So, How Was Your Decade?
Ross Rice Gets the Nine-Year Itch

Things I am looking forward to, February 2006 edition:

Last year, I pronounced Mute Math the discovery of my Cornerstone Festival trip. Their live show was amazing, and while their debut EP, Reset, didn’t quite capture it, I could see and hear that these guys have something.

Well, now I’ve heard a few tracks off of their self-titled full-length (and you can, too), which slipped out last month without my noticing it, and all the excitement of that first show is back. It sounds superb, and “Chaos” and “Noticed” have quickly become two of my favorite songs of the year. Imagine if the Police were still playing, but instead of the glossy pop direction they took on Synchronicity, they stuck to the progressive nature of Zenyatta Mondatta and pushed it forward. That’s what you have here – 10 different musical styles sitting next to each other and working together in the service of some great songs.

The album is only available from the band right now, for reasons that I’ll get into once I review it. It’s on the way to me, and I haven’t been this psyched to get something in the mail since… well, Tuesday, when this week’s review subject showed up.

Anyway, in between playing the Mute Math tracks over and over, I’m also anticipating new records and box sets from… geez, loads of people. The year is officially in full swing. Next week, new stuff from the Lilys, Teddy Thompson, Ray Davies and the Eels (a live album with a string section), and the week after that, there’s Elvis Costello (continuing the live-album-with-strings theme) and Rhett Miller.

But beyond the immediate horizon, there are some things set for this year that have me counting the days. (I am not an addict, I can quit any time I want…) For instance, Michael Roe is right now recording the follow-up to Say Your Prayers, his intimate acoustic album from four years ago. I loved Prayers almost more than any other project by this prolific and astounding guitarist – it will make you weep, it’s so lovely. Hopefully the sequel will be just as good, but even if it isn’t, it’s always a joy to hear Roe in any setting.

Speaking of sequels, I am simultaneously awaiting and dreading Operation: Mindcrime II from Queensryche, one of the most important bands of my teen years. The band sounded revitalized on Tribe, their last record, and if they can carry that over, this will hopefully be a worthy second chapter. On the other hand, the first record is pretty much perfect, as far as metal-rock operas go, and a poor sequel can only diminish it. The addition of Ronnie James Dio as the voice of Dr. X doesn’t bode all that well, and the songs I’ve heard have been average, but with a project like this, it’s the cumulative effect of the music and the story. I am taking it way too seriously – I feel like I’m 16 again, poring over the lyrics to the original Mindcrime, looking for clues. It will be worth my $15 to recapture that, I think.

On the subject of quitting while you’re ahead, though, there’s Grandaddy, whose Just Like the Fambly Cat is rumored to be their swan song. It’s apparently really long, and thoroughly produced – huge and epic. I love huge and epic, and as sad as I am to see such a great band throwing in the towel, I’m fascinated by any band’s final album, especially if they’re aware of their fate while recording. What does the specter of finality do to the process of creation? In Grandaddy’s case, we’ll find out on May 9.

Then there’s new things from Built to Spill, the Fiery Furnaces, Eric Matthews, the Elms, Glen Phillips (already?), Ministry, and a double record from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Plus, I hear there’s going to be a new Hammock album this year, which is always good news. And a new Marillion in 2007. And I just got the four-CD Rarities/Revelations set from art-goth wunderkinds Saviour Machine in the mail – gorgeously packaged, stuffed with more than five hours of rare and re-arranged tracks, and collectible, since there were only 500 made.

Oh, and my health insurance kicks in on April 1, which means I can get a physical for the first time in four years. Everything works if you let it.

* * * * *

It’s always interesting to me when something moves from my “I want it” list to my “I have it, now what do I think of it” list. Especially if it’s something I’ve been waiting for, working over in my mind how it will sound, what it will do to my life once it arrives. The reality is rarely what I expected, and it’s always a process extricating the record itself from my hopes for it. My initial reaction is almost always disappointment (and when it’s not, as with the Choir’s new album, then I know it’s something special), and it usually takes several listens to get over it and just review the album.

To say that I’ve been waiting for Ross Rice’s Dwight is to severely understate the situation. Let me set the scene. Now, I’m not the kind of guy who hangs on to favorites from the past, illogically ranking them above superior artists of today. I like Great White, for example, and I have since high school, but I wouldn’t ever call them a great band like, say, Keane or Muse. However, there are three albums that came out in 1990, when I was 16, that still reside in my all-time pantheon, records I still reach for and hold up as examples of brilliance.

The first is the Choir’s Circle Slide, still their best work.

The second is Bellybutton, by the late, great Jellyfish.

And the third is Human Radio. That this perfect, cynical, melodic work of genius hasn’t launched a thousand cults is just criminal. Ten terrific songs, ones that sound like Mr. Mister playing Beatles songs with violinist Sugar Cane Harris, only a hundred times better than whatever image that poor description may evoke. Between “I Don’t Wanna Know,” “Hole in My Head,” “These Are the Days” and “My First Million,” Ross Rice earned a place in my personal songwriters’ hall of fame.

And then he went away. Human Radio was dropped from Columbia shortly after recording their unreleased, excellent second album, and they broke up. Rice made a solo record called Umpteen in 1997, which I bought with breathless excitement, but it just wasn’t all that great, and I figured that would be the last we’d hear of him. I found the second Human Radio album online, and it’s swell, especially “While You Were Sleeping,” perhaps my favorite of Rice’s songs, period. But the future looked bleak.

Nine years is a long time to wait for something, but now that Rice’s second album, Dwight, is here, I feel like I’ve been hanging on and hoping for it since my early ‘20s. In that time, I got a great job at a magazine, gave it up, flitted around the country for a couple of years, dated some interesting people, watched them leave me, got cheated on, lost everything, and slowly put my life back together. I’m happy now, in a job I love, with great friends – oddly enough, I am in the same position, mentally speaking, that I was last time I heard a new Ross Rice album.

But past the “Hey, how was your decade?” pleasantries, the experience couldn’t be more different. Umpteen started off disappointing, and stayed there, only a couple of songs rising above the overall average. Dwight, on the other hand, underwhelmed me on first listen, but over the last few days it has grown into a near-classic. These are Rice’s best songs since the first Human Radio album, although they sound nothing like that band’s work. This is a whole new thing, a diverse and mature Ross Rice, one that gives every indication that he’s gone through as many changes as a musician in nine years as I have as a listener.

The album title is a nickname – Rice cut his teeth in Memphis, and when he played with bassist Duck Dunn’s band, they would refer to him as “d’white boy,” or “Dwight” for short. It kicks off with “Hard Times for the Revolution,” a modern classic, all spit-shout vocals and buzzing guitar. And it sets the tone – it’s about a guy who has held strong to his rebellious ways while everyone around him has taken “a nice straight job and a nice straight life,” unable to “get off the couch and fight the power.” It’s sarcastic, cynical, and wonderful, and the first thing he’s done since that stands with the best Human Radio songs.

If that were it, I would still be happy, but Rice went and wrote a few more stunners, too. “Blindman” is a slow creep with a soaring chorus, almost King’s X in its grungy prog tone. “Mr. Anti-Sunshine” sounds like the offspring of old Elvis Costello and Del Amitri, if you can picture that. “Words Fail Me” is an update of Human Radio’s “Hole in My Head” lyrically, and a Glen Phillips special musically, an appealing, jangly delight. “…And After All” closes the record proper, a deep ballad with a great string outro.

Rice’s gift for lyrics is in full force here, although not as upfront and witty as it was in the Human Radio days. But lovelorn laments like “Happy?” and “Beautiful Ghost” explore more grown-up territory, which suits me fine these days. Human Radio is a young person’s album, all anger and funny despair, but Rice is older now, and Dwight reaches for more personal and emotional themes. Just check out “Over Arizona,” a tune about getting over your fear of flying to go see the woman you just might love. The music is more subdued and less immediate here, which matches the lyrical tone perfectly – it takes time to sink in.

“Mr. Anti-Sunshine” even seems to take aim at his former self, the bitter, conquering swagger replaced with a weary knowledge and, oddly, more hopeful demeanor. “Where is all your talent now, but just a seedling, a spark, half forgotten until now?” he asks, before repeatedly chastising, “You got messed up like it was something to believe in.”

And fittingly, Dwight concludes with a sweet little coda called “I Just Wanna Hang With My Baby.” I initially rejected this song, with its falsetto soul and Prince-like instrumentation, but like the rest of the record, it’s grown on me, and now I try to sing along when it comes on, reaching for those high notes. The song is happy, calm and settled, and hopefully its author is, too. Every time I hear new stuff from Ross Rice, I feel like it will be the last hello and goodbye. But while Umpteen would have left me hanging, unfulfilled, Dwight leaves me contented. If this is the last chapter, it’s a good one, one that will let me close the book in peace.

But I hope it isn’t the last chapter. Rice remains one of my favorite songwriters, and his voice hasn’t lost a note, and his knack for catchy, memorable tunes is obviously still with him. Even if it takes nine more years, I want more Ross Rice albums, dammit. It’s sad that so few people know of his work, because in my world, he’s written five or six of my favorite songs, and one or two of my favorite albums. I suppose I should be content with that, but I’m not as grown-up as Rice is, apparently, because I still want more.

In the meantime, we have Dwight, and you can get it here. While you’re there, download the second Human Radio album, particularly “While You Were Sleeping” and “15 Million Worlds Apart.” It’s free, and you won’t regret it. Special thanks again to Dr. Tony Shore for giving me the heads-up on this.

Next week, hopefully a few things, but definitely Beth Orton.

See you in line Tuesday morning.