The Connells: One Simple Word
I'm taking a page from my friend Chris Ludko (i.e., I'm stealing his idea). He's got this site where he and a buddy review albums they like called Shit for Fuckheads (http://shitforfuckheads.blogspot.com/). No real criteria for which records they choose. Some are indie and underground, some are pop and mainstream. Basically, they review whatever the fuck they want, what records have moved them and helped shape who they've become. Now I'm not plugging SFF because they say they're planning on reviewing the Wandering Jews' latest, Down on the Farm (well, not entirely). (On a bit of side note, I actually went to high school with Chris back in Berlin, CT, though I barely remember him. Which is a shame, since the dude has impeccable taste in music, is a terrific songwriter in the Bob Mould vein, and if I hadn't been such a weirdo dick in high school, I could've started a band with the guy, and we might've taken over the world with our music. Or at least had some fun trying.) Anyway, I like this idea of picking whatever records have moved you, and the other day at the gym the track "Another Souvenir," from the Connells' 1990 gem One Simple Word, came on the iTouch, and it got me thinking, not just how awesome a record this is, but how influential a role it played in both my music and life.
So let's break this fucker down, Shit for Fuckheads style. (Although since I don't have any friends helping me write this, we'll be forgoing the witty back and forth exchange.)
The Connells are the quintessential college radio darlings. I first heard them out CCSU's dinky little 8-watt transmitter in 1989, my first year of college, as I chased the Amys and Katies of the world, still young, pretty, strong, and naive enough to believe I could get everything I wanted. If you know of the Connells, you probably only know this song, which is their one "hit," and a video I posted a while back in a post called "Compromise."
It's a great song, with a catchy hook, and if the video doesn't bring you to near tears and wondering what you're doing with your life, you might want to follow homestarrunner into high finance or male modeling, because it's stark naked heartbreak, and you could be dead.
But the album it's from, Ring, while solid, isn't as memorable as One Simple Word. Not for me, at least. Some (like Chris, I think) might argue that Fun and Games is their masterpiece. Which may be true, but like any music you came of age to, or that simply played as the soundtrack to some pretty cool times, OSW is the one that sticks with me.
The Connells' line-up has stayed mostly the same throughout the years, but like most bands, they've added and subtracted pieces along the way (the band can still be found playing little clubs and bars today in their home state of North Carolina). But to me, and for the sake of this review, the key pieces are vocalist Doug MacMillan and guitarist/(primary) songwriter Mike Connell. For my money, MacMillan has one of the most distinct, pure voices in all of alt rock, and Connell, while perhaps not the most lyrically sophisticated, can match words and music (much harder than it sounds) as good as anyone in the game.
Stone Cold Yesterday
Like Rob Gordon says of a good mixed tape, you've got to kick it off with a killer, and that's what you get here from the Brothers Connell (Mike and bassist brother Doug sharing songwriting credit). This high-powered pop nugget showcases the best of the Connells, right out of the gate. You've got the pure, pristine late-'80s guitar tones and MacMillan pitch-perfect phrasing, as verse, chorus, and bridge explode to start our tale of the ordinary masquerading as the extraordinary, and vice versa. The conceit here is all about deception, internal and otherwise, and reconciling what isn't with what you always thought (hoped? foolishly believed?) was. It clocks in at a economical 3.37, with MacMillan harmonizing with himself, "Don't it make you wonder, man?" (Or is it "Wonderman"?) It didn't hurt that the song about "not an average Betty" and a guy who can't dance named "Jimmy" fit so aptly into the story of my life at the moment, as my best friend, Jimmy, had recently provided the impetus to the Something Like Paisley dance classic, "Ask Me about Betty (and why she so sad so sad so sad so sad)." (Seems I've been mining the Soyka for material from the get-go.)
Speak to Me
"Speak to me and then sentence me..." After the high octane (and remember "high octane" for college radio darlings isn't the same as for, say, Motorhead), the boys pull it back with "Speak to Me," like a bottle of classy $8 wine, letting that fucker breathe. (And you also have to remember, $8 for wine in 1989, that'd be like almost $20 today. And that shit is classy.) Now I'm a sentimental pop guy. Don't let the muscles and tattoos fool you. I'm a sensitive mutherfucker. This is only a year before the bone-bruising self-loathing of Nirvana took over college radio, and while I liked Nirvana (especially at the time), they also helped usher in one one of my least favorite eras of music: grunge (and that fucking midget Eddie V.). This tune is the not exactly the opposite of grunge, but it's "hardness" would sound wussy to most by comparison. Which would be a mistake. It embraces the best of rock 'n' roll outsider, and sounds damn pretty doing it.
All Sinks In
What makes One Simple Word such a solid record is that, start to finish, there isn't a weak track, each tune building off the last, even the "worst" merely holding course. But this ain't one of those weaker links. Here in "All Sinks In," MacMillan takes that theme of alienation and turns it in on itself resulting in desperation brimming, as that liminal moments are broached. I'm outside, and I'm never getting in. Deal with it. Lines like "I walked out this morning as the soup kitchen lines were forming" and "I recognize the classic signs of this unkind disease" played in my head many a-times as I walked to get barley soup at Martin du Pours with the rest of the wretched and homeless...
Get a Gun
This is the one. The song that hooked me on this band, the tune that played on CCSU's radio station.
She never listens to me at night. Get a gun, get a gun; we're losing altitude... What else is there to say? That chorus is as good as it gets, as MacMillan's voice weaves seamlessly through impeccable pitch, tone, and intonation. Sugary but without being overly sweet (again, not as easy as it sounds). This is the band at their best. Connells writes. MacMillan sings. It's rare a singer can take another's words and make them so much his own (the only other names that come to mind is Robin Z. and Rick N. in Cheap Trick). Frankly, I don't know what the fuck Connell is writing about, but I don't care. When MacMillan sings I feel the frustration, dread and regret. I am hard pressed to think of a better first four kick-off to a record.
What Do You Want
You don't want to blow your wad, Rob G. says, so you've got to take it down a notch; there are a lot of rules. This track feels different, because it is written by George Huntley, the second guitarist/keyboardist. It's a testament to a band when they can basically take a song by anyone and work the same magic. Huntely's tunes are fine, but without the Connells playing them, they'd be much more forgettable. This song isn't forgettable, and drummer Peele Wimberley's shuffling snare over lines like "she's pregnant but barely showing"is masterly interplay. Still, it's one of the weaker tracks. Not because it's bad, but because the others are so good; it suffers by comparison.
Set the Stage
I remember downloading this album back in 2004 or 05. This was right after I discovered this new thing called...iTunes (I sorta missed the computer explosion shooting drugs). I was very excited to have this record again. I played it for my (then) second wife, April, as we drove up to Amherst to check out grad schools for my (then) promising writing career. She wasn't impressed (she was a big fan of midget rock and Eddie V. Did I mention how much I loathe short rockers and Pearl Jam?). She said something to the effect of the lyrics being all cliches. Which is actually a very valid point. But never underestimate the power of a well-placed cliche in a pop song. Words so often only get in the way of a good tune. You're riding an emotion, and a goofy lyric can ruin the moment. Get out of your own way, man. (Social D and Soul Asylum's entire career were made riding the power of the well-timed cliche, and I've dipped my songwriting pen in that well often myself. This isn't poetry, man; it's pop music. Don't confuse the two). Another track that contributes skillfully to the overarching theme of regret and loss and underachievement that colors the album.
One Simple Word
There's no denying the debt the Connells owe to R.E.M., and this cut might be the most blatantly obvious I.O.U., with Mike Connell borrowing a page right out of the Buck playbook, ala "One I Love." Shimmer and chorus, chorus and shimmer... Like "What Do You Want," the title track suffers because of the company it keeps, but it's no dud; it simply doesn't advance the overall effort as far as some of the others.
Deceptively simple, this song is the only one written entirely by Doug MacMillan, here playing the part of both Stipe and Mills, with an achingly devastating backing vox that overflows with angst and loss. Might as well be singing "fire"... These things we collect and these things we lose, they are what define us. Definition in the absence, in the negative spaces, the trinkets of letters, what memories we can hold onto, mental snapshots and snippets of all the lovers we burn through...
The aptly titled "Link" is another Huntley tune, and certainly the weakest on the album. This Pink Floyd-sounding offering clocks in at barely a minute, making it less a song and more of a bridge to the next track. Still, this minute is better than anything you'll hear from the Ke$has of the world...
We're back on the upswing here. Lush harmonies, no-fat songwriting, the Connell/MacMillan team take 3 minutes to weave the sparkly chugging story of a man who can't take a joke, manipulating emotion with crescendos and big balloon catches as you fall.
After "Get a Gun," probably my favorite track, as Connell and MacMillan climb the rock mountain, masterfully segue into Shannon's "Let the Music Play..." Fucking genius. We just did a mash-up at the last Wandering Jews' show, fusing Jarret's "Bad for Me" with Tom Petty's "You Wreck Me." Let's face it. You got 12 fucking notes in rock 'n' roll, and most of the time we are going 1, 4, 5, so why not admit the obvious? "When am I too gone for you? Wasn't I once on for you?" I steal this sentiment for my song "So It Goes," which was written about a week and a half after first hearing this track. The word "gone" says so much. Means I had it and I gave it away, loved and lost. Huntley's keys help bring this song to its final fevered pitch, as MacMillan pleads to let the music play, and let him at least hold on to the memory of what was. Which still ends up being too much half the fucking time.
Waiting My Turn
Like MacMillan's "Souvenir," this, too, is deceptively simple, with Huntley's keys at their haunting best, mimicking a violin's lilt. And MacMillan's ability to pinpoint place harmony is rivaled by no one. We're coming to the end...
Take a Bow
Can't go out on a mopey note, so Mike Connell gives us a little some melancholy to chew on. Gave it my best, while all along I knew it wasn't possible. "What" wasn't possible? Who knows? Maybe crafting some of the best music you'll ever hear, which no one will ever hear, and in 2011, you'll still be playing North Carolina bars, while cookie-cutter, soulless fucks like the latest American Idol "star" gets crammed down the collective throats of the masses as what constitutes talent, thus promoting generic poser "rock" (Daughtry anyone?) while true luminaries languish in obscurity. I mean, if I had to venture a guess.
And like a freshman comp paper, I say, In conclusion...
If you are a fan of top-notch pop songwriting and pristine vocals, a real "record" as opposed to a collection of focus-group generated imminently forgettable crap; if you long for that simpler time before auto-tune and reality TV ruined rock; if you want to go back to that time before you turned 20 and started to realize Holden Caulfield just might be right and this world is full of phony bastards who get flitty every time you try to take a fucking nap, you could do a fucklot worse than checking out this record.