by Danny Miller
As a teenager growing up in a small town 30 miles south of Cleveland, OH in the late 2000s, I found something of a kindred spirit in Max Stern. Although he was still in high school, he was already a very prolific songwriter, and his natural talent with both his guitar and his pen was obvious. He frequently sang about his love/hate relationship with the city of Cleveland, acknowledging its negative qualities while fiercely defending its positive ones. His early songs helped me develop a sense of pride for the oft-ridiculed city that I maintain to this day.
While I was in high school and dabbling in the punk scene, it was inspiring to watch Stern form Signals Midwest and find some degree of success nationally. Along with The Sidekicks, they would help put Cleveland punk on the map and gain some notoriety for what I knew to be a highly underrated scene.
The band’s 2009 debut, Burn the Blueprints, was a scrappy affair that showed promise. Two years later came Latitudes and Longitudes, on which their ambition grew dramatically and they became much more experimental. At this point, their songwriting skills had not yet equalled that ambition, resulting in a record with some very high points, but too many middling ideas. In 2013, they released their third album, Light on the Lake, which I saw as the realization of what they had been aiming for. I figured it was only a matter of time until they were topping year-end lists like The Sidekicks had a few years earlier.
However, I watched with a mixture of frustration and confusion as their career seemed to plateau, even as their albums continued to improve. One of the greatest disappointments in my years as a music fan is not seeing Light on the Lake gain widespread acclaim. Despite my homerism, it should be an album for which it is unnecessary to even mention the band’s name when referencing it in conversation. It should be their On the Impossible Past or Home, Like Noplace Is There.
Light on the Lake’s songs are full of poetic, evocative lyrics and vivid imagery. Stern’s words are often reflective and occasionally abstract, but they never obscure the narrative or the intent of the song. The arrangements are unique and unpredictable, containing remarkable, inventive guitar interplay and room for the bass to shine at key moments. Behind it all is fantastic drumming by punk’s most unrecognized master, Steve Gibson.
There are several characteristics that arguably held it back from wider reach and attention. The production is a little flat and the guitar tone a little muddy at times. The album is not exactly an easy listen, given its lengthy, dynamic song structures and extended guitar movements, as well as its lyrical complexity and density. The lack of true choruses and the consistently heavy themes featured on the record make it a hard first listen. And, although the stories here don’t reach the pain and torment of those on Home, Like Noplace Is There, the lyrics don’t stray far from expressions of feeling lost, alone, stagnant, and frustrated, with only a few glimmers of hope throughout.
However, at the risk of sounding like an underqualified job candidate, I believe these features are also the album’s strengths. The restless, free-flowing arrangements prove to be more satisfying once you become more closely acquainted with their twists and turns. The passion with which the lyrics are delivered is powerful, amplifying the desperation and catharsis inherent to the words themselves. The album is worthy of attentive, focused listening and rewards repeat listens as you become more familiar with the narrative and more aware of the recurring themes.
In the first three tracks, Stern sings of his untapped potential and unfulfilled dreams, with the things he desires forever remaining just out of reach. He acknowledges his own self-destructive tendencies that prevent him from being truly happy. Side A ends with a trio of longer, downbeat songs that were originally written as one 12-minute song and remain loosely linked conceptually. The first of these sees the singer disillusioned after visiting someone in the hospital. ‘The Desert to Denver’ ends with the album’s greatest moment of release, with Stern’s colossal voice belting out the words, ‘Save me from sinking in this city. Be the light that guides me home.’ (These words would later be shouted out the window toward the city of Chicago by this article’s author at age 23 after he moved away from home and found himself unemployed and rudderless.) The trilogy ends with the narrator searching for solace in substances but finding none, wondering, “Does it ever get any easier? Or do we just trudge through our days ‘til the end?”
The songs are a little shorter and the arrangements more straightforward for most of the back half of the record, but the feeling of discontent continues. These songs speak of the dread Stern feels as a relationship’s end draws near and the inability to enjoy the things that brought him joy when he was younger. Too much time on the road forces him to ask, “How long can I keep this up? I’ve been spinning in circles for months. My heart’s in so many places at once.” ‘San Anselmo’ contains the most striking, beautiful couplet on the album: “In the bristles of your brush, I am a pallid pigment. Like a chord that won’t resolve, I am suspended and dissonant.”
The album continues by exploring the distress caused to both parties by a failure to communicate. On ‘Greater Planes,’ Stern’s life is spiraling out of control, and he keeps kicking himself for not taking action when he had the chance. “I lost my job and I lost my home… I lost you somewhere back there, too.”
For those looking for a respite from the pain and frustration, there are not many instances. Yet, one of the album’s best moments does approach something close to hopeful. On ‘The Things That Keep Us Whole,’ Stern first sings of the doubting words so often echoed by those who don’t believe in him or his chosen path. In spite of this, and in spite of his own doubts and awareness that changing location or staying on the move will not change the fundamental faults in his life, he chooses to keep searching. “It has to be ten times more important to pound at the door of a heart that’s dormant than to hide in your hometown and try to ignore it.” The song ends with a line that can be taken as a reminder to himself or as a command to others: “Don’t ever let your fear get in the way.”
Many records would end on this note of motivation and purpose after so many songs of ache and discontent. However, Light on the Lake closes with Stern contemplative and reflective after another hospital visit and a conversation with someone aware of the nearness of their impending death. He considers how his current life differs so significantly from where he once thought he would end up. He repeats a plea, or a promise, to push forward and “carry on with the weight of a ghost in your wake.” He then has the heartbreaking realization that he is the very ghost in someone else’s past who is holding them back from being who they want to be.
Whenever I listen to this album, I can’t help but wonder what could have been different that would have caused this album to resonate with a larger audience and be more widely recognized as a classic. Better production, like that on their subsequent album, would certainly have helped. Maybe a more obvious single would have given listeners something to latch onto. The record would probably have a little more mythology around it if there was a captivating backstory about the album’s creation or the events preceding it. Everyone loves a good narrative, right?
But the answer may simply be that punk bands from Cleveland on indie labels don’t make it ‘big’ very often. Maybe this album was predestined to be revered by a smaller group of people, and maybe that’s part of what makes it so meaningful to me six years later. If the album blew up and the band began headlining large venues, they certainly wouldn’t feel as much like one of ‘my’ bands. Maybe I would have lost interest years ago and would have found some other band to root for instead.
Signals Midwest has since released another full-length, At This Age, and the Pin EP from last year, both excellent and received with high acclaim. However, the band has reprioritized their goals, scaling back their touring schedule considerably to focus on more ‘grown up’ pursuits such as their professional and family lives. Admittedly, as a fan, it’s a little tough to watch this play out because of what the band means to me and so many others.
Nevertheless, they’re still together and playing to audiences all over the world – a thing worth celebrating, considering countless peers of theirs have come and gone without ever making it this far. The breadth of their impact may have been small, but their significance remains deep.