, and packs a powerful punch in 45 minutes. The song “A Reason” is a personal favorite of mine. A song about facing the storm head on, and pushing through hard times. “You can either go this way with ‘fuck everything’ or you can be like ‘I have my people'” says Aulabaugh. It feels like the idea of, you can’t control the things that happen to you, but you can control how you react to them.
The sound is reminiscent of Wilco, Neil Young, and at times Elliott Smith. The song “Clementine” is a direct ode to Elliott Smith. Despite Smith having a song of the same name, the one that appears on this record is Aulabaugh’s original. The vocals are reverbed out and light and give you a “high” feeling, mirroring Smith’s drug addiction.
Right after this song follows a moment of humor, with “Feels So Right,” which Aulabuagh says was written by his cat. Reading the lyrics with this in mind, you start to pick up on it. “I said I knead you,” says the cat — wink, wink.
There is also an incredibly surprising moment on the record with the song “Abilene.” I was not expecting a banjo to make an appearance on this album, yet here it is, and it’s a hell of a good time. “I wrote this song the night before we recorded it. Everything was dark, and we were all bummed out, so I wrote a poppy country song to kind of wake everybody up.” Despite how off guard this song caught me, the song manages to stand out and fit in at the same time.
“Childhood’s End” seems to be a bit about realizing who you are, and growing up, not being afraid to be your true authentic self. “Comply and you’re safe and sound,” sings Aulabaugh. The song “Immobile” details Aulabaugh’s literal immobility during when he had his spine fused and was recovering, as well as being isolated during the pandemic — a feeling I’m sure we all can relate with. “Seems hope has packed up and gone,” he sings, detailing the hopelessness that comes when you’re unable to move and stuck inside.
The album is rich with sound and is sweet — pun intended — on the ears. It manages to feel like old school rock and roll yet something entirely new. The album was recorded almost entirely analog, which means if you get a chance to hear it on vinyl, do it. Call me a “hipster,” but if you think it sounds great digitally, wait till you hear the vinyl record. The record really comes to life and shines and sounds so full.
Despite many of these songs being direct inspirations from personal events that happened to Aulabaugh, his writing manages to make the songs feel universal and omnipotent. Many of these emotions are ones that we have all experienced in one form or another, and I think that is where the beauty of these songs and his writing come into play. Aulabaugh has such a talent for taking the personal, keeping it personal, but somehow managing to make it so relatable at the same time. Music, if done right, has the ability to help us relate to each other even though we may not all have had the same exact experiences. Aulabaugh’s band also helps this idea along, at times playing loud with distortion, and at other times soft and sweet, with brushed drums. You could even take away the vocals and you’d still have a solid, expressive instrumental album, but together, everything meshes so well. The album has an ebb and flow of happiness, sadness, hopelessness, and anger, so much so that it may seem too much to try to express at once in one album — but that’s life, trying to deal with all those emotions at once.