Christians & Lions
More Songs for Dreamsleepers & the Very Awake
lyceum gods, to be 18 and in college: wide-eyed and idealistic, seemingly omniscient, self-absorbed, and full of good excuses (“I’m finding myself, brah”). Convictions are declared while a major/minor sits proudly undecided. Blissfully snug, cocooned, and surrounded by Jim Morrison posters, the world beyond the leafy campus is nary given a thought unless the weekend saturnalia is taking place at the girls’ college down the road. Of course, nobody kills the sustained buzz by revealing the rather obvious: You will eventually grow up and realize you were completely full of shit.
Ben Potrykus was 18 not too long ago. As a freshman at Emerson College, he was vocalist for the Boston band the Receiving End of Sirens. Gorging himself on the well-assembled contrariness put forth by pillars of indie righteousness and integrity like Ian MacKaye and Steve Albini, Potrykus eventually left the group when major labels like Atlantic Records came sniffing. Albini wrote in the liner notes to Pigpile, “Operate as much as possible apart from the ‘music scene’”—and Potrysku was a believer, his personal reason for departure a “there’s no ‘pop’ in corporate” tenet.
Four years later, Potrykus is more grounded, having wiped the martyrdom bullshit from his shoes. And while we can’t definitively say the maturation process has dispelled all the college airs and precociousness (he did prattle on about the “commodification of your music” in a recent interview), it’s certainly extended to his recording prowess. With Christians & Lions, Potrykus moves beyond the ornery emo trappings of the Receiving End of Sirens and into more melodic, upbeat, textured environs. More Songs for Dreamsleepers & the Very Awake, released on the very un-Atlantic-like ECA Records, is Potrykus’ sonic metamorphosis from songwriter to songwriter, and it’s a pleasure to behold, sidesteps, stumbles, and all.
After thumbing his nose at the majors, Potrykus received a lyrical education of sorts from various contemporaries, particularly the Shins’ James Mercer and Iron and Wine’s Samuel Beam. His writing still has a deep personal sheen to it, naturally left over from his emo daze, but it never borders on the maudlin or demands a brow be furrowed in angst. Cleverness trumps simpering and narrations are filled with striking, offbeat imagery and witty turns of phrase—on “Bones,” Potrykus wonders “And what’s the use of a good, strong noose / When your problem’s too much hanging around?” The standout “Gimme Diction” conflates a Dr. Seuss-like fondness for linguistics with everyday self-doubt: “Bastardized pidgin insult / A lingua franca of heroes and villains / Failure / I don’t know it any more than I know success.” And there’s a brittle, golden portrait of ancient autumns plumped and picked in “Tender Sparks (October and Over),” thanks to lines such as, “So cold / In the root cellar suburbs / Low in the lowlight / And high on tender sparks.”
During its embryonic stages, Christian & Lions were a two-piece act: Potrykus and younger brother, Sam (vocals, upright bass). A pair of old acquaintances, guitarist/keyboardist Matt Sisto and drummer Chris Mara, came into the fold to help cut a support album, as the Potryskus brothers were looking to tour last summer. However, the recording sessions went so swimmingly, the tour was shelved and the four started hammering out new material. It was a shrewd decision, too. Sisto (with his subtle organ bits on “Bones”) and the vivifying Mara—not to mention trumpeter Chris Barrett, piloting the track “Some Trees,” adding more reserved touches to the coda in “Skinny Fists”—give Christians & Lions’ charming guitar pop some emotive distinction.
Potrykus remains the group’s fulcrum, however. And whether he’s sharing harmonies with Sam and shuffling electric with acoustic on the alt-country-speckled “Stay Warm,” or blushing with a dry-mouthed honesty that’s both absolute and endearing on “A Root’s Grave Is Above Ground,” one thing is absolutely certain: the college freshman has finally grown up.