Still Swinging On My Vine: How the perpetually busy friends of Friendship reassmbled to make their stunning Merge Records debut - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

When I first received an early download of Friendship’s new LP Love The Stranger I thought to myself, “this is it, their double LP epic, their definitive artistic statement, their White Album, their Blonde On Blonde, hopefully not their Use Your Illusion.”

That response was due in large part to the album’s 17-song tracklist, which turned out to be a bit of a misdirection; nearly a half-dozen of these songs are sub-minute instrumentals, the album coming in at a modest 45 minutes in total. And yet, it wasn’t a total misread: there is something decidedly epic about Love The Stranger, something cumulative, all-encompassing. The members of the (mostly) Philly-based Friendship are workmanlike in their craft, churning out music at a steady, consistent clip, but Love The Stranger is their best work to date, a collection of sonically adventurous, lyrically brilliant tunes produced by a band who seem preternaturally poised to take a bounding next step.

When you hear something like Love The Stranger, it surprises you — almost — to learn that Friendship has not been banging around the Philly scene for a decade-plus. But it was only in 2015 that singer Dan Wriggins, guitarist Peter Gill, and multi-instrumentalist Michael Cormier, all originally from Maine, came together to form Friendship while sharing an apartment here in Philadelphia. The band went on to release an EP and two full-lengths in their first few years. Low-key and understated, these records are decidedly spare, serving mostly as a vehicle for Wriggins and his witty, downtrodden lyricism which falls somewhere between Bill Callahan and David Berman. It wasn’t long until they added Jon Samuels on bass, rounding out the foursome and releasing 2019’s Dreamin, a record Ian Cohen of Pitchfork praised for the way, “each member shapes, prunes, and manicures the surroundings of Wriggins’ curious musings.”

Friendship - Ugly Little Victory

Which brings us to 2022 and Love The Stranger — sort of. In truth, there is more to Friendship than their discography alone. It’s not unusual to see musicians within the Philly scene bounce from group to group, creating complicated family trees branching in every direction, but the members of Friendship are particularly busy. The last couple years alone have seen Gill and Samuels release two albums as part of power-pop maestros 2nd Grade, Cormier release his spell-binding second solo LP, and Wriggins produce his first solo effort, Mr. Chill. That’s not to mention the many times these musicians pop-up for a song or two on fellow Philly musicians’ work — as was the case when Samuels sings on the recent Katie Bejsuik record.

None of these projects sounds exactly like Friendship, some quite different all together, but Friendship, and Love The Stranger specifically, seems to be where the venn diagram intersects. The instrumentals that dot the record are certainly indebted to the lush ornamentation that made Cormier’s More Light!! such a treat. And while there might not be a lot of pure power-pop on Love The Stranger, you can certainly hear the DNA of a song like “What’s The Move”, a highlight of Love The Stranger, on 2nd Grade’s “My Bike”, with its swaying, golden-hour ease. Wriggins’ work draws the straightest line, of course, even going as far as to pull songs directly from his Mr Chill EP for this record, though they are woven into the fabric of Friendship in a way that shifts the result significantly. This record is an evolution, to be sure, but the roots run deep.

Perhaps this should be obvious, given the output listed above, but Friendship is very much a blue collar band, its members distinctly aware of how much work goes into surviving, let alone thriving, in music, an idea evident throughout their output. “Still swinging on my vine, still getting up every day,” go the first lines to the album’s opening track, “St. Bonaventure,’, a song that serves as a weather-worn reminder to allow for the kind of relaxation the constant grind resists.

“The union boss says ‘baby don’t you know it’s a crime, that they don’t pay you for doing emotional overtime,’’ goes the far more playful yet no less direct “W-2”, written by Gill for 2nd Grade’s first record Hit To Hit. Cormier, too, touches on similar themes in his solo work. “Bosses are the same anywhere you go, they think they own the whole world,” he sings on “I’ll Stay On The Line”. It’s not hard to see the point of view these songwriters have arrived at, valuing hard work, sure, but valuing the worker most dutifully.

“Hank”, one of Love The Stranger’s lead singles, takes this idea on from a slightly different angle. Atop pine-needle guitars, Wriggins sings of frayed starter cords and rusty nail heads, sweaty hands and musty cobwebs. These are impediments to work, yes, but also signs that he seems to willfully ignore. “Hammering down is how I’ve been getting through,” Wriggins sings. “Strong-arming life is my bonehead tried and true.” Focusing, conversely, on the toll of self-inflicted pressure, Wriggins turns things inward. We’re all our own boss, he seems to say, and our bosses are sometimes assholes.

Friendship - Hank

When you think about it, balancing work and inspiration is kind of what making an album is all about. Love The Stranger saw the band prepare in a way they hadn’t done in the past, and hard work was an essential part of that. “The thing that was special that we hadn’t done before was we more rigorously recorded every practice,” says Wriggins. The process allowed the band to go back through the recordings and pinpoint moments they found particularly effective. Each member would then take these ideas and expand upon them, either on their own or at the next practice session. “It’s an interesting record because it marks some of the most preparation we’ve done,” says Cormier-O’Leary. “Dan would come over to both Jon and I’s houses a handful of times beyond practice to do some more textural experimenting within the demo process. That completely sculpted the sound of at least three or four of the songs.” Throwing things at the wall to see what sticks is certainly an important part of the creative process shaping all that inspiration into something cohesive is just as essential.

Lincoln is a small suburb not far from Providence, Rhode Island. It’s there, at Big Nice Studios around this time last year, that Love The Stranger was born. It’s a trick of the brain, I’ll admit, but when I listen closely I can practically hear the room where these songs reached their final form. High ceilings, rain dripping in the doorway, humming box fans, and the occasional waft of weed smoke drifting across the room. The four bandmates huddled together, following muses, stretching ideas to their limit, doubling back, finding the sweet spot. I’m romanticizing it, I’m almost certain, but isn’t that what the best albums necessitate, an origin story to match? To their credit, the band really only gush about what aspect of the recording process specifically; producer/engineer Bradford Krieger.

It’s with a tinge of former frustration that they tell me of the ease that comes from working with someone as open, thoughtful, and effective as Krieger. “When you record, you often have to worry about the engineer’s disposition and their thought process,” says Samuels. “With Brad, anything went, and it felt really great.” There seems to be two oppositional ideas that Krieger held throughout the recording of Love The Stranger; economy and exploration. The band loved the idea of the record sounding like four guys playing in a room, favoring live tracking over a more partitioned experience. To do this, a producer has to have an excellent feel for what the band wants and how to get it without getting in the way of their flow. To the members of Friendship, there is really no better producer for this, in their experience, than Kieger.

On the flip side, efficiency is not the be-all and end-all. You can prepare extensively, as the band did, but sticking to a schedule in spite of inspiration is not a good way to make a great album. “Brad was really receptive to going down weird rabbit holes with us, wild goose chases that might not work out,” says Gill. “It’s this great mix of being really creatively open but also being realistic and pragmatic. It was the first time I’ve worked with someone who had those qualities in those degrees.” And he isn’t kidding. Gill felt so comfortable exploring some more, let’s say, unusual recording practices that he proposed sawing an electric guitar in half as a way to fade out on “Hank”. It’s a technique he learned from performance artist Gustavo “Tav” Falco who did act as part of a blues festival, and one that sparked Gill’s imagination. He just had to hear it and, to his delight, Krieger and the rest of the band were more than game.

Friendship - Chomp Chomp

I’ll say it now, before we go any further. Love The Stranger is my current frontrunner for my favorite album of the year. I will not feign journalistic objectivity. It is, in my mind, the best work the band has ever done, by a significant margin. Up until my recent conversation with the band, I couldn’t quite pinpoint why, but now it’s obvious. Love The Stranger is not only the best Friendship record, it is the most Friendship record. 2017’s Shock out of Season and 2019’s Dreamin’ are albums I spin all the time, but they feel very much in the vein of some of the artists I mentioned earlier, like Bill Callahan in Smog, Dave Berman in Silver Jews, Will Oldham as Palace. Yes, these are bands but more often than not they feel like vehicles for their lead singer/songwriter. In Friendship’s case, this meant Wriggins. There was ornamentation, sure, but everything was ultimately in service of the vocals, scaffolding rather than brick, frames rather than windows. Love The Stranger fundamentally changes that in a way that breathes new life into this set of songs.

“In a way, it feels like I keep on doing the same thing and then these guys bring all their extra stuff which makes it not just my thing anymore,” says Wriggins, just a hint of relief in his voice, glad to see his ownership over the songs dissolve a bit. The title track from Wriggins’ Mr. Chill was one of my favorite songs of 2021 but to hear the new version, expanded in every direction musically, is to see a song come into its own. “What’s The Move” takes things a step further, removing Wriggins completely and featuring Jess Shoman, vocalist for Chicago’s Tenci, on vocals. “We had a clearer sense for when to let someone do what they do and not get in the way of that,” says Cormier-O’Leary of the newfound freedom everyone felt this time around.

So what I am basically saying is I cannot wait for Friendship to finally rid themselves of Wriggins’ influence. Except, of course, that’s not what I am saying. I have practically been living in this record since I first heard it and Wriggins’ words continue to ricochet around my brain all day like marbles in a pinball machine. I could sit here and run through my favorite lines (“Apathy joins me in the booth, Old familiar feeling”), giving you a glimpse into the many times they tumble out (“Only a nose hair away from inner piece today”) as I make a sandwich (“I need solitude and I also need you”) or empty my cat’s litter (“I can tell you stuff I can’t tell anyone else, because you don’t threaten to help”), but I won’t bore you. That said, Love The Stranger works best when these two factors come together — Wriggins’ everyman poetry and the band’s ever-expanding musical palette. “Chomp Chomp” is, in my mind, the most accomplished example of this chemistry. A simple, compelling, country-tinged song, the opening moments of “Chomp Chomp” alternate between a curly guitar riff, a train-whistle melodica, and Wriggins’ highly specified scene of Vans sneakers and sips of Jager. It’s at the midpoint, though, when Wriggins’ recedes into the background, that the song becomes the kind you absolutely need to blast through headphones in a dark room, the band rising like a dust storm, engulfing the song’s final third.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when or how a band takes a significant step. As I learn about the inner workings of Friendship and Love The Stranger, it remains elusive as to why this album feels different, even for the band themselves. When pressed, Wriggins cites incremental changes, improvements built upon improvements. They are at their most comfortable on Love The Stranger because they’ve grown more comfortable with each other, creatively stretching their legs without worrying about taking anyone else’s leg room.  They’d each had time to do their own thing and so came back with a more nuanced perspective. The whole process was more fruitful because they’d worked with Krieger on Dreamin’ and knew the things that could open up for them when it came time to record. “Nothing was way different but everything was better,” say Wriggins, putting it simply.

There is one change that cannot be denied, however, and that’s their recent signing to the North Carolina-based Merge Records. It wasn’t until after Love The Stranger was done that Friendship announced they’d signed with the label, though, so putting any indie-major sheen on the album does not follow the correct line of cause and effect. That said, the leap in potential exposure matches perfectly with the creative leap and gives the band a certain credibility that comes with signing with a label like Merge. The fact that Merge didn’t even see Friendship play live before signing them threw even the band for a bit of a loop. But when you hear Love The Stranger, it becomes obvious; this was a record, and band, that needed to be heard.

Friendship’s Love The Stranger is out now via Merge Records, and can be ordered here. The band plays its Philly album-release show with Tenci this Saturday, August 6th at Johnny Brenda’s; tickets and more information can be found at WXPN’s Concerts and Events page.

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