In Summary: Folk-Rocker Jeff Karoub Contemplates Life’s High Points on “Between the Commas” Album
During his time at The Associated Press in Detroit, Jeff Karoub wrote obituaries about Motown legends, baseball coaches, and other people of note.
Those obituaries recounted life accomplishments and caused the Dearborn singer-songwriter to ponder how he’d best summarize his own life.
“At the AP, we called that ‘between the commas’—the high points of someone’s life. You know, the stuff you might be remembered for—good and bad,” said Karoub, who now works as a senior public relations representative at the University of Michigan.
“Imagine that you’re reading your obituary: What would you like it to say? What’s in there? Pack it in; you don’t have a chance afterward. You only have a chance now to start putting in the good stuff.”
Karoub advocates bringing that “good stuff” to light on the title track from his latest folk-rock album, Between the Commas. Serene electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, keys, and drums echo that sentiment as he sings, “What I offer is just one small thing / Imagine your obituary / Think of what you’d like to say / Something more than ordinary.”
“It’s not that I’m necessarily demanding that you all come gather around and listen to my wisdom; it was as much wisdom to myself,” Karoub said.
“The ideas were coming to me before my mom died [in late 2021]; she wasn’t the inspiration, but she was a catalyst. That makes it more pressing when you lose one of your parents or someone very close to you.”
Throughout Between the Commas, Karoub shares contemplative tales of loss, connection, crisis, and change across seven tracks filled with hopeful lyrics and emotive instrumentation.
“I used to think, ‘I’ve got a few good songs; I should record them,’ as opposed to ‘I want to make something that I want to listen to, or I want to make something that I need,’” said Karoub, who plays guitar, violin, alto sax, and keys on the album.
“And somehow, that’s what happened here … these songs feel like old companions even though they’re all new. All of them were written or finished a year or two into COVID. It’s very much in the now, but I didn’t want to write a diary of 2022.”
After reflecting on the present, Karoub cherishes the end of a seasonal era on “Summer’s Almost Over.” Alongside island-style acoustic guitar he sings, “It’s always too soon / But it’s never too late / The way we live / What we leave to fate.”
“I was in my driveway, and I had a firepit in mid-September. I was stirring the embers, and it was that moment of ‘Oh, wait a minute, the sun’s down, and it’s a little cooler all of a sudden.’ There was that feel and smell of the air that suggested it’s not summer anymore,” he said.
“There’s also that return to your regularly scheduled programming in September, and I wanted to capture lighting in a bottle there, too. The only way you can appreciate something is by knowing it’s impermanent.”
Next, Karoub quickly shifts from gratitude to concern on “Little Bird,” a societal ode about protecting the future of the planet’s creatures and environment.
Backed by urgent electric guitar, he sings, “You sing to mark your place / You sing to find a mate / Numbers fall—familiar call / Is lost in shrinking space.”
“As a news writer, words can just jump out from the page to me, and from the headline on down I’m like, ‘How does your song go, little bird?’” said Karoub after reading a New York Times article about Australia’s endangered regent honeyeater failing to learn its mating call.
“It can be listened to quite literally as, ‘What happens when your inability to recall this song and the whole future of you and your species hinges upon you remembering this song?’ I’m thinking about what piece of our humanity we could lose, and if we lose that piece of our humanity, what happens to us?”
Earnest violin surrounds him as he sings, “I keep my hope however faint the light / In darkness that might be a welcome sight / I take another’s hand / Strangers in this land / Hoping for an end to this fight.”
“It was born from an off-the-cuff or self-deprecating remark from Neil Finn. He was recording something with his sons … and he said, ‘I’m really on the planet today.’ He meant it as sort of ‘I’m not quite with it, and I’m a little slow on the uptake,’” Karoub said.
“I heard that phrase, it rattled around, and I put it in my notes on my phone. It emerged as a declaration of enough and a more elemental and fundamental sense of gratitude … like ‘There’s a lot of bad stuff going on … but we’re here, and we’ve made it.’”
To bring those tracks to life, Karoub spent five months recording Between the Commas with co-producer Andy Reed at Bay City’s Reed Recording Company. He opted for an expansive full-band sound on his fifth album after having taken a stripped-down approach to 2019’s Pieces Break.
“It was time to look for new collaborators, look to new studios, and expand the sound with it still being my sound,” said Karoub, who’s inspired by The Beatles, The Jayhawks, and Tom Petty.
“I want to keep discovering; I’m not shutting the door to it, but I also want to see what I can do. I want to bring all this stuff to bear that I’ve lived and experienced and still allow for happy accidents in the studio.”
Those planned and unplanned moments allowed Karoub to focus on the guitar, strings, vocals, keys, and horns while Reed added other instrumentation.
“He made some suggestions about arrangements and asked, ‘OK, do you want the guitar to remain the main instrument carrying it through? It will still be in the mix, but what do you think about having some electric guitar and some bass?’” Karoub said.
“One of the things I keep coming back to when I listen to it is that it came out just about as well as I think I could have done it. Whatever my limitations, whatever my shortcomings, this represents the best of me right now.”
“I thought, ‘This would be good for the band,’ and ‘Little Bird’ was one of those. Right away, George picked up on it and said, ‘Oh, I see how this can approximate flight, and I can go to some interesting places here with the guitar,’” he said.
“Dan was laying in some drums, and it gave him a little room to try out different rhythms, but yet he still kept the song going and anchored it.”
As a follow-up to their studio collaboration, Karoub, Luckey, and Houston will share tracks from Between the Commas and Garrison Corner’s catalog during a July 20 outdoor live show at Dearborn’s Christ Episcopal Church.
“I think this is my seventh or eighth appearance … that show’s going to be really special, and that’s the next big thing coming,” he said.
“And going back to some of those Tri-Cities / Bay City people, I’m already talking about some summer shows or summer festival shows [next year] … there were some genuine opening of doors working with Andy.”
Outside of shows, Karoub has written about a half-dozen new songs, which include more of a power-pop sound.
“I’m not going to wait two-and-a-half to three years … it’s going to be quicker than that, but it probably won’t be in this calendar year,” he said.
“The songs feel like companions in a different way … they’re not going to be as reflective or as foraging ahead. There’s a little bit more of a lightness, but it feels like a lightness that isn’t shallow.”
Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.