The soft and the loud
Jonatha Brooke, Roadsaw, and the Darlings -- but no Story
By Brett Milano
OCTOBER 27, 1997: Personal shake-ups seem to agree with Jonatha Brooke, who's pulled her two latest albums out of uncomfortable situations. The previous one, Plumb (Blue Thumb, 1995), was written in the wake of a split with Jennifer Kimball, her 10-year singing partner in the local folk duo the Story; and the songs were largely prompted by her mixed emotions over the move. After two albums with Kimball, Plumb was the most ambitious thing Brooke had yet done, and definitely the darkest.
Her new 10 Wings (Refuge/MCA) is even darker, but different. In terms of lyrics it's got enough bitterness, guilt, and resentment to power a city, or at least an Elvis Costello album. Titles like "Blood from a Stone," "Last Innocent Year," "Shame on Us," and "Glass Half Empty" give a good idea of the sentiments within. What's changed is the music. Instead of wrapping the songs in flowing melodies and odd orchestration, as she did on Plumb, she's keeping things relatively straightforward. Her producer/keyboardist/husband Alain Mallet tones down his usual exotic synths and instead works samples and loops into a guitar-band sound. And instead of writing tunes that twist in every direction, Brooke has learned to zero in on a chorus hook. Where her previous discs fell loosely in the folk/rock or adult-contemporary genre, 10 Wings is her first real accessible pop disc.
"I have no choice in the matter; it's just how the songs plop down on me," she explains by phone from Los Angeles. "But as I get older, I realize I don't have to try and prove myself as much in the way of doing every possible thing at every turn. I still love mystery and I still love ellipses, but I'm appreciating verses and choruses more and more. Nothing influences my songs except my life and what has meaning to me at a certain time. Because the minute you start writing for a marketplace, you've lost that initial spark."
She won't reveal everything that prompted the bitterness in the new songs, but a recent move from Boston to LA had something to do with it. Like the break with Kimball, it was something she felt was necessary for musical and career reasons; but that didn't make it any easier. "God, yes, there were huge changes -- story of my fuckin' life. It was a monumental year: my farther died, I moved cross country, and my dog just died. And my own exploding out of a former self, and a real search for why and what it all meant to be exploding, and where the explosion would land me. And whether I'd be in one piece or not."
But if Brooke's got some of the tortured artist in her, she's also got some real confidence. "I'm really feeling pretty damn good, like there's a breakthrough coming, even if it's only a personal one. I love this job so much that I'm embracing it fully. I'll take everything it gives me and give it back a hundred million percent more."
The new album is her first official solo effort -- Plumb was credited to "Jonatha Brooke & the Story," but she's now retired the band name. "That felt incredibly freeing; it was about time. I wanted to do it last time, but I got flak from the label, which thought it would make all sorts of difference if I called it the Story. And it didn't make a shit of difference at all, so I'm conclusively on my own and happy to be so."
Few things seem to do better in the marketplace these days than smart, attractive women who write melodic songs, but somehow Brooke hasn't yet found a place on the "women in rock" bandwagon. She's now on her third major label (after two Story albums on Elektra and Plumb on Blue Thumb). And once again she's being launched with a push: 10 Wings is one of the first releases on the new Refuge/MCA imprint, which was founded by heavyweight producer Don Gehman. But in the past something about her writing or her personality may have been a shade too quirky for big-time success; and she's not going out of her way to change that. She notes, for example, that she's refused to put photos of herself on the last two album covers, even though her labels suggested otherwise. And she came to her new label with the same producer, the same band, and the same independence as before.
"I've definitely had people say things to me like, 'You should go back and write 10 more songs because I don't hear a hit,' but I truly don't give a shit about that. I will not sign a contract without creative control; that's never been negotiable for me. But nobody's ever told me I should look a certain way -- maybe they're afraid to -- and I've been allowed to develop my own voice. Maybe it's because they could never find a category for me."
ROADSAWLook at some of Boston's better hard-rockin' bands and you'll find they have one thing in common: songs about people's asses. Consider the work of Scissorfight ("Planet of Ass"), the Upper Crust ("I Got My Ascot 'n' My Dickie"), and Ass Tractor (entire repertoire). Or consider Roadsaw, whose local claim to fame was two different ass-related songs, "Fancy Pants" and "Handed You Your Ass," both on their first single and (in re-recorded versions) their debut album, $1,000,000 (Curve of the Earth). The single put Roadsaw among the most enjoyable of local metal outfits -- though it also gave them a reputation for borderline-novelty songs. That's something they're eager to shed on their second disc, Nationwide, which comes out this week on Curve of the Earth. (Roadsaw play a CD-release show this Friday, October 24, at the Linwood Grille.)
"I wanted to move beyond the funny-band thing, and I think everyone wanted to be taken more seriously," bassist Tim Catz explains. "We're more focused now, instead of being loose and chaotic all the time. You can't keep making the same album over and over. How often can you keep listening to the Presidents of the United States of America, for instance? They made a second album of the same shit and nobody wanted to hear it." If there are no outright funnies on Nationwide, there are still enough overtones of big-rock goofiness. "She's Got a Satellite" may be the first love song that ex-Seka member Catz has been associated with, but its cosmic theme, chorus hook, and overall fist-wavingness mark it as a close cousin to Golden Earring's "Radar Love."
Even with three of the same four members, the band sport an overhauled line-up, with only bassist Catz holding down the same role. The departure of lead guitarist Steve Malone has left rhythm player Daryl Shepard handling all the guitar work. And drummer/singer Craig Riggs has become the full-time lead singer. New member Hari takes over on drums. The one-guitar sound is tighter and more direct, with a much heavier bass. Shepard isn't as flashy a soloist as Malone was, but that makes for punchier if less chops-heavy solos and more three-minute songs.
The band also have a sense of career purpose they didn't have two years ago, when they embodied the idea of playing loud music for kicks. About half of Nationwide was recorded in LA with producer Roy Z (who put some of the kick into Tree's last album). The trip was financed by Shepard's winning $8000 on a scratch card he bought at a convenience store. In the past, one could have imagined Roadsaw spending all the winnings on beer.
"We learned how to make the arrangements more concise, instead of just dicking around in the studio," Catz acknowledges. "Roy'd say, 'Why did you just do that part 10 times?' and we'd say, 'Uh, I dunno.' But some of the LA stuff came out way too slick, so we came home and redid it in Boston. Now it's got the best of the rougher and more polished stuff."
Since more than two years have elapsed between albums, Roadsaw plan to make a serious national push with this one. "I don't want to give the impression we're too serious, though," Catz avers. "It's still just rock."
DARLINGS EPOne of the best things you can say about a country band from Boston is that they don't sound like a country band from Boston. So it is with the Darlings, whose sound is so credibly Dixiefied that you'd swear they've been hanging out in Texas truck stops instead of playing regularly at Club Bohemia. Their approach to country rock harks back to the days when Keith Richards and Gram Parsons were running partners; songwriter/guitarist Simon Ritt (a former rocker with the Johnny Thunders-inspired Daughters) is mighty good at capturing that wasted-outlaw ambiance. And he's got a perfect match in singer Kelly Knapp, whose voice has a natural, earthy twang that makes the stories grab hold. An album from this band is long overdue, but they've at least delivered a four-song EP called Four-Song EP (on their own label), which pulls a few standouts off their recent demo tapes. "Halfway Home" and "Dusty Ol' Cowboys" make good mixes of Ritt's lowdown imagery and the band's honky-tonk heart. On stage they also pull some well-chosen covers out of their hats; they'll be at Club Bohemia this Friday (October 24).
COMING UPTwo different lounge-oriented events tonight (Thursday), as Four Piece Suit headline Bill's Bar and the Friends of Dean Martinez are at T.T.'s. Also tonight, ex-John Mayall guitar hotshot Coco Montoya is at the House of Blues and Jonathan Richman comes back to the Somerville Theatre . . . Tomorrow (Friday), it's a pre-Halloween party with Jayuya and Shiva Speedway at the Middle East; Ramona Silver and Pistola are at T.T.'s, the revived Echo & the Bunnymen are at Avalon, the Amazing Royal Crowns play the Paradise, and Merrie Amsterburg is at the Lizard Lounge . . . The heavy guy who used to play drums with Hendrix, Buddy Miles, hits Harpers Ferry on Saturday; Crazy Alice have their CD-release show at the Middle East, the Swinging Steaks play Johnny D's, and the Cranktones are at Club Bohemia . . . First-rate country guitarist Junior Brown is at the House of Blues Sunday . . . The Strangemen get a jump on Halloween at Bill's Bar, and British folk-pop gal Beth Orton is at the Paradise on Monday . . . And on Tuesday, Superchunk are at the Paradise and Low and Ida are at the Middle East.
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