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Never Felt This Way Before
Artist: The Billions
Label: Northern Records
Length: 10 tracks, 41:07 

What the heck is in the water at Northern Records?  Eric Campuzano and company have a knack for finding some of the best bands out there and laying down some serious music.  This time around it's a group of four lads from Topeka called The Billions.

Now I admit, that my first listen to the disc left me wanting.  But I gave it time and now I can't get enough.  This is one of the sweetest things I've had in the CD player in a long time.  A beautiful album of nicely understated indie-pop.  Not too hard, not too soft.  There just aren't enough glowing adjectives in the English language to do these guys justice.  And the scary thing is that I've heard they are even better live.

The band consists of brothers Dan and Sam Billen along with childhood friend John Jared Bowes, and more recent addition, percussionist and long-time friend Ken Komiya.  And all of them are serious musicians with serious talent.

The disc starts off nicely with "I Won't Turn Away" and doesn't miss a beat.  Unlike much of today's indie music, The Billions don't spend their time moping and navel-gazing.  This is bright, upbeat, happy music...without giving way to the saccharine tendencies of mainstream pop.  The songs are filled with a positive outlook, as it's obvious the band is very happy and content with who they are, with a nice dose of hope for the future.  And every track is good.  As for the reason they sing?  Gee, guess what? They address that in a song called, aptly enough, "The Reason We Sing":

I want you to know that the reason we sing 
Is to let you know about the love God brings 
And the craziest people in the whole, wide world 
He loves the same way whether boy or girl 
But there is none of the treacle and pabulum that passes for music in the CCM realm these days.  This is intelligent stuff.  The Billions have done themselves a big favor by signing with Northern rather than taking the easy way out on a Christian label where their talents would have been wasted, their ideals suppressed, and their music ignored by the masses.  (Some time I'll let loose and tell you how I really feel!) 

Musically, you'll hear a touch of the seventies, along with some Beach Boys, with a sound much akin to contemporary bands like Modest Mouse, Rainer Maria, 764-Hero, and Matt Pond PA.  But their sound is uniquely their own.

While two of their three earlier independent releases were produced by Kerry Livgren of Kansas fame, this disc is produced by Chris Colbert at the late, great Fabulous Green Room, with technical help from Andrew Prickett.  And when you put the entire package together, you get a disc with some serious staying power and lots of potential for the college radio scene.

Ken Mueller 9/22/02 

Sarcasm just isn't what it used to be. If there's one trend that has really played itself out, it's that blasted "hipper than thou" chic that seems to sprout up where two or more indie kids are gathered. This is the sort of "Am I Indie or Not" gig that usually plays out in faded t-shirts that are too tight (bonus points if it's an iron-on), bored expressions, and patented anti-authoritarian statements.

Just go to one of your local shows, and if it's anything like my town, I think you'll see what I mean. Somewhere along the way, we got this impression that publicly showing any enjoyment in the music we listen to was, at best, a faux pas. God forbid that we really wear our hearts on our sleeves, instead of posture and primp ourselves. It's almost as bad as dressing up for church.

Thankfully, no one let The Billions in on this little trend; otherwise their music might not exist. The title, Never Felt This Way Before, describes that headlong fall that accompanies your first kiss. Like a rush of emotion, The Billions bring out another album of unabashed pop full of clever arrangements, simple yet poignant lyrics, and a sense of joy that seems to be missing from so much music these days.

The Billions sing about 3 things - God, family, and love. But their songs about God don't preach, their songs about family aren't needless nostalgia, and their songs about love aren't bitter and ironic. Even better, they move between the 3 topics with remarkable ease. "I Won't Turn Away" opens the album on a holier note. Sam Billen notes the state of the world ("Do not be surprised my brothers when the world despises you" before stating "I won't turn away from you" with a determination akin to Joshua's final moments.

Such determination is immediately followed by "Hey Girl," an ode to puppy love so sweet it's almost cavity-inducing. And then there's "Another Lonely Day" with its promises to Mom to be good and raise the kids right. They might seem trite on the surface, but the songs' simple lyrics and plaintive vocals keep the convictions honest and heartfelt.

Throughout the album, The Billions make no effort to hide their faith. Rather than trying to come up with clever ways to spin the truth, or hide it behind witty metaphor and "deep" imagery, they opt for a more direct route. "The Reason We Sing" is about as bald-faced as it gets, with lyrics like "I want you to know that the reason we sing/Is to let you know about the love God brings." At times, it's reminiscent of songs sung only in Sunday School, before the band interjects something personal and pointed in the lyrics ("I used to wonder why there was a hole in my life/And I couldn't fill it up with a house or a wife").

The album's culmination arrives in the gentle acoustic guitar and haunting lyrics of "Into The Light." It's the album's most personal moment, detailing a crisis of faith fading into a moment of revelation. This revelation takes place with a celebratory "Into the light... I had to run," sung not with any saccharine CCM cliché, but rather a true sense of relief and wonder.

It's that sense of wonder that keeps Never Felt This Way Before from falling on its face. Well, that and some keen songwriting talents. Much of the fun here comes from picking out all of the album's flourishes. This is relatively easy since nearly every song is packed with them, a la The Flaming Lips or, even better, Blinker The Star. There's the haunting vibework on "I Won't Turn Away," the playful programming and analog noodling of "Hey Girl," the child-like "la la la"'s of "My Life."

And those vocals... these boys have some pipes. On "Asya," they're hushed and gentle, perfectly suited to the delicate acoustic guitar and horn arrangements. They positively soar on "Another Lonely Day", accompanied by a stately accordion and take on an urgent air throughout "Into The Light." Clean and clear, they make it easy to believe in every single line sung on this album. That, and the fact that the band clearly enjoys the music they make, which makes it's harder to deny the album's pleasures.

My first exposure to the album came when Sam Billen played a pre-release for me a few months back. Meanwhile, he kept a running commentary, pointing out each little nuance lest we miss them, explaining how they got this particular sound in the studio or where this song came from. It's probably a safe bet that he was the most excited one in the room that night, as he jumped from track to track and filled us in on one detail after another.

This wasn't some sly attempt to sell the album or to start building some word of mouth. He was just proud to have written and played these songs and that makes me even prouder to listen to them.

Jason Morehead  10/13/2002
 
 

Jason Morehead is also the publisher of Opuszine, a webzine devoted to independent music and cult cinema.  All of his reviews can also be found at http://www.opuszine.com. 

 

   
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