Tyler Jordan of Good Looks grew up in a South Texas coastal town dominated by the petrochemical industry, his childhood steeped in the tension between nature and industry, exploitation abundantly present, and the wealth gap in eyeshot if you just crossed the street. His father’s church, described by Tyler as “cult-like in its intensity,” was homebase and where he learned to sing. He snuck in harmonies where there was room, and where there wasn’t, and internalized melodies and structures. He bought into the content until he looked elsewhere and discovered a new obsession of studying lyrics for detail and intention.
Paul Westerberg and Spoon were early influences before Tyler gravitated towards artists like Patti Smith, Parquet Courts, and Minutemen. They were all rock bands who had something to say in their lyrics, and more than that, were high expectations he could set for his own project.
Tyler moved to Austin at 19 and spent his first few months busking on the loud and crowded drunken sidewalks downtown. “I used to stand on 6th and Brazos and try to bounce my voice against the brick building across the street loudly enough to have it come back and fill the street below.” It was an exercise that helped him build confidence in his voice.
A short time later Tyler met and befriended his primary collaborator Jake Ames whose own relationship with music began in a Kerrville country radio station where his dad was a D.J. Barely able to reach the faders, he reached for any kind of stringed instrument he could put his hands on. They met in the late-night song-swap circles of the Kerrville Folk Festival campground (where they would also meet Buck Meek and Adrianne Lenker pre-Big Thief).
Between volunteer shifts and string jams, Tyler and Jake shared their mutual love of the Texas hill country canon (Blaze Foley, Townes Van Zandt, and Willie Nelson) and discovered their parallel small Texas town musical trajectories. They shared a love of cheap diner food, thrift store baseball caps, and a healthy dose of harmless shit-talking. They began playing in bands together, backing up other songwriters and taking turns in the spotlight.
Tyler was a fan of the albums coming out of Dandy Sounds, a recording studio about half an hour outside of Austin run by producer/engineer Dan Duszynski (of Loma and Cross Record). They met at Chill Phases, an idyllic showcase held at the tail end of SXSW each year on the Dripping Springs property the studio is on, and talked about Julia Lucille’s Chthonic and Molly Burch’s Please Be Mine, records Dan had recorded whose layers and focused textures caught Tyler’s ear. Dan agreed to record and produce the songs that would become Bummer Year and added the touches that shaped it into a cohesive whole.
“My body could be put to better use” opens “21,” a song about the structures of capitalism. The chorus falls away to a euphoric guitar run that examines one of those rare moments of actual freedom. The song looks to a future where the greed of corporations is the cause of their own downfall. It’s this message that runs through the album, as if Billy Bragg had been born in a small Texas town instead.
Tyler is equally unafraid to sing about relationships and break-ups. Anthemic album opener “Almost Automatic” is a simple break-up song that amplifies those early days of a new relationship: “Pull the car over, watch the sun go down / Baby I’m just happy I could be here with you / Try not to race ahead, although my heart wants to” before wondering later “Why am I waiting on you?” The song’s inter-played guitars and build create something much bigger than the sum of its parts. They’re not afraid to record guitar solos and this is very much a rock record fronted by a songwriter honing his craft.
Of “Vision Boards” Tyler says “I kept hearing people talk about manifesting things and making vision boards. It really irked me at how privileged that viewpoint is, and how it’s really just another version of ‘you’re poor because you wanna be.’ The song gets at the very real structural limitations that make it hard to succeed in the music business, while at the same time acknowledging my own personal limitations holding me back, and trying to release them.” Lines like: “To the voice inside my head / Shut the fuck up / ‘Cause I tried my best and I am not listening” are married with bright and propulsive guitar lines.
Bummer Year is a record about learning to take care of yourself and tending to relationships that nourish you while wrestling the weak ones away. The songs reflect on what it is to gut your way through your twenties, learning when to apologize and when you’ve got to live with what you said, because you meant it. Unapologetically, this is a guitar record, but the room you’re sitting in is always the song. Sometimes a window slams shut and a shard of restlessness escapes. At heart, it’s a folk record with genuine Texas twang, built out with the engine of a rock band churning hot, willing to be delicate. The lyrics are nuanced and layered, political, and playful. It’s a vulnerable album that earnestly and unabashedly reaches for your attention, then offers up a relationship.
The title track tackles the places that made you— the folks “you’d want with you in a bar fight,” teammates you never chose but needed, the family that knows too much yet not enough to see you, the depth of camaraderie with those assigned to you by geography. It’s a love song for America, written from a place of frustration and depression, broken, with still a bit of hope tucked into its pocket. “Our strength is in our numbers, in the streets is where we show them / You force someone to listen to you when they’re fucking scared.”
The empathy in the everyday is what lies at the heart of these protest songs, ultimately more Randy Newman than Bob Dylan. You might not think that a song that begins with “all my friends from high school / they all bought motorcycles / joined up with a bike gang / supported Donald Trump” could make you cry, but you’d be wrong.
Good Looks is a bar band searching for common ground and yearning for a better system.