Trying to follow Matthew Lang's scattered account of the last two years on the road is a little like trying to follow a busload of musicians whose zigzags and pit-stops are strategic only in terms of gigs, cigs, booze and sleep. When he returned to Cincinnati from Los Angeles for the second time, he was certainly mixed up. Wiser, though still armed with the same sad-looking guitars and the kind of paper-thin Midwestern consciousness that is late for everything, he didn't quite know what to expect. Thankfully, Justin Sheldon and Rob Barnes, two former members of his old Pop Rock band, Lightweight Holiday, met him at the door, ready to help build Northern Southern, Lang's newest brainchild.
"When I left (Lightweight) there were definitely loose ends and some hard feelings," Lang says, "but (we) were ready to move on from all that. And I think we were ready to try different positions, like, I used to play bass and now I do guitar and sing."
A shared history proved useful during Northern Southern's recent Nashville recording sessions, where they produced a six-song EP, Are You Bleeding Yet?
"We all took our notebooks with us and brought them back empty," Lang says. "It was like we were coming up with stuff almost too fast to keep up with it. There is a lot (on the EP) that was literally recorded as we went."
For at least the 10th time in 10 minutes, he rolls the word "literally" around on his tongue in a mock-British accent — "Litrally. L-l-l-eeetrally. Man, I've got to stop saying that!" He chuckles at himself.
Bleeding tackles familiar Folk territory and combines it with a punky geographic awareness that is evident, not only in the band's name, but in lyrics like "Ten state lines/Just ain't enough/To save me from myself and my worried mind." Lang talks of loves left in the tour bus dust, the scarcity of comfort on the road and the incongruity of trying to find yourself when you — ahem —literally have no idea where you are. On both L.A. stints, Lang was able to diverge from label pressures and obliging crowds, instead scouring long-forgotten journals and his own consciousness for material, relying on lessons learned to buoy him.
What emerged is a complex sincerity that is equal parts sensitive and jaded. Compellingly written and accessible tunes — that could have been wrung from Jets to Brazil or The Good Life manuals — fill in Lang's admitted gaps in guitar and vocal mastery.
"The title has a few different meanings," Lang says, "but overall I think I just looked at myself at one point and realized that (despite) everything I went through, that stuff that seemed so hard" — he brushes his shirt front — "I'm not bloody. Not even scarred up."
The jangling "Home Can Wait," is a sonic juxtaposition of composed, strategic guitar melodies and desperately unscripted vocals that introduces lonely minds on the brink of losing it, while ambling hooks (think Ryan Adams) conjure wholesome Americana, as if to say, "See? I'm perfectly normal."
Although the thrust of the EP is its complicated lyricism, the music certainly has not been back-burnered. Dick Lee lays down here-and-there samples with darkly danceable keyboard sequences. Tom Ryan's bass lines are complicated and moody. The overall effect recollects Cursive and Death From Above 1979, transplanting that sound, to a simpler time and a remoter place.
Hindsight is proving a worthy muse for Lang. With at least eight fresh songs waiting in the eaves, he is itching to get back in the studio, but he confesses that live shows are his real raison d'etre.
"I want to do it every day," he says, though he realizes that being a frontman is tough; it's no small task to avoid pissing off your bandmates and crowd whilst clutching your integrity, Heisman-style.
The learning process is serving his musicality well, though, and if things keep going so well, who knows? He might just sit still for a minute. Literally.
NORTHERN SOUTHERN (myspace.com/northernsouthern) plays Friday at Covington's The Mad Hatter with Matt Pond PA and 40 East.