Fifteen-years is a long time for any band to be together in general, but especially a local band. Actually, that’s somewhere around three to four average lifetimes in local band years. That’s how long Exit 380 has been kicking, though; and they have outlived many of their DFW counterparts, some of whom flirted with major label success and toured the country.
The band that was started by friends back in their college days at UNT in Denton may not have had those encounters with big breaks, but then again, that might be exactly why they have lasted as long as they have. They were never made empty promises that they would be the next big thing. If you ever were told that, and then it didn’t pan out, it’s easy to see why you would lose faith in the music industry, and perhaps even decide to hang it up and leave the band life behind.
That’s not to imply that Exit 380 is all fun and games for the members, either, but they do have a 50/50 balance of enjoying what they do and being professional at it.
It’s also rare you find a band who has kept pretty much the same lineup for the past eight years; and after a couple year absence, Bobby Tucker returned as the band’s drummer. Aside from that brief stint away, the band has been the same since the mid-2000’s, and that chemistry and camaraderie they’ve had plenty of time to establish has led to them getting better with each album, while they explored a diverse range of genres, from edgy rock to experimenting more with folk music.
But now, with their first release in more than two-and-a-half years, they’ve found themselves going back to their rock stylings, bringing renewed life to their earliest sound, along with continuing to experiment as musicians and try out some new genres.
The bands sixth LP, Photomaps, begins with “Laid Up In the Road”. Like many of their best songs, it doesn’t focus on a personal experience, but rather tells the story of a drunk who feels more at home on his own — in the middle of a road then being surrounded by people, be it family or friends. The nearly three-and-a-half minute track tells you enough about the fictitious character to get you interested, yet also complete his story. The music bed also really gets your attention, and lead and rhythm guitarists Aaron Borden and Jeremy Hutchison, respectively, have some soaring solos. It’s been many years since they wrote a true edgy rock song, and it’s instantly clear their time away from it gave them a clear perspective as to how they want it to sound.
Speaking of Borden, as any longtime E380 fan knows, he’s also pretty talented in the songwriting department (the now classic, “Closure”, is still one of the most beautiful songs they’ve produced in all their years together.) Well, “Love Somebody, Cold” is another song he penned, and he sticks with doing what he does best: writing songs that revolve around love. In this case, it’s about still deeply caring for someone, even though the spark is fading fast out of the other person. Surprisingly, it’s a very upbeat song, with some great piano pieces thrown in (courtesy of Andrew Tinker, who produced the record at Big Acre Sound), alongside a well defined rhythm section and some sweet guitar licks; while Blocker sings at the end, “…And you know I won’t be the one to roam.”
The coolest intro has to go to “Lonely Days”, and after Tucker establishes a solid beat, the guitars quickly fade in with some awesome, ballsy chords. It has been quite some time since Exit 380 last did a rock song of this magnitude. The band is on fire on the track, operating as collective in a way that I don’t think they ever have before. Each instrument plays off one another, and even the various notes Blocker hits help accent the other instruments, and in turn, they aid his voice. Overall, this song proves that this is a more robust Exit 380 than fans have ever seen before.
Originally, Photomaps was going to be a collection of songs that all found the band experimenting with a Spanish flare. Things changed once the actual writing process took place, as they more split their time between styles. However, while “Hearts In the Sand” is a rock song, it also has some Spanish sounding elements scattered throughout it. It’s found subtly in some of the notes and hinted at in the lyrics at times, though this is still primarily a rock tune, and they save that stuff for later. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the synth solo towards the end. You would think it wouldn’t work well with the track, yet somehow, it does. Granted, I haven’t heard many (or any?) synth solos, either, but I would say this one is worthy of being the best.
“Take It Like a Man” concludes the rock section of the album, and it’s another one very reminiscent of old school E380. Say, circa 2006, back during the Last Monday era. It’s a hard-hitting number, and there’s a nice sense of urgency at the end, as the track comes to a slightly abrupt, but roaring finish.
For the second portion of the album (or Side B on the vinyl copies), Jeremy Hutchisons’ guitar is traded in for a mandolin, while Borden puts his lap steel guitar to use. “A Song About Us” isn’t new to most fans, as it appeared on the first Hand Drawn Records compilation album. Still, I find it nice the track actually found a home on a record, because with it becoming a staple at live shows, it’s deserving of that. It’s another one that Borden wrote, though there is not a trace of heartache to be found like in the earlier song. In fact, it’s quite upbeat, and Blockers’ skills on the harmonica help in setting it off.
Speaking of upbeat, there’s “The Love Sleeps”. It has to be one of the most infectious songs written (and I mean that in a much broader sense than just E380’s discography), or at least that I’ve ever heard; and it emits a feel good vibe for all two-minutes and thirty-nine seconds of it. It’s an ideal song to dance along to, especially with a partner; and it’s just refreshing to hear something so overwhelmingly happy. If you’re ever having a bad day, this would be the song to put on, and then just feel the smile as it slowly creeps across your face.
“La Rosa Carlina” is the final original offering on Photomaps, and it personifies that Spanish vibe they initially wanted to go with. The one-off appearance of a violin is almost hidden during it, but if you listen closely enough, you can hear it creeping in here and there. The harmonies the violinist adds at the end sounds incredible, too, creating a nice male and female vocal part. The song itself is a good story about the guitarist of a band who adoringly watches Carlina — a dancer — who moves graceful to the music they are playing. “…Each twirl brings a smile, each smile a wink…” goes part of the chorus of yet another song that shows just how much the band excels at crafting and telling unique stories.
Like most bands, Exit 380 started off pretty humbly, doing acoustic covers back in their earliest of days. While they may have started out that way, they quickly ditched that in favor of original material; and in the seven to eight years that I’ve been seeing them, I’ve never heard them do a cover song. At least not until recently, when they tried their hand at Townes Van Zandts’ “Pancho and Lefty”. It’s the first cover they’ve ever recorded, and it perfectly fits the style of Photomaps. Like so many other tracks from the record, it tells a story; and they lifted elements from both Van Zandts’ version as well as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggards’, reusing the intro of their rendition to make for a powerhouse ending. It’s more than a cover, though, they truly leave their mark on this beloved classic, and that’s not an easy thing to do no matter what song you’re covering.
This isn’t the longest Exit 380 record ever. In fact, at just about 34-minutes, it plays out almost like a beefier EP, and passes just as quickly, because you get so wrapped up in these songs and simply lose track of time.
But if I had a choice, I’d go with quality over quantity, and that was the decision they made with Photomaps.
No, it isn’t the longest album they’ve ever released, though it is leaps and bounds ahead of anything they’ve ever released (that’s really saying something, ‘cause I still hold The Life and Death of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Stone in high regard and consider that concept album impeccable.)
For old fans, it’s great to hear them return to those alt/rock sounds they started with, and the growth they’ve undergone individually as musicians and as a band have helped reinforce that genre, and they take it to the next level. For newer fans, you still get some of that folk stuff, with a different twist put on it, as they continue to push their musical boundaries.
In fact, I think that’s another reason why they’ve had such longevity as a band: they’ve never gotten stagnant. I can see how it could be easy to concoct a “formula” so to speak for songwriting and then just stick with what you do best, but that’s not for Exit 380. There’s always room to improve; and really, how many bands can say that fifteen-years in they’re creating their most spectacular material to date? Well, I know at least one.
Exit 380 is:
Dustin Blocker - vocals, pianos
Aaron Borden - guitars
Jon “The Hutch” Hutchison - bass
Jeremy Hutchison - guitars
Bobby “Shoes” Tucker – drums
Purchase the album on:
iTUNES / Bandcamp
Visit Exit 380’s websites:
Official Website / Facebook / Twitter / Youtube
Photo credit: James Villa Photography