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When it comes to rock and roll, it's often true that the younger the performer, the more potent the music.
But consider John Roderick, the leader of Seattle's Long Winters, an exception to that rule. A veteran of several now-defunct bands formed after moving to Jet City, Roderick just seems to be getting better with age.
The 38-year-old singer/songwriter's latest effort - The Long Winters' sterling 2006 album "Putting the Days to Bed" - is the sound of of a grown man addressing grown-up issues, sometimes with a sly wink, other times with a bitter sneer. The 11 songs feature the kind of poetry few indie-rock acts can muster, and in an interview from a Wisconsin tour stop, Roderick acknowledged there are dark recesses among the glistening power-pop sounds used to deliver his lyrics. But, he said, rarely does any Long Winters song go by without some optimism getting through.
"I try to encode a lot of the darkness underneath the 'happy' song. Hopefully with further digging you can find the hope underneath the dark," Roderick said. "I try very hard not to write any song that doesn't have any redemptive quality. A lot of the bitterness, or the wry 'knowingness' of the songs, somewhere in there is also the twinkle in the eye that is meant to be uplifting.
"I think that gets missed by a lot of people because it requires that the record connect with you enough that you live with it long enough to unpack all that. Most people don't have the time or inclination to have that relationship with more than one or two records a year."
For Roderick, Elliott Smith's 1997 "Either/Or" album was one that struck a chord immediately and stuck with him. In discussing how influential Smith's work was on him as a fan and musician, the humor that regularly pops up in the Long Winters' songs comes through.
"I think I was misreading ['Either/Or'] somewhat at the time, because for years I was living with that record and I did not pick up on any of the heroin references on it. And usually I'm pretty good at picking up on heroin references," Roderick said. "On that record, I wanted it to be about something else, so I kind of just made it about something else."
In a commercial environment ever more dominated by people buying individual songs for an iPod rather than hunkering down with a whole album, the Long Winters are lucky in the sense that songs like "Pushover" or "Hindsight" are instantly catchy, fine additions to any iTunes playlist. But repeated listenings of the "Putting the Days to Bed" album, or previous Long Winters works like 2003's "When I Pretend to Fall," yield subtle musical surprises and clever lyrical twists that casual listeners might miss.
Roderick seems to be anything but casual himself, whether talking about music or his experiences off stage. A lot of kids take off on a road trip after graduating from high school; Roderick took off on a solo cross-country motorcycle trip to explore the mainland after spending most of his childhood in Anchorage, Alaska. He spent his 18th birthday in a Salt Lake City "flophouse" on that very trip.
When bands break up, the members generally find a new batch of folks and start a new band. Roderick did that as well, but he would also "recover" from the breakup by jumping into school or another monster road trip. He spent time in the early '90s studying "the comparative history of ideas" at the University of Washington, even teaching a seminar on the subject, and he played "hobo" for a while, jumping trains to crisscross the country and see a different perspective than his motorcycle trip of years earlier. When one former band, Western State Hurricanes, disbanded in the late '90s, Roderick went to Europe and traveled from Amsterdam to Istanbul. On foot.
Roderick, who brings the rotating cast of the Long Winters to Salt Lake City on Wednesday, said that even though his travel experiences - on bikes, railroads and foot, in a band and as a wanderlusting young man - clearly influence his writing, his songs are still dominated by relationships.
"When I first started writing songs, I tried to impart some of the experiences I'd had traveling around, and those were utter failures," Roderick said. "I couldn't write that kind of music honestly. The experiences I've had as a traveler, or even as a reader, they were personal experiences, with a lot of time alone and a lot of time spent watching.
"What I come away with is always stories about people rather than stories about the open road or the wind across the prairie. There are plenty of people who can write about those. For me, even on the windswept prairie, my eye was always drawn to the guy having a fight with his girlfriend in a car."
* DAN NAILEN can be contacted at email@example.com or 801-257-8613. Send comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read Nailen's "Urban Spelunker" blog by visiting blogs.sltrib.com, or hear him on the "ReMix" and "PopCast" podcasts available at http://www.sltrib.com/entertainment.
* The Long Winters, with The Broken West and Stars of Track and Field opening, play Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Kilby Court, 741 S. 330 West, Salt Lake City. Tickets are $12 in advance at 24tix.com and SmithsTix outlets.
* Listen to clips of The Long Winters at http://www.sltrib.com/entertainment.