Wednesday, September 09, 2009

"Why Modern Radio is A-OK" / Roman Candle

So just how DO we learn about new music? I remember having my ear glued to the radio when I was a kid, drinking in every new release the DJs touted -- a listening strategy that could be surprisingly satisfying, if you had a decent local station. Naturally that station would be attuned to your musical tastes; those tastes were molded by the station in the first place. College years were no problem, either; we were in and out of our friends' rooms, rifling through their record collections (a milk crate full of well-loved LPs, those with gatefold covers in front for easy access when it was time to roll a joint).

Nowadays, though, you really have to work at finding new music. I think that's why my kids restlessly trawl around the internet -- they've got to chase YouTube links and MySpace band sites to find music they like, often a hit-or-miss proposition. Just about the only way I get turned on to something new these days is when somebody whose taste I trust tells me to listen to something (lacking such friends in my day-to-day life, I find them on the internet). Meanwhile, the record companies have their heads up their backsides, pouring all their promotion into proven moneymakers and taking no chances with new talent.

A wonderful young band like Roman Candle is so likely to fall through the cracks. Their first album (The Wee Hours Review) languished on the shelf for nearly 3 years before it was released. Meanwhile they toured relentlessly, opening for quality acts like Aimee Mann and the Indigo Girls and the Psychedelic Furs, captivating audiences wherever they played. When the album finally came out in 2006, critics raved, but did Roman Candle become a household name? Nope. By all rights their superb new album, Oh Tall Tree in the Ear, should make them stars at last, but I'm too cynical to expect miracles like that.

So it should come as no surprise that Roman Candle's personnel -- brothers Skip and Logan Matheny, plus Skip's keyboardist wife, Timshel -- would have a cynical take on this themselves. The evidence: track 3 on the new album, "Why Modern Radio Is A-OK," a nifty bit of talking blues. The setting is deliberately lowbrow, as befits their twangy rootsy sound (they started out, after all, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina): "I was down at my favorite watering hole / With a buddy of mine that was out on parole / And we were flipping through the jukebox, / Talking how we’d been and how we are." I love the casualness of that scene; these aren't music geeks, they're just guys in a bar. The parolee gets a notion to play some Neil Young, an artist he'd learned about from a friend in prison. Our singer, however, panics: "Now he didn’t know, but while he was in jail, / I’d had my heart broken by a woman too wondrous to tell / And we‘d fallen in love to half the songs that jukebox played." I can just see this scene unfolding, can't you?

The action comes to a peak: "So when he flattened his dollar on the side of the machine / and I saw “Comes a Time" come on the karaoke screen / I realized there was a couple things I had forgot to say." The visceral heave is palpable. Then they launch into the chorus: "Don’t play Neil Young / Don’t play Van Morrison / Just let some high school emo band start versing and chorusing / Because there’s no way it will break my heart as far as I can see." (That Morrison/chorusing rhyme kills me.) The irony makes me giggle-- here's a guy singing his heart out, like a born follower of Neil or Van, saying he doesn't want to hear them? Ah, yes, because they're real, they touch the heart, and right now he can't handle that. With a deft twist, his last line slams the satire home: "And that’s why modern radio is A-OK with me."

The music itself is straightforward, a jovial bar-band rollick -- guitar, drums, organ, and Skip Logan's earnest, down-to-earth vocals. That title line practically begs the audience to sing along. I described this as "talking blues," and it does echo early Dylan -- that harmonica interlude is no accident -- but it also makes me think of Don McLean's "American Pie," that radio hit you could not escape in the winter of 1972. And like "American Pie," it name checks a list of musical greats -- John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, "Johnny and June" (Cash and Carter), even Merle Watson (no doubt chosen for the rhyme, "They just trade some Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham for a broke-down Datsun"). His bar companion the ex-con begins to wax poetic, urging him to "think of a winter afternoon when you fell in love / And ten songs on a record sounded like a string of pearls." But our heartbroken hero is too raw to appreciate the poetry: "Now my buddy rattled on till an hour'd gone by / And I thought to spit a mouthful of Beam in his eye."

Such a deft little piece of irony, and a great way to honor their musical heroes, artists whose music isn't soulless and tiny-hearted. Roman Candle may be a young band, but they've paid their dues, and they respect the masters who came before them. These guys sure sound like the real deal to me. So why doesn't modern radio know about them? Hmmm?

Why Modern Radio is A-OK


J-Money said...

I just wrote about these dudes a couple of weeks ago! Sometimes I wish we could swap iPods...or brains.

Bonus Pop Cred- Oh Tall Tree In The Ear boasts some production work by former dB Chris Stamey, who also did their previous album.

If you haven't heard his latest outing with Peter Holsapple, it's worth a listen, if only for the note-perfect cover of Family's "My Friend the Sun".

Holly A Hughes said...

Yeah, I see that Stamey has really championed these guys. I only know him through his connection with R.E.M.; I should check out his own work. And there's the dBs connection with Amy Rigby's ex, Will Rigby!

J-Money said...

He's definitely worth checking out. Some of his early solo LPs can be hard to find but I highly recommend his first album (Wonderful Life) and Mavericks, his first post-dB's pairing with Peter Holsapple.

If you're into R.E.M., my other North Carolina-based recommendation is Let's Active, the poptastic band of Murmur producer Mitch Easter.

No, I couldn't be a bigger nerd, thanks for asking!