Brandon Von Vacik – A Guide To Finding Out You’re Not Special – Album Review
Ladies & gentlemen, I’d like to announce the winner of this year’s best album title, Brandon Von Vacik!
For real y’all, I ain’t kidding…I freakin’ feel that sentiment, 100%.
I’m thinking Brandon must be born somewhere in the 80s, and is a 90s music guy like myself, from what I gather so far. And you know something? I’ve never in my life heard an actual 100% dead-ringer for Dave Pirner before, but that’s the exact sound Brandon seems to continuously show a hint of or more throughout his material. I can tell from his musical taste that he’d know who I’m comparing him to here, he clearly grew up pretty close to the same era & timeline I must be on myself…but for those of you that aren’t familiar with the name, it’s the main dude from Soul Asylum. Von Vacik is by no means an imitation, but he’ll quite often emulate the same sound & dusty-vocal vibe that Pirner brought to the forefront of the mainstream so successfully. Love the warmth in the piano opening this album as “Intro (Never Go Home)” starts up A Guide To Finding Out You’re Not Special…and you can instantly tell that Brandon spends time on his material, refining his songs into hooks that are as endearing as they are entertaining. There’s emotional depth in songwriting he’s got, and as a performer, he’s clearly comfortable heading into that terrain without hesitation…which is good…you need that fearlessness to make a moment real, and you can hear in the way he sings the very first cut, all of less than 90 seconds in total, that he’s more than convincing. This opening kind of reminds me of like…like some kind of merger between The Fray and Soul Asylum has occured somehow…and I dig it.
“All My Friends Are Sycophants” flips the script pretty quick and launches into a Rock vibe, amping up the intensity right from the drop & picking up the pace of Brandon’s new record. Definitely a noticeable switch in sound, you certainly couldn’t miss it…and ultimately, there’s a good idea here at its core…I don’t know that I felt like Von Vacik managed to get to the full potential to be explored here, though I do like what I hear so far. I look at it like this…”All My Friends Are Sycophants” tends to hit an eleven straight outta the gate and has that vibrant spark you wanna hear from the get-go as Brandon plunges on into the verses…but you’ll notice when you get to the chorus, it’s pretty much left to him & him alone to make the difference when it comes to the vibrancy of the music itself – that make any sense? He confidently raises the stakes through the vocals even without the support of the music surrounding him, which both reveals a spot to potentially enhance the production in the future yes, but also shows us just how competent, capable, and captivating Von Vacik can be, even if he was to be left all alone. While that’s hardly the case completely on “All My Friends Are Sycophants” – you’ll likely hear what I’m hearing in that sense that you wanna find the music reaching its peak intensity along with him in the chorus this song has, much like you’ll find it does with a little more space to breathe in the verses & bridge. To be fair, if you’re listening, you’ll find it does become more involved & intense when it comes to the music itself, I think it’s just suppressed a lil’ too much in behind the vocals here on this cut, and raising that level of support around Brandon is quite likely to get him an even bigger sound as a result. Not much to complain about otherwise really…I know I’ve spent some time on my observations, but all for the same reasons I always do…hopefully there’s some insight in there that’ll lead to the sound he’s looking for and the rich thickness a vibe like “All My Friends Are Sycophants” deserves in the future to follow…but don’t get me wrong, the man’s got ideas and performance-wise, clearly knows how to give it everything he’s got with professional precision…melody is solid, hooks are strong…there’s still lots here.
Ahhhh ya can’t fool a man born into the same era of sound my man, it’s downright impossible. You won’t find you’ve made your way into “1000 Julys” here by any stretch, but you might hear about “a hundred million strings” as you dig on the Third Eye Blind-inspired sound of “The Road To Acceptance (The Same).” I’m gonna go to bat for this guy here and give this cut a solid nod of silent approval here to Von Vacik politely from the corner, because if we go into the whole 3EB thing we’re gonna half to arm-wrestle it out. Brandon’s a fan, I ain’t so much…and that’s long documented here on our pages to the point where I couldn’t run from the internet archives established over the years even if I tried now. Don’t get me wrong – I GET IT…OMG do I GET IT…believe me, I’ve had to participate in the Stephen-Jenkins-is-a-golden-God conversations many times throughout the years and still be willing to throw down in return & withstand the heat of the fire those talks generate – I know most of y’all really like the man, troubled & strange as he is. I’d be the first to admit he writes a decent song, so how about that? Just never really been my jam is all. And BESIDES that…can’t we just all embrace reality for a moment and admit that a dude like Brandon Von Vacik here has a much more pleasant & warm tone in his voice? I mean, I’m just sayin.’ That guitar solo around the 2:30 mark though…THAT moment right there…talk about tone! A perfect example of how something doesn’t need to be super complex or complicated to make a massive impact…it’s really just a couple notes, but the effect is huge, and gives Brandon a moment to reset before launching back into the brightened Alt-Rock/Indie vibes of this third tune. There’s still more than enough for me to like here, even if I can’t help but notice the 3EB influence, that tinge of Soul Asylum sound that Brandon’s voice inherently comes with seems to continually pull me right onboard without hesitation really, even if it seems like I’ve got a lot to say. Ultimately, I can hear the amount of accessibility there is in a track like “The Road To Acceptance (The Same)” that’ll appeal to a great many people out there. 90s fans or otherwise, there’s a lot of catchiness from the music to the microphone on display, it’s lyrically clever, and Brandon really seems to have an undeniable X-factor of his own that always retains a spark in his spirited & sincere sound that continuously connects on-point.
There we go…that’s what I was looking for – listen to the rich texture & tone in “Figure It Out” – that’s what I’m talking about in relation to Brandon’s sound & how it should be surrounding his vocals a little more in-depth…this track nails it. I mean, if I’m being real with ya, it’s just all nailed, all day here on “Figure It Out” – I think this is unquestionably one of the record’s best tunes in pretty much every conceivable area. Love the deep drum sounds & how they set the tension in the opening, and I love the burst into the chorus of this cut, and I love the punch it has between the dynamics that shift it through the verse into the main hooks…plus, you get some of Brandon’s best lyricism along with a stellar vocal performance that is as captivating as it is just straight-up badass too. He gets the absolute most out of his melody on “Figure It Out” and goes all-in for these hooks he’s written into this tune, and you can hear how the focus & being as dialed-into this moment as possible pays off for the man superbly here. Every time he hits that line of “yeah, well, you figure it out” I get shivers down my spine…it’s delivered as brilliantly as brilliant gets, catching all the essence of a self-defeated moment that’s still not without hope in that perfect 90s style. Call me crazy, but this man right here proves just how relevant this whole sound remains to this very day…”Figure It Out” is an incredibly single-worthy tune that’s loaded with hooks from verse to chorus & back again, with just as many to be found in the melodies beaming out from the microphone as you’ll find happening within the music itself. This song is a freakin’ triumph y’all – Brandon’s got himself a serious gem on “Figure It Out” – it’s a bulletproof song & performance, 100%.
What I really liked about the mid-section of this record was that, even though we can always dig for comparisons & find something, there’s much more of Brandon to be found within the middle of this record as opposed to the similarities that were easier to cite at the beginning of A Guide To Finding Out You’re Not Special. “Apathy” and “Golden Days” to follow are fantastic examples of the depth you’ll find in this lineup…there’s not a song on this record that I felt even came close to warrant a skip of any kind; there are flashier & catchier tunes in the set-list perhaps, but these cuts contribute in powerful ways, more subtle as they may be. Think of it this way – Brandon gets to flex more depth into his songwriting on these tracks…and while that can often be a trade for a little bit of catchiness or commercialized appeal, you gotta factor in that, even IF you considered these two tunes to be more weighty featured back-to-back, that if these were somehow the songs at the bottom of your list at first, he’s still in incredible shape as they’d essentially be A-sides on most records, and arguably are STILL here. To me, “Apathy” had no problem catching my attention, and hopefully that’ll be the same for you as well – I think Brandon’s nailed the melody here once again with a ton of heart, energy, humble sincerity, and pure passion. It’s that final line in his pre-chorus that is actually the main hook in my opinion…that’s where you hear the heart of this guy come bleeding through the microphone unmistakably without question; the chorus hooks are great too, don’t get me wrong – I’m just saying there’s a moment that occurs long before you hear that even for the first time that’s absolutely crucial, and he crushes it, 100%. Lyrically, this track also felt like it really revealed a lot more of the person Brandon is behind the music; it’s heartbreaking at points…devastating really…but never ever devoid of hope, light, and love at its core.
“Golden Days” actually has a lot in common with the slow-burning sound you’d find in some of the tunes by UK-based band Feeder, or Australian band Eskimo Joe from the album Black Fingernails, Red Wine – either of which is more than awesome in my opinion. With the gruffness & grittiness of the way that Brandon sings this tune, it’s not even all that far removed from a Finger Eleven track from the more mellow side of their catalog, or the melodic depth you’d find in a Vertical Horizon song. Heck, there’s even a moment as the pre-chorus starts that at the start, it even sounds like Von Vacik could do a wicked cover of a Collective Soul song too. You get the idea – there’s a real combination of depth & melody at work here that definitely gives you a lot to chew on. We all tend to get wrapped up in searching for single-worthy tunes in any listening session or even the reviews that are written, but the reality is that most, if not all records out there, would never be able to boast a whole lineup of stuff that would be accepted by the mainstream, played on the radio, and/or, or both, you dig? Tracks like “Apathy” & “Golden Days” are what you call the deep cuts folks…the spots that might not make as much of an impact at first, but are quite likely a huge factor in what’ll keep you coming back to a record over time. And again, if we’re being real here, they are BOTH still fully LOADED with hooks – just a different, more involved structure or more serious vibe that’ll have them standing out a little less at first by comparison to some of the rest is all. If you were to ask me, “Golden Days” is one of the better cuts on this record when it comes to songs that are realized in-full…it’s got absolutely everything it needs from a clever collage of sound that roams to the fringes to even include a cello (maybe violin, or violin too?), vocals that are vibrantly expressive and bold, music that’s precise & played with gripping emotion…if anything it’s possible that what’s surrounding Brandon could still come up a notch or two in volume to give the sound that extra spark, but I’m not complaining with what I’ve got here – this is an extremely well-written cut all-around, and I think there’s a lot of noteworthy sincerity to be found in the connection between Brandon’s vocals & the music he’s got along with him…you can hear how each element inspires the other to bring it…the passion and sincerity really come through the execution.
Goin’ for piano & violin (maybe cello, or cello too?) to guide him through “Saints In Purgatory” – Brandon holds his own strongly on a delicate tune with really bold vocals that bring some of his sincere best outta him while he contemplates a complex set of emotions & thoughts out loud as he’s singing. When it comes right down to it, I think the dude’s a fantastic singer…”Saints In Purgatory” takes a lot of artistic license when it comes to how he performs this particular tune…and I’d concede it seems to trade a bit of his natural sincerity for a more designer version of that in the melody of this cut as a result. I suppose the best way I can put it, is that sometimes a song finds you, and sometimes you set out to find a song, you dig? So many of these moments along the way, although clearly written in the same sense as many, really pack a natural character to them that seems to run inherently through the vast majority of Brandon’s music…whereas “Saints In Purgatory” almost seems like he sat down one night specifically to write a killer ballad, and this is what came out of those efforts, rather than letting the moment or inspiration come to him on its own – that make any sense to any of you out there? Don’t get me wrong, at the end of the day it’s really hard to argue against the results you hear, and really, I don’t wanna be the guy to do that either, because personally I do like what I hear. “Saints In Purgatory” definitely supplies a much different vibe to the record than arguably any other song does within the lineup of A Guide To Finding Out You’re Not Special, but in doing that, diversifies the lineup even further and shows a whole different side of what Von Vacik is capable of. He still finds success here – in fact, I’d be more than willing to bet there’ll be a lot of people out there that have this song right up there at the top with their other favorites…I ain’t arguing against it being a solid cut, it’s just a different vibe you feel here.
For example…here’s the thing…the nuts & bolts of what I think I’m thinking about over here…lemme take another crack at explaining this right. I wouldn’t go nearly as far as to say a song like “Saints In Purgatory” feels so much like a forced moment, so much as a track like “Katey” reveals how Brandon’s natural appeal at its most organic might contain a more universal vibe that connects right now – how about that – does that make more sense? Absolutely stellar imagery in his lyricism and emotion in his voice to echo the sentiment & sweetness of this song…”Katey” is another deep dive into heartbreak and personal devastation from Brandon Von Vacik, but I’ll be damned if this ain’t a sound he rocks incredibly well. It’s one of those bizarre moments that I experience on this side of the screen where I’ve got this odd crooked smile that’s determined to turn into a frown of sadness because of the mood & the vibe of this song & its words, but also trying to keep the corners of my mouth in their upright position because a track like this is a real achievement he should be proud of. I mean heck, I don’t even know the guy and I’m proud of him, you dig? He’s done a beautiful job on describing the pain of heartbreak, love, & loss on “Katey” – when he plunges into his lowest notes you feel the despair, and when he hits the highest notes howlin’ to the sky above, you feel that plea to the universe to just restore some damn order into this man’s world, if only for a moment of reprieve. For all of 2:34, “Katey” is wall-to-wall stunning and genuinely mesmerizing…Brandon puts in a sparkling performance that’s purely captivating, straight-up.
While it’s possible a couple titles have escaped me & there could be other covers on this record that I don’t recognize by name, I suspect he’s saved the two that are on this album for the very end, the first being “Broadway,” originally by Goo Goo Dolls & one of Brandon’s own personal idols in singer Johnny Rzeznik. No reason to not be proud of how this came out in my opinion…he’s gone the acoustic route for this cut and kept this cover to its meat & potatoes ingredients, and this faithful rendition of the Goo Goo Dolls not only gets a solid performance from Von Vacik that hits the mark, but also proves he’s spent a whole lotta time singing these songs from the 90s/2000s for a very long time, just like I have. I mean, I’ll be real with you – he’s got the voice for it, he may as well go for the big guns and haul out “Name” or “Iris” when it comes right down to it…”Broadway” is a decent tune and it’s friendly and it’s welcoming and familiar and all that…but I’ll admit, it’s a cut that came out after I’d surrendered that band for a while. Me & Johnny? We’re cool. I had an issue with the unevenness in Goo Goo Dolls records as a result of the dual-singer thing and liking what Johnny did, but not what Robby created for the most-part. Couple tracks here & there, but for the most part, I kept scratching my head in wonder of why you wouldn’t just always want Johnny singing their tunes, you know? Brandon’s voice is really well suited for the way Johnny sings, and considering he stays really true to the original “Broadway” here, he’s got no problem at all pulling this one off. But I don’t need to tell him that – someone else out there has already pointed this out to him plenty of times I’m sure, because you couldn’t miss it. Think of it like how a writer writes best when they write about what they know – quite often the same is true of making music & especially covers…the closer it is to you & the more it means to you personally, the more we can hear that connection to it that makes it seem like a natural fit, which is what you get here.
There’s no time in the world anyone familiar with music would look at a lineup of songs with a title including “1979” and not automatically assume you’ll be in for a Smashing Pumpkins cover. That title is like a retired jersey hanging in the rafters of a sports stadium, you dig? Like “Stairway To Heaven” in that respect…you couldn’t just go and call another song the same thing, that’d be icky and plain weird and I ain’t havin’ it. Anyhow…all that being said, that’s exactly what you get here in this final acoustic cover from Brandon Von Vacik to finish off his new album in style & on familiar, comforting, universal vibes. Does he sing it better than Billy Corgan? What are we talkin’ about here – technically? Then sure – who wouldn’t? Does he get more personality or that sweet-sweet bizarre X-factor into “1979” than Corgan did…that’s the real question on people’s minds when they listen to a Smashing Pumpkins cover. No one would wanna hear someone’s Billy impersonation, that would be a horrific mistake, and it’s thankfully one that Brandon avoids with ease here, simply because on a technical level of tone & range & all that, he’d put Corgan into the dirt without a moment’s hesitation…you get a smooth & professional performance from Von Vacik without all the inherent awkwardness of a Corgan in the melodic mix, you dig? Don’t get me wrong, I ain’t hatin’ on Billy whatsoever – I dig the guy on a record, fully admit I can’t stand him live without the studio help & time on his side, and Siamese Dream itself will always be listed inside any top ten list I could make when it comes to the overall production. It’s like the whole thing is covered in a magic dust that both enhances its charm, dulls the sound, and preserves a moment in time like the entire record was in some fantastically warm cocoon of its own design…I still freakin’ love it. It’s as simple as Brandon’s a songwriter AND a great singer, Billy’s a songwriter with his own unique vocals. I’m not ever gonna be the guy out there in the world that says “the original was always better” because that’s truly NOT the case; things can co-exist, be different, and every bit as valid – and in more cases than not, MORE of a good thing is a GREAT thing in my opinion. Hearing this crystal clear version of “1979” with the beautiful backup vocals in behind the lead really worked out well for Brandon if you ask me…it’s inviting AF, and he gets all the juicy sweetness in the melody outta his performance with his own dreamy vocal vibe that suits the acoustic setting bang-on. Solid ending for sure, but a solid record really all-around that delivers on a whole range of styles & sounds I grew up lovin’ on back in the day, proven to be every bit as timeless as we knew they’d be now, on Brandon Von Vacik’s shiny new album.
Find out more about Brandon Von Vacik at his official pages below!
Official Homepage: https://brandonvonvacik.com
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