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Letters of Acceptance: One Chapter Closes, Another Opens

In some ways, “LOA 3”, the latest EP by Lexington rockers Letters of Acceptance, feels like a departure. Unlike the songs on prior releases “LOA 1” and “LOA 2,” which each had a consistent feel throughout, “LOA 3” shifts gears willy-nilly, jumping tonally from track to track. It gives the impression of late-era Beatles, when the band knew what it had earned musically and started to spend that coin with experimentation.

The surprising note, however, is that “LOA 3” is not the result of a shift in a new direction musically, but a planned final act in a trilogy of EPs that both caps off an era and starts down a new path. The first three songs on the release are the final songs recorded as part of the same process which produced the first two EPs – recordings cut at home by the core duo of singers/songwriters/band founders John Norris and Clint Newman.

L-R: John Norris (guitar/vocals); Scott Whiddon (bass); Clint Newman (guitar/vocals); Tim Welch (drums) – Photo by Andrew Brinkhorst

“John and I have been friends for a long time but spent a lot of time nowhere near each other geographically and periodically losing touch,” said Newman. “So the first batch of recordings, which was us holed up in an attic or basement, was like time we spent getting to know each other again. I loved spending that time with him, just working on our little project like it’s a secret.”

That process, recording a full project as a twosome (chronicled back near the end of the last decade here), produced nearly three EPs worth of music, culminating in “LOA 3.” Now, here’s where all the heavy-handed metaphors about endings and beginnings find their purchase: the kernel of change on “LOA 3” is the fourth track on the EP, “150 Ways to Play Solitaire,” in which Letters of Acceptance members drummer Tim Welch and bassist Scott Whiddon get in on the action.

In other words, after nearly three EPs as a duo, now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational rock’n’roll band. Also, the…sorta goofiness, since “150 Ways…” seems to be rooted in how much fun one band can have recording a tune (and, hey, the Kinks made a career out of this).

“It is a decade-plus-old song that Clint and I made a home recording of long ago, then we re-recorded it with Scott and Tim in a recording studio with Otto Helmuth. So it is the first recording to introduce the full band, yet is also our oldest (and perhaps silliest) song,” said Norris.

The song would be an outlier on any other album, but it fits here on an EP where every song is an outlier, and the musical jumps could give one whiplash. The third track is “Zip Up Your Pockets,” which starts as something of a bleak meditation and then builds to an epic finale, right before “150 Ways to Play Solitaire” cuts in with a Beatles-esque goofy zeal, complete with an intro whistle solo.

“It’s really fun to be in a band that can put such a silly song next to something far more somber like ‘Zip Up’. I think that’s part of what we want to do – have freedom to go in lots of different directions, nor worry about some kind of sound or concept….” said Norris.

“Part of the reason we settled on our band name was because from the beginning of this project, we decided that we weren’t going to lay an overall concept on the sound and instead just trust that whatever comes naturally to us will be good,” said Newman. “Try and work quickly, though not necessarily in a rush.  Accept (!) whatever comes up and run with it.”

Scott Whiddon (bass); Tim Welch (drums)- Photo by Andrew Brinkhorst

Those instincts serve the band well, and the evident enjoyment had by all on the final track portends what may be an even more fully realized musical vision. To date, there have really been two versions of Letters of Acceptance – Newman and Norris recording alone, and the full band playing the tunes live in a flurry of shows from houses to festivals.  Now, with “LOA 3”, these entities have merged into a single recording band. 

“I think that we’ve grown to trust each other more and to listen to each other as players and writers,” said Whiddon, of the evolution of the group. “What hasn’t really changed – maybe deepened or grown? – is that we like each other’s company.  We get each other’s jokes.  And we can kinda predict each other a bit more now, and that’s great.”

LOA with engineer/producer Otto Helmuth (center) – Photo by Andrew Brinkhorst

This new unit brings about new possibilities but, for now, the recording process retains the same ethos: keep plugging away without looking back.

“I think some bands write songs and “workshop” them by playing them live a lot before recording, so that they really understand what the song can do. That makes sense,” said Newman. “But the other approach that bands often take, and that we’re taking, is to write the songs, work them up just enough so we can record basic tracks, and try to capture the magic that happens when a song is still really fresh.  After playing something live a lot, it can get a bit stale quickly, and that’s what you don’t want when you’re recording.”

“I think we just want to keep recording while the material is coming and keep trying to capture it while it’s fresh,” said Norris. “Then maybe in the summer we’ll start figuring out how to shape it all together.”

Contributing writer Brian Powers is a freelance writer, bassist, legal writer and amateur home remodeler originally from Clearwater, Florida. He lives in Lexington with his wife and at least four children, and his favorite band is Def Leppard, for which he refuses to apologize. 

Top photo by Andrew Brinkhorst.

Arts

Letters of Acceptance Exploring New Envelopes

It’s not a bad thing when an interview with an indie rock four-piece devolves into a discussion of favorite Replacements albums. It also gets more interesting when talk settles around not a seminal work, but a later and, according to some, lesser work. The fact that this narrative derailment ends with mutual agreement on the merits of said album showcases how Letters of Acceptance, a relatively recent addition to the pantheon of local musical life, works as a band; they exist as a loose collective of musicians spread out across more than a couple cities and some impressively harried work schedules who come together in what seems to be a nearly perfect fit on random occasions. It’s the amiable convergence on mutual agreement that operates to their advantage, whether in playing music together or in conversation about The ‘Mats albums.

There’s also more than a hint of serendipity, as the members all find themselves in a relatively same geographic location for the first time. John Harlan Norris and Clinton Harlin Newman (who either really missed an opportunity to name the group “Harlan and Harlin” – or were too wise to do so), the driving force behind the group, knew each other in Kentucky but both wound up in New York for a brief period of overlap. Collaboration grew out of that and spanned years and miles before they finally found themselves both in the same state again, and an intermittent collaboration blossomed into a full project.

“I think we had this idea that we wanted to keep it loose and try and have a little bit of spontaneity,” said Norris. “In some ways, for practical purposes, because that’s all time would allow for.”

The time constraints came not just because of busy schedules but because of the necessity for favorable weather for comfortable recording sessions in Newman’s uninsulated attic in Louisville.

“We could only record during winter, because the attic gets literally a hundred degrees in the summer,” said Newman.

The looseness gives the music a lived-in, organic feel, but not a sense of sloppiness. That loose approach doesn’t bleed over into the production value, however, despite the guerilla recording effort.

“I try to imagine it like we’re doing this twenty years ago and we’re using a little four-track cassette tape recorder to record a whole album,” said Newman. “I still think like that. That’s the most fun thing to do.”

L-R: Scott Whiddon, Tim Welch, Clinton Harlin Newman, John Harlan Norris

After writing and recording together for some time, the duo began taking their music out in public, giving it the local version of a road test before eventually enlisting bassist Scott Whiddon and drummer Tim Welch in mid-2018. Whiddon, a staple of the Lexington music scene the last several years, had been in a band that crossed paths and joined bills with another project of Norris while Whiddon was a grad student at LSU. He helped recruit Welch.

“They hooked me in immediately, when I heard it. I thought, ‘I’ve gotta get in on this.’ Then, ‘My wife’s going to kill me,’” said Welch.

Only after Welch was brought in as drummer, completing the foursome, did he realize his own proximity to the fated group:

“John and I live like five houses away and didn’t even know each other,” said Welch.

The relatively short distance between bandmates now belies a larger distance in the mix, namely, Norris’s seven-hour weekly commute to teach in Jonesboro, Arkansas, at Arkansas State University, where he is Associate Professor of Art. 

The artistry is evident in the composition – the lyrics often convey textures as much as themes, evoking actual poetry rather than a series of built-out rhymes. There is an undercurrent of bemused alienation throughout, disassociation viewed through a winking lens, even if it isn’t a conscious effort at a throughline.

“It’s just what comes out,” said Newman.

Lines fit because they work, not because they serve some heavy-handed theme:

“I’m interested in narratives that aren’t straightforward,” said Norris, but there is a bit of soul-searching emptiness that the songwriters attribute to being back in Kentucky.

“I think there are some lyrical things in an oblique way that do address that,” said Norris.

“The idea of coming back to a place and having it be different from what you anticipated,” said Newman. “We’re still trying to figure out where we are.”

Norris and Lewis work up the songs together, but it’s not a stretch to see echoes of Norris’s visual art in the lyrics from the duo.

“I’m here, but I’m ill-defined,” a line from “Cons and Pros,” the leading track on their new EP, could describe any number of Norris’s works, portraits where the human subject has been replaced instead with objects that reconstruct the outline of a human figure or build a silhouette that obscures identity. If this description is getting away from me or the point isn’t quite getting across, know that this is all meant to be a breathless compliment on the artistic complement.

Art as motivation is what drives back the forces of chaos that would render a less-organized band asunder. 

“Everyone in this band has a job and a house and responsibilities. When we see each other, it’s really happy. We have to plan ahead, and that’s okay,” said Whiddon. “It’s going to be fun.”

“If it’s a thing you want to do, you just figure out a way to do it,” said Norris.

Letters of Acceptance will be debuting their full-band lineup and releasing their EP at The Green Lantern on Friday, August 31st at 10 p.m. with Robby Cosenza and Otto. Tickets are $5.