Where it all began


This is the story of a band that could have been.

I hated music lessons at school. You know – the compulsory classes, often on a Friday afternoon, where you had to learn what crotchets and minims are, and play things on Casio keyboards. Someone would always manage to trigger one of the pre-loaded backing tracks while the teacher was trying to explain something, causing disproportionate amounts of mirth from their fellow students. I had – and arguably still have – no musical ability whatsoever, so these hours felt like a painful and humiliating waste of time. But at 12, I fell hopelessly in love with the acoustic guitar, and the blame for that rests squarely on the opening notes of this song:

I can’t remember where I was when I first heard it on the radio, but I know it was love at first listen. The rush, the heart-swelling joy of falling for a new song immediately, never goes away, but when you’re approaching the hormonal riots of your teen years, it’s at its most intense. I have a huge amount of affection for the way our teenage selves did nothing by halves; every bad thing was the end of the world, every good thing was a wave you felt you could surf forever.

One of my all-time musical turn-ons is a big chorus; I’m helpless in the face of a refrain the size of Canada. And the skill it takes to create them should never be underestimated – every artist on the planet wants to write something that could get stadiums full of people repeating it back to them in unison. Every artist on the planet wants to make things other people feel right down to their marrow. That’s the whole fucking point. And I think the reason ‘Wherever You Will Go’ followed us wherever we were going in the early 2000s was the strength of that chorus. It’s simple, it’s unchallenging, but it’s big and yearning. The song was incredibly successful in the US, spending 23 weeks at number one in the Adult Top 40 chart, and featured on the soundtracks of both Coyote Ugly and Love Actually, two absolute icons of middling millennium-era pop culture.

We should probably talk about the video for the single briefly; as you may have noticed, it’s laughably melodramatic and of-its-time. But it’s a shame that this is the case, because the song itself was inspired by the death of guitarist Aaron Kamin’s cousin. It’s about love transcending death, not a cheating plotline ripped straight from One Tree Hill. But I digress.

In 2002, streaming was in its early days, so we were still buying whole albums based on the evidence of two or three songs at most. I remember purchasing Camino Palmero very vividly: it was the summer just after I’d turned twelve, and I bought the CD from MVC, then went to meet my friends in McDonald’s. I remain nostalgic for CDs, and I even miss trying in vain to hook a nail into a fold in the cellophane wrapper in order to remove it, and very quickly giving up and huffing off to find some nail scissors. I’ve written before about poring obsessively over liner notes; I always wanted to know who exactly in the band was writing the lyrics – who had stories to tell and who was happy just to be on a stage with their mates. I remember the excitement of getting home with a new album and playing it in full from track one to track twelve. Listening to a record in order is still like getting to know a new friend or lover – discovering what makes them defiant, angry, wistful, sad, delighted.

I’m not here to rave about Camino Palmero as an album that’s musically brilliant or innovative, because it’s not. It’s a very average rock record made by a band who sit comfortably in the tier of American and Canadian post-grunge acts like Goo Goo Dolls, Nickelback, Lifehouse, and Matchbox 20 that cluttered the middle reaches of the charts between about 1998 and 2004. There are three or four tracks on Camino Palmero I still listen to, and strangely, ‘Wherever You Will Go’ is not among them – I think my appetite for overwrought rock ballads was sated for life by the time I turned 20. But choosing what you love is important in your formative years, and it was the first album I bought myself with my own money, so for that reason alone, it’s permanently lodged in my heart.

The record kicks off with ‘Unstoppable‘ – a track that shocked and appalled 12-year-old me. I’d been expecting an album of soft-rock ballads like that ubiquitous first single, but here was a song in a minor key all about wanting to fuck someone you probably shouldn’t. I mean, take the chorus lyrics: “if we had this night together, if we had a moment to ourselves / if we had this night together, we’d be unstoppable”. Now, of course, I listen to it and think “God, that’s a hell of a mood”, but at the time it just felt a bit nauseating. The lyrics seem to get worse as the song goes on – and lacklustre lyrics are sadly a major feature of the record – but musically, the song’s actually not bad. It kicks off with some splashy drums, has a few pleasingly haunting guitar licks and is nicely pacy overall. I can almost imagine king of the sad/horny overlap Bright Eyes reworking it – punching up the lyrics and stripping down the production – because, well, listen to a recent Bright Eyes track.

The second single off the album, Adrienne, is a semi-decent revenge song with a very crisp, breezy chord progression and the obligatory massive chorus. The video is extremely 2002, as before, but mildly entertaining for that very reason, and it also has some nice shots of the lead singer flicking his pretty blond hair out of his eyes. What I wouldn’t have given to have been in that queue back then, good grief. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that my first major crush, which arrived about two years later, was on a boy who had too-long fair hair that he had to keep flicking out of his eyes. A move that I can assure you is absolutely paralysing when you’re a fourteen-year-old girl. He was also the son of the local vicar. Yes, really.

There’s little else about the record that stands out; the band makes an attempt at being socially aware on a track called ‘We’re Forgiven’, but its lyrics are earnest to the point of cringeworthy: “for some their life has been a curse / I say I’m sorry, and I should change / You know it just could be me some day…” I mean, you get the picture. ‘Things Don’t Always Turn Out That Well’, despite its extremely clumsy title, is a reasonably satisfying third-person account of a doomed relationship, with a pleasing touch of menace to it. It’s not going to make anyone’s Desert Island Discs list, but you wouldn’t rush to skip it if it came on ‘shuffle’. ‘Just That Good’ starts as a rather biting takedown of a spoilt and entitled friend/lover, then makes an attempt at getting socially conscious again, with lyrics about people wanting bigger houses and faster cars. The final original track on the album is actually quite a beautiful, if overwrought, ode to having the courage to love who you love in spite of fear and shame. Starting with soft, sun-drenched chords and building, of course, to an anthemic climax, it’s not subtle, but most of the best ballads aren’t.

The Calling were actually just two people: lead singer Alex Band, and the aforementioned guitarist Aaron Kamin, who met when they were teenagers. The other musicians who appeared on Camino Palmero were session musicians – maybe duos were a harder sell 18 years ago, I don’t know. Band and Kamin joined forces with a different batch of musicians for their follow-up record, Two, which echoed the standard of their debut by having two or three tracks that just about stand the test of time, while the rest are pop-rock filler. What happened to the Kamin-Band partnership is unclear; but this article sheds some rather depressing light on the matter.

What’s frustrating about most of Camino Palmero is that the raw materials for relative greatness are very much in place: Band has an incredibly compelling voice, and can sound tender, yearning, scornful and downright furious as each song requires. Say what you like about The Calling; you fucking believe Band when he sings. And you can’t really fault the musicianship itself: the production may have ironed out anything that feels remotely risky or rough-and-ready, but drum work is solid and the guitars sound good. There was a decent foundation here, somewhere, and it seems to have been lost. Maybe sounding radio-friendly was the priority; maybe the band were just too young to be clear of their direction and what they wanted their music to say. But I can’t look at that album cover and its black-and-blue palette without being thrown back to my 12-year-old self, and remembering how it felt to press play on a new record, knowing that it was about to change you, a little bit, for good.

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