A look back on Straylight Run’s great discography
"You don’t miss Straylight Run. You just miss being young," John Nolan tweeted last summer. Well, John must have finally admitted to himself that we do miss Straylight Run, because all four members reunited (quarantine style) to perform "together" for the first time in over ten years on the Riot Fest At Home livestream last week. It was only for one song ("Existentialism On Prom Night," though John also played "Your Name Here" solo) and it obviously wasn't the same as actually watching John, Michelle DaRosa, Shaun Cooper, and Will Noon on stage together, but it was still a real treat and they sounded great. It didn't feel like forced fan service -- the performance sounded as impassioned as Straylight Run sounded live back in the day, and in case you forgot just how good they sounded back in the day, they released a live album recorded in 2005 (for charity) the same day they did the livestream. That's worth listening to (and purchasing for a good cause) too. John also says it'll get a vinyl release with extra tracks so stay tuned for that.
My fingers are crossed that this is the start of something that will turn into a real reunion after lockdown ends (and I'm sure I'm not the only one), but either way, all this Straylight Run activity has got me listening to them a lot lately, so I thought I'd dedicate this installment of 'In Defense of the Genre' to them.
For the uninitiated, John Nolan and Shaun Cooper formed the band in 2003 right after leaving Taking Back Sunday, who were in the midst of rapidly blowing up thanks to the instant-classic debut album Tell All Your Friends that they released just one year earlier. I don't know what can be said about Tell All Your Friends that hasn't been said already -- it was a massive breakthrough not just for the band, and not just for Victory Records (for whom it resulted in the label's biggest opening week sales for a new artist and remains the label's best-selling album today), but for the burgeoning emo/post-hardcore scene in general. Taking Back Sunday weren't the first emo band to break into the mainstream (that would either be Jimmy Eat World or Dashboard Confessional), and they weren't the first breakthrough band to fuse together basement show screams with radio-friendly choruses (their then-labelmates Thursday had done it a year earlier on Full Collapse, to name one), but Tell All Your Friends really felt (and sounded) like the culmination of a movement that had been threatening to explode for a while. Adam Lazzara and John Nolan's melodramatic dual vocals connected with so many people so quickly, and even today, the album remains one of the most-loved and most emblematic documents of the era.
Taking Back Sunday were on their way to conquering the world, but still, tensions between band members caused John and Shaun to split, leaving TBS without their beloved dual vocals and launching a rival band in the process. Lucky for both bands, Breaking Pangaea had just broken up, and TBS scooped up frontman Fred Mascherino to take John's place while Straylight Run enlisted Will Noon as their drummer. (TBS' Mark O'Connell drummed on Straylight Run's original demos, but obviously couldn't be in both bands.) John's sister Michelle DaRosa (née Nolan), who had sung on two Tell All Your Friends songs, then joined as guitarist, pianist, and second lead vocalist, and Straylight Run's lineup was complete. The band who recorded Tell All Your Friends never made a followup record, but all five members persevered and 2004 birthed two beloved albums instead: TBS' sophomore LP Where You Want To Be and Straylight Run's self-titled debut.
Straylight Run's core four-piece lineup lasted for two albums and one EP, before Michelle left and started her own project Destry (which also featured Shaun Cooper, Northstar/Cassino's Tyler Odom, Cassino's Nico Childrey, and The Format's Sam Means), and Straylight released two EPs without Michelle (and without their major label, who signed them for their sophomore album and dropped them shortly after its release), and then the band went on hiatus in 2010 when John and Shaun rejoined Taking Back Sunday, with whom they've since released three more albums and remain members of today.
Tell All Your Friends' legacy may be set in stone, but it still feels like there's more to be said about Straylight Run. They had a few ubiquitous singles but their all-around great discography has a lot more to it than that, and some of their deeper cuts and later material still go unfairly overlooked. In a 2002 interview with RoughEdge.com, John said he looked at Radiohead as an example of how he'd like Taking Back Sunday to evolve as a band. "I would love to be able to do that as a band-to be able to grow and not only get better as a songwriter and a musician, but also start to have some innovation." With Straylight Run, John achieved that goal. They reinvented themselves at every turn, never released the same record twice, and went in increasingly adventurous directions throughout their run as a band.
As a way of looking back on all the great music Straylight Run released, I've put together this retrospective on their full discography. If you're just getting into the band now, maybe this will help, and if you're a longtime fan, hopefully it'll inspire you to dive back into this uniquely great band.
Straylight Run (2004)
It couldn't have been easy to leave a beloved band as they were blowing up, start a new band in a different style of music, and still release a song that captured the hearts of your old band's growing fanbase, but John Nolan did that with "Existentialism On Prom Night." Taking Back Sunday combined emo, pop punk, post-hardcore, and teen angst diary entries into something that inspired thousands of young fans to clutch their chests and scream back every word, and then write all those words in their away messages. The melodramatic one-liners just worked so well with Taking Back Sunday's fast, punchy, power chord-driven songs, but Straylight Run's debut album was largely made up of somber, piano-based music... not exactly the kind of thing most people picture themselves screaming along to. Still, John Nolan's lyrical style was as impactful in this band as it was on Tell All Your Friends, and the overall quieter music didn't stop him from raising his voice to the half screamed, half sung level that he raised it to on TBS faves like "There's No 'I' In Team." And when he used that same approach on "Existentialism"'s refrain of "Sing like you think no one's listening," thousands of impressionable fans did just that.
There were other much-loved piano-emo songs before "Existentialism On Prom Night" (like "Konstantine"), but this song still felt like a watershed moment for the genre. The sound of emo was expanding and many of the genre's leaders weren't content to stay within the confines of the genre's scrappy, yelpy '90s days. Emo could still be that, but it could also be soaring piano ballads with baroque pop string arrangements and masterful vocal harmonies. And when it was that, as it was on "Existentialism On Prom Night," Straylight Run knew how to give it enough of an edge to save it from sounding like sappy wedding or graduation music. On top of the grit in John's voice, the band's not-so-secret weapon was its rhythm section. Shaun Cooper brought a more complex, kinetic bass playing style to the band than he brought to Taking Back Sunday, and ace drummer Will Noon had an arsenal of intricate rhythms to match it. If you just pay attention to the rhythm section on "Existentialism On Prom Night," it's as interesting on its own as the song's iconic piano opening and iconic refrain.
"Existentialism" overshadows the rest of Straylight Run's debut a bit, which is unfortunate because there's so much happening on this album, and a lot of the deeper cuts on this LP have aged better than a lot of the era's more popular emo songs. "Your Name Here (Sunrise Highway)" is arguably a more affecting piano ballad than "Existentialism on Prom Night"; it's not a song you'd scream along to, but it's a song that has stopped me in my tracks all hundred-something times I've heard it over the past 16 years. (And as an added bonus, it has a really unique guitar solo.) Opening track "The Perfect Ending" and the penultimate, Michelle-sung "Now It's Done" are just about as breathtaking. The album's also got a lot more to it than piano ballads. Some of these songs are a lot more of a "logical progression" from Tell All Your Friends than they usually get credit for. "The Tension and the Terror (possibly the album's greatest showcase of Will Noon's drumming) and "Another Word For Desperate" (possibly the album's greatest showcase of John Nolan's scream-singing) could've ended up on a Taking Back Sunday album without anyone raising an eyebrow, and they really should've become emo standards. Parts of "Mistakes We Knew Were Making," "Dignity and Money" and "Sympathy for the Martyr" tip their hats to the members' emo/punk roots too. There's also some totally different stuff going on too. Parts of "The Perfect Ending" hint at the more experimental art rock direction Straylight Run would take on the Prepare to be Wrong EP (more on that in a second), the Michelle-sung "Tool Sheds and Hot Tubs" is straightup synthpop and it remains a total anomaly in the band's catalog, and "It's for the Best" finds the band in folk-pop territory, duetting with Nate Ruess (then of The Format, who are officially reunited as of this year). When the Nolans and Nate overlap at the end, they prove Straylight Run could do the dual vocal thing as well as "Cute Without the 'E.'"
Prepare to Be Wrong EP (2005)
Prepare to Be Wrong came just one year after the debut album, and it only had six songs -- one of which was a cover and one of which dated back to the band's first demo -- but it still managed to be a massive leap forward for Straylight Run and is as significant as either of their full-length albums. I probably consider it my favorite release of theirs.
John may have been citing Radiohead as an influence back before Straylight Run even formed, but Prepare to Be Wrong was the first time that his music really started to sound comparable to theirs. It's a darker, more experimental release than the debut album, and each song takes the band in a different direction. The Michelle-sung opener "I Don't Want This Anymore" is haunting, ethereal pop that's closer to Cocteau Twins than to Taking Back Sunday. "It Never Gets Easier" found Straylight Run taking their emo/post-hardcore roots into darker indie and art rock territory, and coming out with a fusion that was cathartic and scream-along-able but appealing on a more cerebral level too. It's one of the best and most unique songs in the band's discography. "Later That Year" is what it sounds like when Straylight Run does sad bedroom folk, complete with another of those classic John Nolan one-liner refrains ("We did the math, it wasn't worth it after all"). "A Slow Descent" is the song that first appeared on the band's original demo, but this version is more fleshed out and atmospheric and in line with the rest of the EP, and Prepare to Be Wrong's closing track is an inventive take on Bob Dylan's "With God On Our Side." Covering Dylan might not be the most unheard of thing in the world, but doing so on a 2005 Victory Records release really made a point about which direction Straylight Run were heading in and which they definitely weren't.
Right before the EP closes with that Dylan cover, though, it treats you to the greatest and most significant song Straylight Run ever wrote, "Hands in the Sky (Big Shot)." "It Never Gets Easier" pointed Straylight Run in the emo/art rock direction that peers like Thursday, Thrice, and mewithoutYou were heading in around then too, but "Hands in the Sky" dove head-first into art rock's deep end. What starts out an eerie, Kid A-like song turns into pounding industrial drums and John giving the most impassioned vocal performance of his career. He had already perfected his scream-singing before this song, but on this one he let loose like never before. And as dark and experimental as the song is, it's still got so many hallmarks of John Nolan's songwriting: the gut-punch lyrics, the repetition, the overlapping dual vocals (Michelle comes back in singing the verses from the song's first half as John roars the ending). Straylight Run never wrote a song like it before or since, and almost no other band did either.
The Needles the Space (2007)
As their music got increasingly less emo and the band aimed to make a mark outside of the emo scene, they left Victory and signed with the major label Universal Republic (which quickly presented its own problems) for their sophomore album The Needles the Space. Prepare to Be Wrong saw Straylight Run clearly branching out from emo, but The Needles the Space barely fit into that genre at all. It found Straylight Run embracing folk rock, indie rock, horn sections, waltzes, Beatlesque pop, and more, and at this point Michelle was splitting lead vocals with John and her songs were often far outside of the emo realm. The most emo adjacent bands that The Needles the Space resembles would be Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley, and like the music those bands were making in 2007, it sounded more like your parents' record collection than like something your parents would yell at you to turn down. They might've gotten out of their contract with Victory, but the album still had trouble reaching the fanbases it would've appealed to most (like those of Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, or probably The Decemberists, with whom this album shared a whimsical, retro-yet-modern approach) and Universal Republic dropped them quickly. It's a shame, because The Needles the Space was yet another reinvention for Straylight Run and it has a handful of songs that rival the fan-faves from the self-titled and Prepare to Be Wrong.
The Needles the Space's very best song was its lead single, "Soon We'll Be Living in the Future," which had enough of that classic John Nolan roar to make it scratch the same itch as his earlier material, but which otherwise was a pretty drastic left-turn for his songwriting. The choruses have a folky jangle and the verses have a snake-charmer groove; no longer were Straylight Run that sappy piano ballad emo band. If Prepare to Be Wrong is Straylight Run's darkest record, then The Needles the Space is their brightest and upbeat. It still has some melancholy, but songs like the head-bopping opener "The Words We Say," the heart-racing "The Miracle That Never Came," and the marching, Sgt. Pepper's-esque "Still Alone" sound downright happy. (The words aren't always happy, but they sound happy.) There's also a couple others that -- like "Soon We'll Be living In The Future" -- tap into the classic John Nolan sound ("Who Will Save Us Now," "Take It To Manhattan"), but they do so in a way that was much more like the indie/chamber pop scene of the era than the emo scene. And some of Michelle's contributions (like "How Do I Fix My Head" and "This Is The End") brought Straylight Run into the soul/vocal jazz revival territory of someone like Amy Winehouse. It's no surprise that the major label world and the emo scene didn't know what to do with this album, but when you give it the time it deserves, you hear a fascinating development within an already-fascinating career.
Un Mas Dos EP (2008) & About Time EP (2009)
Not long after Straylight Run were dropped from their major, Michelle left the band to start her own project Destry (which, as mentioned earlier, also featured Shaun Cooper, Northstar/Cassino's Tyler Odom, Cassino's Nico Childrey, and The Format's Sam Means), and John, Shaun, and Will recorded two EPs without her: 2008's three-song Un Mas Dos and 2009's four-song About Time. They've got their moments (Un Mas Dos opener "Wait and Watch" is a memorable one), but Michelle and a name-brand label weren't the only things missing. Put John Nolan, Shaun Cooper, and Will Noon in a studio and it's gonna sound good, but the production was a little scrappier on these, and you can kinda hear in the performances that the band already knew it was the end of an era. (And John and Michelle's vocal chemistry is missed.) These EPs are worth it for diehards and completists, but really the first three records with the classic four-piece lineup are where all the magic happened.
FURTHER LISTENING: John Nolan's solo album Abendigo (2018)
After About Time, John and Shaun rejoined Taking Back Sunday but John also started releasing solo material. Abendigo is his third solo album, following the largely folk-tinged Height (2009) and Sad Strange Beautiful Dream (2015), but I bring this one up because it marked a return to the emo/art rock fusion of Prepare to Be Wrong and it's John's best album since The Needles the Space. Opener "Do You Remember?" is its "Hands in the Sky"; a seamless mixture of electronic art rock and roaring post-hardcore, and the kind of song I hoped for years that John would write again. The dark, airy "Smiling and Alive" and "How Much Difference Does it Make?" give off Prepare to Be Wrong vibes too, mid-tempo rocker "Over Before It Begins" recalls the band's debut, and "Anything You Want" is a post-hardcore rager that sounds like a heavier Tell All Your Friends. We might be getting nostalgic for Straylight Run at the moment, but Abendigo reminds you that John Nolan is no nostalgia artist. And if (fingers crossed!!!) Straylight Run's classic four-piece lineup ever make music again and it sounds anything at all like this, I think we'd all be in for a real treat.
Read past and future editions of 'In Defense of the Genre' here.