Album Report: “Denim Jacket Weather” by Ronnie Rogers

Ronnie Rogers is the solo project of Aaron O’Neill, a St Louis based multi-instrumentalist that spends most of his current time drumming for Shady Bug, but has played in countless bands from the city including Isabel Rex, Early Worm, Art School and A Leaf in the Street. His backing band for this project formerly referred to as “The Sunshine Band” features members from similar scene pockets, with Shady Bug’s own Hannah Rainey on bass and vocals, Isabel Rex’s Reid Maynard on guitar and vocals, Early Worm’s Josiah Joyce on keyboard, and Art School’s John Hamms on drums. We’ve heard mix ups of lineups similar to this one before, but Ronnie’s band comes packing.

“Denim Jacket Weather” (It Takes Time Records, 2019) is the followup to Ronnie’s debut album “Death of a Dumb Guy”. Aaron O’Neill tracked pretty much every instrument except for certain backup vocals and keyboards where members of the backing band came in to help. The recording job was done by common collaborator Zach Schimpf, the engineer responsible for Shady Bug’s debut album, and various other St Louis releases. Going into the project I notice an astronomic difference in sound between his earlier production work and the new beefed up Ronnie. The drums are vibrant and carry a lot of weight, the vocal arrangements are clear and endearing, and the guitars punch as hard as they need to when they need to. Certain solo vocals feel a little low in the mix, but I believe this was done to an effect and that the sound desired is achieved. Schimpf seems to have stepped up his game for this one, and it certainly shows throughout the whole release.

In terms of the music, the album is solid on a lot of grounds. The sound is diverse and shifting while maintaining similar textural and compositional elements throughout. One explanation for this consistent sound is Ronnie’s willingness to wear his influences on his sleeve; the second I put the thing on I hear Weezer, My Bloody Valentine, Spiritualized and other 90’s alternative classics sprinkled everywhere. These influences aren’t overbearing, and Aaron holds enough personality in his voice and songwriting to carry them successfully for the most part. Rather than derivation I feel inspiration, and I’ve always been a fan of musicians able to harness their influences and turn them into something personal and meaningful.

A number of tunes stuck with me after several listens, especially around the first half of the album. The opener “Leaning On”, kicks the door in heart open with sincere and straightforward verses concerning one’s reliance on a significant other to deal with the pain of life. The chorus is simple, with voices repeating the song’s title over and over and hints of Ronnie popping up to develop the lyrics only to fade back again into Hannah and Reid’s backup vocals. The final iteration of this hook loops for a while with different small textures surrounding and a soaring guitar lead, making me think of a Spiritualized ballad’s endless revolutions. It’s a powerful way to open the album, and over time it has become one of my favorite tunes in the project.

The track that follows, “Bummer”, is equally as infectious, driven by a humble yet decisive melody, and quietly pulsating instrumentation. The chorus is catchy and exciting, with palm muted guitars that keep you chugging along as the tune introduces new sounds to its fairly thin texture. The ethereal palette of sounds placed in strategic sections color the arrangement, and the subdued harmonies enter with strong emotion to a similar effect. Ronnie’s pessimistic lyrics are easy to relate to, especially considering the strength of the melody accompanying them. I’m still not completely sold on the quasi-psychedelic bridge section, but the final chorus interpretation that follows humbled me as a listener with its devastating repetition of the phrase “I never asked to be alive”. I almost wanted it to go for longer, but I’ll ascribe that to personal preference.

Songs like “Angels” and “Carol” sell me at the get-go but lose my interest after a while. “Angels” is driving and heavy with a perceivable MBV-esque texture and rampant guitar leads, but as the form develops the tune meanders into a slightly disjointed, bass driven outro section with a surprise double-time that feels unnecessary considering the strength of the original composition. It makes me wish the song had been kept simpler and sweet for the sake of momentum. “Carol” is more consistent than “Angels”, but the structure of the melody and the Weezer-esque guitar sound can become tedious after some listens. I will say, the verse melody played by the lower lead guitars after the first half time hook is quite satisfying and cathartic, showing a Ronnie that knows when to give what to his audience.

Other tunes do the opposite for me, establishing a sound that perhaps isn’t the most exciting, but developing into something beautiful towards the end. I don’t really care for the vocal melodies or instrumental blend in “Mantra”, but the final guitar section is touching and worth the wait considering how short the tune is. “Little Black Cat” is stronger and thrives from the country-duet texture provided by Hannah Rainey’s added vocals, but the song doesn’t really stick in my mind until the jarring outro that mimics the last hook sung with a guitar lead in a creative and sparse fashion. The song closes in spirals and I feel myself swaying with it every time. “So Bright” acts as the album’s big climax, but doesn’t strike me as hard as “Leaning On” which relies on a similar feel and blend. It’s a solid song, but to me it’s overshadowed by other selections. “Staying Alive” suffers in a similar way, failing to establish anything idiosyncratic enough for me to keep it close in my listens.

Clearly I feel a big divide between the first and second halves of this album. Nothing really comes out as “bad” per se, but the compositions and arrangements generally feel weaker than those featured towards the beginning of the tracklist. “Yankee” however is a clear exception to this pattern. This closer relies on a baroque-pop bedding to grant Ronnie a canvas upon which we hear him at his most simplistic, straightforward and honest. It shows me a side of Ronnie Rogers that I would love to hear more of: the music is utilitarian yet relatable and driving, and the vocal performance feels genuine and pure in its imperfection. No other song on this album showcases Ronnie’s knack for direct lyrical self-expression like “Yankee” does, and this rambling reflection is at once funny, sad and touching to hear close the project out.

Overall “Denim Jacket Weather” is a step up for Ronnie Rogers in its songwriting, composition, arrangement and production. It’s one of the best sounding albums I’ve heard out of St Louis in a while, and the tunes that hit me do so in a very palpable way managing to stay in my mind and inviting me to listen again. Although I do perceive dips in the tracklist, I believe that the mix of styles and intentions will leave every listener with different highlights. Casual listening is rewarding, but more attention to detail shines light on Ronnie’s thought process as a songwriter and band leader, putting his undeniable talent on display. Even though comparison rends some songs better than others in my mind, no tune makes me want to skip, and they all help the tracklist flow in a pleasant and balanced way. I will keep this one on rotation, expecting to discover even more elements hidden within– denim jacket weather is almost here, after all!

Listen to “Denim Jacket Weather” via Bandcamp down below:

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