Okay, you donâ€™t yet know who Josh Verbanets is. Youâ€™ve never heard his group, The You. Fair enough. We could deal with this in one of two ways.
We could do the typical publicity bio thing, which would be something like this: â€œOperating on a shoestring budget, a young Pittsburgh singer/songwriter has come up with For the Masses, a debut that will put his band, The You, on the map and, if thereâ€™s justice in this world, herald the arrival of a unique and unforgettable artist.â€
And that would be true. But thereâ€™s another way to introduce this artist and his edgy but accessible quartet. Here goes:
â€œJosh Verbanets isnâ€™t that crazy about his first album. He thinks he could do better. The scary thing is, heâ€™s probably right.â€
Itâ€™s scary because, frankly, Verbanets is also wrong. Sure, For the Masses isnâ€™t the glossiest disc out there. Some of the tracks he recorded with virtual strangers in Chicago, far from home. Others he cut in his bedroom or basement. Yet each one screams out that he might be exactly what we all need to hear right now.
It is, for example, dark, delicate, humorous, and hard-hitting, often at the same time. The lyrics are economical, even spare, yet powerfully suggestive. There are, for example, just 63 words in â€œYoung Bluesmanâ€ â€“ and only one adjective, by the way â€“ yet thatâ€™s enough to paint a picture of isolation thatâ€™s not easily forgotten. Thereâ€™s rage in â€œBait and Switch,â€ a wistful take on childhood violence in â€œThe Community Plunge,â€ a dark and delicate irony set to waltz time in â€œAinâ€™t It Good to Feel Love,â€ a flash of fantasy, signaled by a celeste-like tinkle in â€œHorse Operaâ€ â€¦
All of this works even better because of Joshâ€™s vocals, playful and wry through the sing-song hook on â€œBad Person,â€ disarmingly innocent on â€œThrown from a Moving Vehicle,â€ inflected with a pub-rock lilt on â€œBroken Down Storefront,â€ and always uncannily tuned to bringing the narrative to life.
Thereâ€™s more: The Youâ€™s performances have often and unexpectedly featured bursts of extreme stage behavior, from crashing into amplifiers and accidentally gutting the bass playerâ€™s axe. And they pull it all off while still tapping and projecting the musical essence of their songs. Theirs is a rare ability to straddle that line between the subtle lyric, the ear-worm riff, and chaos.
The story of The You starts in Plum Borough, outside of Pittsburgh, where one day, when Josh was ten years old, his father sat him down and played Alice Cooperâ€™s Love It to Death, as if in some sort of initiation rite. The message hit home at once: â€œSomething about it was just poetic and mysterious enough to sound like rock & roll,â€ Josh remembers, â€œbut it was also catchy enough to sound like old folk songs or church songs. Even then I was more into the songs than the bands. That still holds true today.â€
Moving forward through Nirvana to Radiohead and beyond, Josh learned enough guitar by age 17 to start a band with an English friend and try his hand at writing. His standards were already high: â€œThere were lots of songs on the radio about, â€˜Why doesnâ€™t this girl like me? Why wonâ€™t you go out with me?â€™ That just seemed too obvious. Instead, Iâ€™d just come up with melodies while I was walking around, and then Iâ€™d realize that they sounded like a few words Iâ€™d jotted in a notebook, and Iâ€™d cobble them together. I never really tried to write; itâ€™s always more accidental than that.â€
They played a bit through high school, and then Josh decided that his destiny was in filmmaking. On graduating he enrolled as a film major at Ithaca College. Almost immediately he knew heâ€™d made a mistake. â€œI hated it there,â€ he says. â€œIt was a disaster. Iâ€™d always wanted to make films, but when I got to Ithaca I realized that I couldnâ€™t do it. Music is what got me out of there.â€
Partly to assure his family that he really was taking his future seriously, Josh came back to Pittsburgh ostensibly to continue his studies at the University of Pittsburgh. (Heâ€™s still there, actually â€“ and heâ€™s still got a toe in the movie world too, with a day job at a video store.) The truth, though, was that he wanted to hook up again with some of the guys heâ€™d played with in high school.
At this point, to save paper and time, rather than describe how a jam in Joshâ€™s basement back in 2002 led to their signing as the first artists featured on the new Pure Tone Music, imprint, weâ€™ll refer you to theyouband.com, the groupâ€™s website. Here, the â€œhistoryâ€ page documents every personnel change, wrong chord, broken string â€“ every milestone, no matter how trivial â€¦
â€¦ at least, that is, up to early 2004, when suddenly the chronicle stops. â€œItâ€™s funny,â€ Josh admits, â€œbecause thatâ€™s where the â€˜realâ€™ stuff started to happen. I started to realize that we were known mainly for being loud and annoying and offensive. I started to think that we should sound a little better than that if I ever wanted to have people hear us.â€
And so the days of being busted by cops for playing too loud, accidentally kicking holes in club walls during performances, and nearly stabbing his bandmates with his Tele headstock â€“ also, Josh insists, an accident â€“ came to an end. Instead, The You began crafting songs that even then sounded like they had some staying power. They kept their energy level as high as it had ever been, but they focused it more intensely into the music â€“ which, of course, meant that things still got smashed up onstage now and then. They picked up more gigs, including one booked at the last minute at the Club CafÃ©, which led directly to their Pure Tone Music deal.
Once again, we have two ways we could proceed from this point. One would be to say something about how the band hit the studio, cut all kinds of great stuff, and got ready to rock the world. We could say that â€¦ but thatâ€™s not what happened. Instead, right before they were supposed to record, the group splintered. And Josh went to Chicago alone, where he found himself laying tracks with musicians heâ€™d just met.
Nevertheless, these tracks sound terrific, for several reasons: discerning production by Brian Deck (Iron & Wine, Modest Mouse) and, more crucially, Joshâ€™s writing and singing. The songs are great, the vocals are killer. True, we werenâ€™t there at the time to watch it go down, but that only means we can listen to the results without any residual angst.
Fact is, when you intersperse the Chicago tracks with Joshâ€™s home-brew stuff, you get something from For the Masses that most debut albums donâ€™t offer â€“ namely, proof that these songs are greater than their setting. And that takes us back to the scary part of this saga: Impressive as For the Masses is, it really is just the first of many steps.
For one thing, Josh has rebuilt the band lineup, with Mike Paschka on guitar and backing vocals, Chad Mikolajcik on bass, and Dave Schewe on drums and backing vocals. Theyâ€™re getting booked on high-profile gigs. Local writers are noticing things like how the â€œdirty, screamy distortionâ€ on their guitar parts unexpectedly complement â€œthe pretty, catchy vocal melodiesâ€ (Steve Gisselbrecht, The Noise), and how their sound has â€œa punk edge â€¦ but not enough that they get boring and seem repetitiveâ€ (Johnny Royale, Randomville), not to mention how their â€œdistinct blend of garage and folk-rock translates into an explosive show onstageâ€ (Jessica Adamiak, The Pitt News).
Thatâ€™s more buzz than even Josh and Mike can crank from their stomp boxes. At last, everything seems right for The You to make its impact.
Just donâ€™t let his family â€¦ or his teachers at the University of Pittsburgh â€¦ or his supervisor at the video store know. Not quite yet â€“ like the rest of the world, theyâ€™ll find out soon enough.