If all art comes from suffering, as the saying goes, this doesn’t mean it has to wallow in it. AirLands’ second release, So Much to Keep, is an album for when things are at long last going well, and the weather is breezy, warm, bright and right. Frontman and writer Kevin Calaba, formerly of Stars of Track and Field, learned he was better off without self-sabotage, overindulgences, rock bottoms, and all the other tropes larding the life and music of an indie-rocker. AirLands’ newest album happily dispenses with them. It hits with the freshness of a Peter Gabriel or Invisible Touch-era Genesis, yet with a billowed, impressionistic instrumentation and a personal tone closer to contemporaries like Bon Iver.
Calaba is candid about his darker days, important as they are for understanding his current state of grace. After rapidly riding his talents upward with Stars and Track and Field, he found himself in a tailspin familiar to many musicians: a broken marriage, painful addictions, and a band and creative friendship sacrificed to the maw of the industry. However, at his lowest point, the wheel of fortune turned once again to the better. Isolated and lost in upstate New York, Kevin was invited to mentor at the Paul Green School of Rock. There, witnessing teen-wizards expertly summon Zappa, Page, and Hendrix not only shattered the preciosity of his Northwestern indie-sensibilities, it provided him needed solidity for his climb back to sobriety. Life clarity returned. He was soon writing again, and this time more self-reflectively. “With Stars, everything moved so fast. It gobbled us up. And while I was asking a lot of big questions— about the world, war, politics— by the end, it no longer felt like a personal story. After that, I wanted to look at myself and make something deliberate, and true.”
From this renewal came AirLands’ self-titled first release, produced by Tony Lash (Elliot Smith, The Dandy Warhols), and gaining wider notice when the track "Love and Exhale" landed on Spotify’s New Music Tuesday and the CW’s Vampire Diaries. With his wife and collaborator, singer Marlena Calaba, Kevin emigrated from New York to the friendlier, lakier lands of Minneapolis, and gathered up members for a more lasting line-up of AirLands. In no time, Minnesota had gifted him with Mike Vasich (on keys) and his student Joshua Wentland (on drums), as well as Matthew Heaney on bass and Daniel Zamzow, from the Minneapolis royals Cloud Cult, on cello.
During a sojourn in California, Calaba conjured the material for the second, more ambitious LP. Produced by Marcus Paquin (The National, Arcade Fire, Local Natives) and Yale Yng-Wong (Bear Hands, Chairlift), So Much to Keep opens with "Palisades", a single that sets the tone of wide skies and welcoming horizons, “and all the birds they’re flying on south away from the cold.” Throughout, the songs bathe in the warmth of a B3 Hammond, lending tracks such as "Unknown Number #7" and "Out of the Blue" the feel of a modern rock hymnal— which is unabashedly what they are. Equally evident on "Comets" and "Salt and the Sea" is a quality that can only be described as “spiritual,” but a spirituality that Calaba insists can take innumerable forms, “from a twelve step to an unbreakable friendship to the acidity in your grass.”
These are hymnals made for porches, boats and roadtrips rather than pews, and we’re reminded of this constantly as the drums thunder in for "On the Wing" or we’re hurled into picaresques such as the animated "Fools". Even when AirLands dips into moments of doubt or melancholy, as on "Canyons" or "Goodbye Farewell", we are still sustained by hopefulness, or better yet, flung into a genuine optimism, as with the grander pianoman progressions of the album’s closer, "Engines". For as Calaba can attest, true happiness— and true art— will emerge from overcoming rather than forgetting the worst of your worst days. “ If you found a way to get by without breaking all your bones, darling please come home. If you found a way to fall in love without falling, well, it seems you’ve grown.”