In 2007, Daniel Shaetz charmed us with Clay Nightingale’s debut, The River and Then the Restless Wind. The debut was rife with an innocent nostalgia, which we declared a “fitting patchwork for an album that feels like an evening drive down Austin’s streets with the window rolled down, careless, joyful, and touched with the sentimentality of experiences even as they unfold.” Now the local sextet has finally returned with their sophomore effort, projecting a much tighter and coherent group sound, but retaining that same easy, amusingly mundane and detailed narrative style. Though conveying an attitude a little bit older, a little bit more restless and disillusioned, as the group riffs in the background on “Look Out Driver”: “the kids are still alright.”
Analyzing the lyrics of Clay Nightingale too closely dissolves the overall aura of the songs – they honestly usually read like a stream of Facebook status updates. Yet in that straightforwardness of the thoughts and actions, small epiphanies occasionally bubble to the surface. The house party saga of “1314 San Antonio St.” and typical tale of “How We Outdrink the Silver Pines” are perfect encapsulations of Clay Nightingales’ aesthetic of celebrating the everyday simplicity of being young and in Austin. The former tune traipses through a series of scattershot scenes like morning-after Polaroids picked up off the floor while the latter is a bouncing piano-driven tune and ode to San Marcos’ other great musical import.
Most of the album roils with an light alt country vibe, down-home and casual from the opening guitar strums and harmonica breaks of “Eric McMullen.” Shaetz’s voice is whimsical in its limited range – veering into strained and sometimes cracked higher reaches that feel as comfortable as battered pair of boots. “Last Paycheck” drips with a simple yearning that both embraces the everyday (“Me and my baby like to go to the movies. We always pay for one and stay for two”) and pulls away for a fantasized escape (“And if we find that car, And the engine still turns over right, I don’t know if what we’ve got, In our pockets is enough to drive it, But we should try it”). The song is one of the most memorable of the album, sad and hopeful at once as the closing refrain of “We’ll fill the tank in our new ride, And drive it until sunrise” warps into fading effects.
Likewise, “Rob a Train,” drifts almost seamlessly from realism into a filmic fantasy. Yet the ache of the songs lies within the recognition of the reality juxtaposed against these fantasies, and the sense that despite the urges and dreams, they will remain only that. “Move to the Woods” may sum up the discrepancy best – a daydream of leaving it all behind, but one destined to remain forever in the hypothetical. It’s not necessarily a sad realization, though, just simply part of the familiar emotions that Clay Nightingale encapsulates, two ends of the spectrum that merge as effortlessly and naturally as the band’s weaving in of lines from Cee-Lo and Dwight Yoakum.
Closer “Losing It” brings all these pieces together. Opening a cappella against a stomped beat, Shaetz slides from a conversation with missionaries about the Second Coming to a wandering tour around town thinking of the worthlessness of it all and lack of any meaning or direction. Leaving the album with the trembling exclamation of “How are we not losin’ it!?,” the band remains in the tenuous balance of lost in the moment and wanting so much more. It’s a move towards breaking free, both in spirit and music, that progresses the sophomore offering from The River and Then the Restless Wind, but the band’s wonderfully direct expression of that turmoil of emotions provides a universally relatable experience. Hopefully the band can find their way forward, and it’s hard not to root for them, but also feel their frustration in facing the world around them. It’s a search and frustration summed up in “Look Out Driver”: “Old people hear us talk and get scared, Old people pullin’ out all their hair. Old people wonder why we don’t care. Those same old people used to talk all the time. They could show us something, how to put up a fight, But we’re almost out of gas, We’re almost out of our minds, And there ain’t nobody comin’ for us.”