Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Small Triumphs

Singer discovers life after major labels

By Michael McCall

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  Good pop music manages the difficult trick of being both simple and clever: It's immediate and accessible enough to catch the ear, yet fresh and smart enough to sound unique. Ross Rice's outstanding solo debut Umpteen easily encompasses both these qualities, but the former leader of Human Radio has to wince when he hears the word "clever." With his old band, the description was frequently used as a criticism: The group's songs were too clever for their own good, while Rice, the principle songwriter and lead singer, was a tad too quirky to connect with the masses.

"I've got to watch out for the 'c' and the 'q' word," he says with a good-natured laugh. "I hope I'm not too clever this time. I really wanted to make a record that was more direct. I guess I'm trying to make my cleverness work for me instead of against me."

Ross' feelings remain somewhat raw about the demise of Human Radio. In the late '80s, the well-regarded Memphis band built a large following in the Southeast before signing with a major label. The members' hopes and expectations grew, built up by the music professionals they encountered along the way. But, in a scenario familiar to many young and talented bands from Tennessee, Human Radio suddenly found its fortunes quickly reversed when its debut failed to catch fire in the marketplace.

Rice now thinks the band suffered from not having a firm image of what it wanted to be. "Our vision was 'everything goes,' " he says. The record company decided to market Human Radio as a postmodern '80s pop band that put an intellectual spin on its music, combining guitars with progressive, arty arrangements. "They re-created us in that image, and we were only too happy to do it," Rice recalls, noting that producer David Kahne (Sublime, Bangles, Greg Garing) took the lead in guiding the band's sound and image. "Our record ended up being as much David Kahne's as ours. As a producer, he likes to leave his mark. And we were more than willing to highlight any side of ourselves that someone wanted."

At the time, the rock landscape was heading toward the grungier sounds of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Stone Temple Pilots. Human Radio offered adventurous pop that was, well, clever and quirky. The group's failure could well be chalked up to the fact that they simply didn't fall into the favored category of the moment. Today, with the popularity of Beck and Ben Folds Five, they might have received more support from the music industry. "I took the rejection hard," Rice says. "People stopped being interested in the band, and I took it very personal."

In the long run, though, the experience served as a valuable lesson, teaching Rice to take a more realistic view of the music industry. "[I decided] not to let myself get terribly frustrated about how the system works and just concentrate on writing and doing the things I enjoy."

The demise of Human Radio also ultimately led to the creation of Umpteen. "I'd like to think it's a real different record for me," Rice says. "It's more emotional and not as technological." That it is. While there's a definite element of cleverness, it's shot through with warmth and humanity. Working with producer Brad Jones, Rice fashioned a spare, immediate collection of songs that explore how shy, self-conscious men stumble in pursuit of love and happiness. He conveys how difficult it can be for people to express their feelings, and that the inability to communicate can result in frustration and self-loathing.

Confidence-building Ross Rice, fashioning pleasing pop tunes on his solo debut. Photo by Rusty Rust.

Among the album's highlights is "Next to Nothing," in which a man is unable to tell a good friend how much he cares about her. He figures she would never see him as more than a friend, but he also can't quite muster the courage to tell her how strongly he feels. "Sometimes I get so close to letting my feelings out," Rice sings in a rush of passionate words that break through the otherwise sweet, melancholy detachment of the arrangement. "Then the fear kicks in, filling my head with doubt. I guess you'll always be just another thing I'll live without."

The song emerges from countless experiences in Rice's youth, the singer says. "That scenario has been replayed over and over again in my life," he explains. "I was always the smallest, scrawniest kid in class. I couldn't bring up the courage to say hi to a girl. I was so painfully shy that I couldn't even notice when people were taking an interest in me."

He eventually emerged out of that shyness--and he credits music for helping him find a way to communicate. "Dance Lessons" tells a very similar story, in which an unconfident man finally learns to assert himself. At first, the man is standing in a corner, listening to music; he feels it in his body, but he's too bashful to step out and dance. When he catches a woman's glance, he decides, in a grand yet quiet moment of personal triumph, to approach her. "Why don't you come over and teach me how to dance?" Rice sings in his yearning tenor. It's a beautiful passage and a touching allegory.

A multi-instrumentalist, Rice plays most of the parts on Umpteen. But he credits Jones for lending a mood of spontaneity to the recording sessions. "Given a chance, I will think about [a song] too much," Rice says. "Brad was real good about not letting me do that. That way we kept the feeling fresh."

The songs were originally created as a demo project for Sony Music, with the idea of making more elaborate recordings if Rice could secure another record deal. But when Steve Earle heard the songs, he told Rice he wanted to put them out on his new record label, E-Squared, without any extravagant doctoring.

Rice cites a particular meeting with Earle to show how different his record-company experience has been this time around. While going over the album with Earle and a mastering engineer, the engineer pointed to the unconventional opening of "Dance Lessons," which begins with a couple of disconnected guitar squawks. The engineer suggested to Rice that he take the introduction off the song because it might make some listeners think something was wrong with the disc or with their CD player. Earle jumped from his seat and launched into a tirade, saying that he didn't start his own bleeping record company just so someone else could bleeping tell him what to put on the bleeping record or not. "It stays!" he barked. Ross recalls meekly looking at the wide-eyed engineer and saying softy, "Um, yeah, what he says."

That kind of support makes Rice feel completely happy with Umpteen. His Human Radio experience taught him to keep his expectations in check, and he acknowledges that his chances at widespread success are a long shot. But he's satisfied with the album, and he's content to be with a small, independent label that accepts his music for what it is. "So far, the record is only getting limited response," he says. "But that's OK. The important thing is I'm proud of it. I'll play it for anybody, anywhere."

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