No f**king around
Dennis Brennan's back without the f-word
Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano
Dennis Brennan may not be rich and famous just yet, but he can measure success
where it really counts. He's well-traveled enough to have opened for the J.
Geils Band in their club days; he's hungry enough to be doing his best work
now. He's got the notable players in town lining up to perform with him: about
half the Cambridge musicians' register appears on the just-released Rule
Number One (Esca). And he's well-liked enough that the Lizard Lounge has
named a drink after him. In the interest of research I sample the "DB Martini"
when we meet at that venue, and I can testify that it comes on strong and packs
So does the music on Rule Number One, which makes good on the flashes of
brilliance on his two previous efforts, Jack in the Pulpit and Iodine
in the Wine (both Upstart/Rounder). That pair saw Brennan break away from
his guitar-combo origins -- he'd been in Push Push through the '80s and had
briefly sung in the Providence blues band Young Neal & the Vipers -- and
get ambitious, with the lyrics and arrangements taking on a more epic,
heartland-rock quality. Nothing fell flat, but it was still the stripped-down
rockers and simpler ballads that worked best. Rule Number One remains
plenty diverse, with two country songs, a bossa nova, and some garage rockers,
but the aesthetic is more stripped-down, with no song longer or more arranged
than it has to be. Once again Brennan uses some local all-stars -- Barrence
Whitfield and Merrie Amsterburg both sing duets; support players include
Morphine drummer Jerome Deupree, freelance guitar star Duke Levine, and Carol
Noonan bassist/co-producer Paul Bryan -- but he gets them all rocking hard
enough that the Gravel Pit don't sound out of place when they show up on one
tune. And though Brennan professes not to like his own singing, he's developed
a great, desperate howl that suits the voices of his characters, who tend to be
out of love, out of work, or otherwise on the downward trail.
"You write those kind of songs and people are always going to think you're
writing about yourself," he points out. "But I have a lot of friends -- plus,
I'm a songwriter, so I'll use anything. I'm ruthless." And songwriting has been
on Brennan's mind for as long as he can remember. "I came of age when the
long-playing record became a great thing. When I started buying albums in the
'60s, it was always one great song and 11 songs that sucked. Then people like
the Beatles and Marvin Gaye came along and gave everybody else something to
aspire to. I'm not talking about concept albums, just the ones where the
individual songs were all good. And that's really what I'm all about, just the
The most immediate track is the song that should have made Brennan rich 15
years ago: "This Kind of Love," which he originally did with Push Push. It's a
messed-up love song on a par with anything that big guns like Costello, Lowe,
and Graham Parker were writing at the time, and the chorus hook is
near-impossible to shake loose. So why don't you remember hearing it on the
radio? Probably because of its lyrical punch line: "This kind of love, this
kind of hate/This kind of love -- big, big fuckin' mistake!" Brennan spent
years defending that lyric to record labels and radio programmers, and he was
right -- the f-word fits what the song has to say. Thanks to the Gravel Pit's
back-up, the new version has the manic energy that Push Push never got in the
studio. But it finally changes the lyric, so that in the last line it's only a
"big, big, big mistake."
"The word's been totally devalued by now, so I don't care," Brennan says. "It's
been said so often on records that it's not effective anymore. The Gravel Pit,
they're a great band. And when we did that song in the studio, Jed [Parish,
singer/keyboardist] said, `You know, they're not going to play this on the
radio if it's on there.' And I said, `Yeah, you're probably right.' It was dumb
that the word was an issue at all, and probably dumb that I pushed so hard for
it. But I don't think the song needs it to put it across."
And it's not that Brennan shies away from putting strong medicine into his
songs. Consider "Gracefully," the track that's been earmarked as a single. The
first verse sets you up to think it's an easily grasped number about a woman
recovering from a tough break-up. Then the second verse brings in a priest
who's leaving town because he couldn't keep his hands to himself and you
realize the story's a lot more complicated. "I'll say that the two stories are
interrelated. Put it this way: the archdiocese is like a multinational
corporation, where they take people who screw up and send them somewhere they
can't do any harm." Perfect hit material, I suggest. "Yeah, right. I did worry
a little about that, but they seem to think it's catchy. It's not that I
disrespect people who have faith -- hey, I don't want Gary Bauer on my ass. I
just hate copping out in songs, when you're doing the Garth Brooks thing."
Which is? "Saying the obvious. So it sounds like a movie, where the studio
comes in and tacks on an ending because they didn't like the one that the guy
came up with."
Brennan will be back at the Lizard for his CD-release party this Tuesday, the
Drummer Shawn King Devlin might be called the Kevin
Bacon of local rock: he's connected with everybody, mainly because he's played
in so many good bands over the years. That much was clear last Thursday at the
Middle East benefit for Devlin, who broke his right wrist last fall. Nearly
everyone who played -- Mary Lou Lord, Skeggie Kendall, Jason Hatfield, Blake
Hazard, Buttercup, Yasmine Kuhn of Bottleneck Drag, Jimmy Ryan of Wooden Leg --
had been his bandmate at one time or another. Best-known lately as Helium's
drummer, Devlin also did long stints with Dumptruck and Tackle Box. His luck
went bad last fall when he fell off a ladder while doing construction work --
unless you're in Def Leppard, a broken wrist is one of the worst mishaps a
drummer can have. He's determined to play again, but it may take physical
therapy or even further surgery before his hand heals -- and like many
hardworking musicians, he's got no health insurance.
"I'll be able to play, but I'll need to take it easy for a while," he explains.
"I can say that Christmas really sucked this year. I didn't want a benefit, but
Skeggie [who books the Middle East upstairs] said, `Don't worry, we're gonna
put this together.' I'm glad it's happening, but I'm a little embarrassed."
Of course, benefit shows are as much about showing support as about raising
funds, and Devlin got his propers last week. "That was for the best drummer in
the history of Boston," announced Mary Lou Lord after closing her three-song
mini-set with "Lights Are Changing."
Benefits are also a good opportunity for bands to play one-time cover sets, and
Buttercup showed their classic-rock roots by covering Joe Walsh, Steely Dan,
and Neil Young ("Heart of Gold," rearranged to sound like a Crazy Horse rocker
instead of an acoustic ballad). Also showing a Young influence were Bill
Janovitz's side band the Bathing Beauties, who appeared in a stripped-down
line-up (Fuzzy singer Chris Toppin was absent) and did a killer version of
James Carr's oft-covered "Dark End of the Street."
The instrumental hero of the night was Jim Ryan, who not only played a vibrant
set with his own Wooden Leg (sounding like the local answer to Fairport
Convention) but sat in back-to-back with Hatfield's moody country band Star
Hustler and the angular funk band Bourbon Princess. Outside the Phish-head
circuit, the sound of funk mandolin isn't something you hear every day.
As a member of Knots & Crosses, singer Carol Noonan
always showed a strong affinity for English folk rock in the Richard
Thompson/Fairport Convention vein. And she's just moved closer to that world
via her newest bandmember: Dave Mattacks, probably the best folk-rock drummer
alive. A long-time member of Fairport and Thompson's solo band, Mattacks has
also played with such upstarts as Paul McCartney, Elton John, and XTC. The new
line-up (which also includes guitarist Duke Levine and bassist Paul Bryan) will
debut at Johnny D's on March 22. Meanwhile, Noonan's still playing occasional
gigs with Knots & Crosses, whose reunion at the Somerville Theatre last
November reminded lots of us why we've always loved that band. They're back in
acoustic form next Saturday (the 19th) for two shows at Club Passim.
The Bacon Brothers are at the Paradise tonight (Thursday), so
everyone who's ever played the club is now one Bacon degree closer. The
cultiest of all cult bands, Half Japanese, are at the Middle East with the Peer
Group opening. Johnny D's turns into Mardi Gras Central at this time every
year, and the club is back with two notable Louisiana shows this weekend.
Zydeco rocker C.J. Chenier plays tonight (Thursday) and the Wild Magnolias,
whose funky Indian chants and parade pageantry are like nothing else out there,
arrive on Friday . . . Reggae legend Lee Scratch Perry's
farewell tour is going on almost as long as the Ramones' did. After a "last"
show at the Middle East last year, the eccentric dubmaster is back at the same
club Saturday. And the very fine alterna-country band Old 97's, who were
turning pop before Wilco did, hit the Paradise . . . Getting
cynical on Valentine's Day is a long-time rock tradition, and Monday night
brings a few good options. Indulge your broken heart with a listening party for
the Cure's Bloodflowers album at T.T. the Bear's Place, share Bourbon
Princess's romantic misadventures at the Milky Way, or dump on the whole
concept with the Syphilloids at Bill's Bar. Or if your heart's not broken,
consider that the ever-sensitive Waltham co-headline at
Bill's . . . And the fine pop group Baby Ray continue a
Wednesday-night residency at the Lizard.