The Boston Phoenix
February 10 - 17, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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No f**king around

Dennis Brennan's back without the f-word

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

Dennis Brennan 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 a kick.

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 individual songs."

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 15th.


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.
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