Bittersweet symphonies

The Rebel Diamonds

Steve Caplan, Derek Gossi and Leanne Howard are The Rebel Diamonds. Guess what town they’re from?

Steve Caplan, Derek Gossi and Leanne Howard are The Rebel Diamonds. Guess what town they’re from?

Photo By Nick Higman

The Rebel Diamonds play Tonic, 231 W. Second St., 337-6868, with Dear and The Headlights and Paper Rival on Thursday, July 10, 9 p.m. $10.

Derek Gossi, lead singer and principal songwriter of The Rebel Diamonds, has a problem. Despite composing quietly earnest songs that chronicle the faith, longing, and loss of adolescence, he wishes he could write happier songs. Not the blissfully unaware, Bobby McFerrin kind of happy, or even the jackhammer Prozac anthems of the happy hardcore scene, but something a bit more, well, hopeful.

“I have trouble writing about cheerful things,” says Gossi. “Lately I’ve been trying to write more optimistic stuff. Things with a happy realization. But honestly, it’s hard for me to do because I’m predisposed to the opposite. The music that I want to write, it’s hard for me to write.”

Of course, writing songs filled with frustration and despair isn’t necessarily a bad thing—groups from The Smiths to Dashboard Confessional have carved entire careers around the idea. But in Gossi’s defense, he’s already halfway there. Though the Rebel Diamonds’ lyrics are melancholy, the music is far from cheerless. The catchy, nearly pop-perfect “Laudanum” is a prime example. The song’s strumming, buoyant guitars act as a counterpoint to the lyrics which Gossi says are about “guys who go for girls who are bad influences [and end up] destroying themselves.” The result is an almost Brechtian alienation, with the listener pulled in two directions simultaneously.

“If you ignore the lyrics a lot of the actual music, especially the guitar parts, are happy,” says drummer and vocalist Leanne Howard. “If our band tries to make a happy song—which ‘Laudanum’ was before Derek wrote the words—the music is usually happy. Actually, I like what we do. I think the best kind of art is when it’s really beautiful and breaks your heart at the same time.”

Many of the band’s songs exhibit these contradictions—blithe, euphoric guitars and strings, undercut by lyrics of loneliness and distance. Even the photo on the band’s MySpace page reinforces these tensions. In the picture, Gossi and Howard sit against a brick wall, holding hands with arms outstretched, looking somewhat longingly at each other but separated by a curious amount of space. Bassist Steve Caplan sits a few feet away, staring on impassively. Warm and cold, soft and hard, close and distant—the photo is a metaphor for the band’s essence.

But it’s another picture that provides inspiration for Gossi. In the black and white band photo, a rickety fence stands off to the right and a brick building with a door that says “300 1/2” is on the left. The band members, whose expressions have the stoicism of those in the painting American Gothic, look out at the camera as a gray sky fades to darkness.

“It’s on the wall in our jam room and I like to stare at it when I’m writing songs,” says Gossi. “I try to think about how I can bring that image out in the actual songs. If a song doesn’t fit with that picture, if it’s not deep enough, then I know it’s not going to be any good.”

“It’s sort of our style to be depressed and distant, but still have an underlying current that things are going to be OK,” says Caplan. “There have been multiple times when I’m in the jam room and Derek shows me something he wrote and it always sounds to me like ‘everything has gone wrong, but it will be OK.'”