It’s all New England all the time this week, but before we launch into that, I wanted to share some pretty cool announcements. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of that unclassifiable group of spiritual pop rock bands that sprouted up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. These are bands that have survived for 20 years or more in near-total obscurity, deemed “too church for radio and too radio for church,” even though none of them are as “Christian” as, say, U2 or Jars of Clay. Anyway, two of the more long-lasting bands have announced cool new projects that make it a good time to get into them, if you’ve never heard them before.
All of my friends are probably sick to death of hearing about the Choir. I’ve been raving about them for more than 10 years, and the band themselves have just come up with an ideal way for anyone to find out what I’ve been talking about. Never Say Never is an eight-CD box set that includes, oh, everything the band has ever done. All nine albums (Voices in Shadows, Shades of Gray, Diamonds and Rain, Chase the Kangaroo, Wide-Eyed Wonder, Circle Slide, Kissers and Killers, Speckled Bird and Free Flying Soul) are here in their entirety, as well as two new tunes and a disc full of rarities. It goes for the absurdly low price of $60, and if you rush to www.thechoir.net and order it, they’ll throw in a copy of their 10th album, Flap Your Wings, for nothing. This is the deal of the century, folks. You get the whole story of an amazing, overlooked band for an unbeatable price.
Daniel Amos is another long-running spiritual rock band, only they’ve been around since 1975. They’re the brainchild of Terry Scott Taylor, a prolific and ignored genius. Between DA, the Swirling Eddies, the Lost Dogs and his numerous solo projects, Taylor’s released 27 albums. For the last five years, he’s been focusing on solo works, but Daniel Amos roars back on July 3 with Mr. Buechner’s Dream, their 14th full-lengther. It’s a 33-song double-disc affair that’s being hailed as Taylor’s finest work, a claim that I find difficult to believe considering his history. Expect a full-blown analysis and retrospective when this baby hits.
Okay, time to head north.
My time at Face Magazine was, overall, a positive experience. For those unaware of Portland’s long-running music mag, Face started in 1988 under the ownership of Bennie Green. It was a bi-weekly underground paper that touted local bands and basically did everything it could to support the local music scene. I’m all for that, so I started working for Face in 1996. I was editor-in-chief by 1999, and I left under less-than-optimum circumstances in September of 2000.
During those four years, I met dozens of bands struggling for attention from the major labels, and I got a pretty revealing glimpse into the process of managing and marketing an original act. This is not an easy thing, and the more I learned about it, the more amazed I became at northern New England’s wealth of talent and perseverance. Even though there have been many worthy contenders, there hasn’t been a major label album out of Maine or New Hampshire in nine years.
Until now. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
I often wondered what else labels could be looking for that the bands I was encountering weren’t providing. An excellent case in point is New Hampshire’s Motorplant. On the surface of it, they have everything. They write great songs, they play them with energy and skill, they’ve built up a sizeable fan base all on their own, and their live shows are terrific. They’ve released two good records by themselves, Inside the Walnut and the new American Postcard. Oh, and they’re all pretty damn cute.
So what’s missing? Why the hell aren’t these guys on a major label?
I have no idea. I’ve bought several major-label records recently that aren’t as tight, polished, well-played or well-written as American Postcard. (I’m listening to one right now, in fact – Dave Navarro’s Trust No One.) They play an invigorating, no-bullshit style of melodic rock, the kind that pulls you in from the first note. It doesn’t waste any time – Postcard’s 13 tracks clock in at a lean 48 minutes – and it never wears out its welcome. It comes in, kicks your ass and goes home.
Motorplant most impresses me when they’re making inventive use of their multiple guitars. The great first single, “Awkward Girl,” spins a web of electric guitar lines, and the band keeps enough distance between each one that the song fills in the holes. Vocalist Steve Blanchard sings his ass off on this song, and in fact on the whole record. I can’t think of a single reason why pseudo-rockers like Sugar Ray and Matchbox 20 are all over the radio and this tune isn’t.
Motorplant keeps the crunching guitars and upbeat tempos throughout, and yet varies the production enough so that Postcard is never stale. “Mary,” just by itself, is a great example, slipping as it does from double-guitar and three-part harmony in the chorus to a hushed bridge section, to vocals, bass and drums in some parts. This record never slows down, though. It’s a masterful chunk of classic power pop-rock, and if you like the sound of guitars at all, you’ll dig it. The only thing that could have made it cooler is if they’d included their live version of Ratt’s “Round and Round.”
So what’s the problem here? Let’s get Motorplant on a major label. Go to www.motorplant.com and order American Postcard. If you like it, lobby your local radio station to start playing it. Then, start going to local shows and supporting local bands, because no matter where you are, there are bands like Motorplant struggling to get a major label deal.
The other side of the coin seems to be this: when these bands get major label deals, they often seem to muck it up. The major label record is nowhere near as good as the independently produced records, for some reason. As much as it saddens me, I’m talking about Portland’s golden children, Rustic Overtones.
When Rustic was signed to Arista Records in 1998, it was a big deal around the state of Maine. Finally, it seemed, two things had happened: one of the local scene’s best and brightest would get a shot at the big time, and the doors of the scene would blow wide open. Rustic Overtones landing a major deal was good for everyone.
And then the songs started leaking out. The major label record, which was at different times called Volume Up and the even more hideous This is Rock and Roll, was produced by Tony Visconti, and obviously had massive funding poured into it. All manner of embellishments were used: electronic drums, synthetic noises, David Bowie, etc. The songs, though, were pretty damn weak.
After a year and a half of delays and legalities, Arista rescinded its claim to Rustic, and the material was shelved, as were the hopes of every local act that Portland would become the new Seattle, circa 1992. But now, Rustic has landed a deal with super-cool rap label Tommy Boy, and given their major-label dreams new life. Hence the (finally!) terrific title of their Tommy Boy debut, Viva Nueva. If only the album were as good as its name.
If this is the first Rustic album you’ve tried, you should know a few things. First and foremost, they have never, ever sounded like this before. Viva Nueva is over-produced, bass-heavy and relatively tuneless. Over half of it is the Visconti sessions, mixed with five superior new recordings and two inferior re-recordings of old tunes. You’d never know it, though, because thankfully Viva Nueva flows remarkably well. The new stuff (“C’mon,” “Love Underground,” “Baby Blue,” “Combustible” and “Boys and Girls”) sounds like the Rustic of old somewhat. The Visconti sessions are an aberration.
I’d highly recommend trying their older stuff, particularly Long Division and Rooms By the Hour. Those sound like the work of a band, and make much better use of the three-piece horn section. Track ‘em down, they’re worth it.
That said, Viva Nueva is a challenging, accomplished, schizoid record that may grow on me over time, but I kind of doubt it. The band went to some new places on this disc, but they should have known that not all side paths lead to brilliance. “Gas on Skin,” for instance, strips the sound down to a repetitive bassline over an electronic drumbeat, and that gets real old real fast. “Crash Landing” sounds remarkably like Dave Matthews covering Ricky Martin. And don’t even get me started on “Sector Z,” the track featuring Bowie and lyrical references to both rejected album titles. I give them credit for trying new things, but I take that credit away for not realizing that new is not always better.
Again, if this is your first Rustic album, this may not matter to you. These guys are far better than this record, though, and it seems they’ve fallen victim to the major-label slump. I don’t know if it’s just the added pressure or the additional cash at one’s disposal, but this happens a lot to some really good bands. I hate to do it, but I have to number Rustic Overtones among them. Next time, guys…
While we’re on the subject of local bands, I got another e-mail from Broken Clown drummer Shane Kinney, who reports that his band’s badass anthem “Feelgood Hit of the Summer” is in contention for the top spot on garageband.com. You can help out by surfing over there and reviewing the tune. Last I checked, they were at #19 on the main chart, and #4 on the metal chart. Congrats, guys, now take it all the way.
As a quick aside, when Rustic Overtones announced in 2000 that the title of their album would be This is Rock and Roll, Kinney confided in me that Broken Clown would be titling their upcoming record No, THIS is Rock and Roll. That would have been too damn funny.
Next time, Stone Temple Pilots, maybe.
See you in line Tuesday morning.