Monday, September 17, 2007

Recommendation fo the Month 9-07

Category: Review

Sometimes albums are released to the proverbial sound of one hand clapping. The quality of the music doesn't diminish; to the contrary, sometimes good albums become great albums with the passing of time. Then again, sometimes all a good album needs to become a great album in a person's collection is to be heard. With that, here is my recommendation for September:

ALBUM: Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams

SONGS: She's a Runaway / Fadeaway / Still the Night / Rickshaw Riding / Angels / Misery / The Strangest Kind / Say You Will / Ultimately Fine / That's All / Lookin' for Me Somewhere

In the midst of what was called the "roots rock" movement of the mid-1980s, Slash Records, best-known as the home for the Violent Femmes, signed another band from Milwaukee known as the BoDeans (with the pronounced and spelled as da, which they later dropped because people began to think the name of the band was "the Da BoDeans"). Their music was far removed from the acoustic punk of their labelmates but no less Americana. The four-piece band went into the studio with singer/songwriter T-Bone Burnett and created a masterpiece.

The secret weapon in the BoDeans, and indeed what may have kept them from success beyond the "cult figure" status for the two decades since (they have had one hit, "Closer to Free," which was used as the theme song to the TV series Party of Five), is the vocal quality of lead singer Sam Llanas. His voice is so unique that critics began tripping over themselves to describe it. "A bullfrog in a blender" was Llanas's personal favorite description, although Robbie Robertson (who enlisted Llanas and his singing/songwriting partner, Kurt Neumann, to sing on three songs on Robbie Robertson) may have had the most accurate: "When I first heard him, I thought it was an old woman. A very soulful old woman."

Without question, Llanas's voice does take a little getting used to, but it is part of the charm and authenticity of the BoDeans. Llanas has no trouble conveying his emotions. When he tells "the story of Mary and the gun" in the opening track, "She's a Runaway," there is no question that Mary is a personal friend -- even though the tale of a battered woman taking fatal revenge on the man who beat her is purely a figment of Llanas's imagination. The album's closing song, "Lookin' for Me Somewhere," was inspired by seeing Emmylou Harris in concert, and Llanas pours out his infatuation for her with pubescent honesty ("Alone I go to sleep and I close my eyes / And I dream about a girl out there in the world").

Kurt Neumann, the other half of the BoDeans singing and songwriting team, has a voice that requires far fewer descriptors. His lead vocals are standard Midwest rock and roll. Put the two together, though, and you have the Everly Brothers on helium. The harmonies on the album are exceptional, certainly unique for the mid-80s when hair bands and air guitars ruled the scene. Their duet on "Fadeaway" and the chorus on "Angels" shows that country legend Charlie Louvin was absolutely correct when he said, "Any song worth singing is worth singing with harmony."

Burnett's production is perfect for the band. There is nothing overdone (the way fellow Milwaukee native Jerry Harrison did with the BoDeans' second album, Outside Looking In, saturating the album so heavily with production that a pick axe was necessary to find the BoDeans beneath it all), allowing each song to be presented as honest and open as the band performed them onstage. When Llanas sings "Rickshaw Riding," about love in the Orient, a song that could have easily been overproduced is allowed subtleties that enhance the number. When the band lets loose on the roll-down-the-windows-and-drive-fast rocker "Ultimately Fine," Burnett simply runs for cover and lets them go.

Among the BoDeans' fans' live favorites is "Misery" (no relation to the Kinks song by the same name; in fact, all the songs on this album are Llanas/Neumann originals despite sharing titles with other songs), a song about discovering a one-time girlfriend is cheating. The song is definitely a highlight, not just of this album but of their career. It is hilarious ("I found you're the reigning queen of the one-night stand") and bluesy, a song for all the she-done-me-wrong men in the world. As usual, Llanas delivers it as though he's been there more than once.

The BoDeans have seen their share of personnel changes over the years. Guy Hoffman, who co-wrote "Still the Night" and sang the bridge (the only time someone other than Kurt or Sam have sang on a track), left after the tour to support Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, beginning a long list of drummers in the revolving door. Bassist Bob Griffin left in 2006 after 21 years in the band (no official reason has been given, but perhaps it is because Llanas and Neumann relocated to Austin while Griffin remained in Milwaukee). They had their fifteen minutes thanks to "Closer to Free" and have returned to their cult following status. Simply because they are a "cult" band does not mean that this exceptional album should linger in obscurity. Indeed, if time has done anything, it has shown just how well this stellar debut holds up.

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