The Boston Phoenix
March 9 - 16, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Team work

The Gentlemen and Reverse the Curse

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

The Gentlemen Sometimes you need only the first few seconds to know whether an album is going to be any good. So it is with the Gentlemen's debut album, Ladies & Gentlemen . . . (released on CherryDisc founder John Horton's new Hearbox label and distributed through Q Division). The first track, "Sour Mash," opens with the sound of a well-oiled guitarist tearing off a Rolling Stones-type lick -- complete with false start, so you can tell it was spontaneous -- and launching into a tune that's only a couple of steps away from Alice Cooper's "Be My Lover." Sounds good already, but then comes the first lyric: "I met her in the summer of my sorrow, she was high-heel deep in a barrel of sour mash." My immediate reaction to this was: "I'm really going to like this album if they can find a good way to rhyme that with Johnny Cash." Sure enough, the story continues: "I asked her for some feeling I could borrow. She looked like June and she talked like . . . " Point scored.

Like the Traveling Wilburys, the Bathing Beauties (with Buffalo Tom and Fuzzy members), and Steve Wynn's occasional band Gutterball, the Gentlemen were put together for kicks by a bunch of friends who don't necessarily need another gig. Frontman Mike Gent keeps busy enough with the Figgs, who have a new EP out (For EP Fans Only, also on Hearbox) and an album waiting to be made. And the rest of the line-up -- guitarist Lucky Jackson, bassist Ed Valauskas, and drummer Pete Caldes -- are well known around town as three-quarters of the Gravel Pit. But the Pit/Figgs friendship had been going on long enough that something had to develop, especially since Gent came along to roadie and open the Gravel Pit's national tour last year. "We got back from the tour and decided to book a show, even though we didn't have any songs written," Gent recalls. "So we had three days to come up with a set." And if they hadn't managed to write anything? "We would've played covers. Which I think we wound up doing as well."

No surprise that the Gentlemen's album doesn't sound exactly like either the Figgs or the Gravel Pit. It sounds like a hot garage band with chops, harking back to universal reference points like the Stones, the Kinks, and the Replacements -- it's more rock than pop, with snarlier vocals than Gent usually does and fewer tricky changes than the Pit songs favor. Only one track recalls the Gravel Pit (though that one -- the Valauskas song "Off with Its Head" -- sounds a whole lot like them, complete with cynically sharp lyrics). Less joky than "Sour Mash" would indicate, the album is mostly devoted to lowdown break-up songs; the nastiest, "You & Your Boyfriend," boasts an unflinching lyric about being the third side of a romantic triangle.

Last month found them at T.T. the Bear's Place playing a typical Boston CD-release party (typical in that the CDs weren't ready by the time of the event) and already sounding tighter than they do on the album. Instead of a trashy cover, they played a great one: Neil Young's "Down to the Wire," which fit the break-up-heavy tone of their own material. They appeared a slightly odd mix on stage: the rail-thin and mod-jacketed Gent has a new wave-inspired (or at least Paul Weller-inspired) fashion sense, whereas the others went the jeans-and-T-shirt route. But the sonic chemistry was strong.

"If it sounds raunchy, it's probably because the Gentlemen have two guitar players," Gent notes backstage at T.T.'s. "I love having two guitars -- we'd still have them in the Figgs if we could afford another guitar player." Aside from "Sour Mash" -- written with Mike Viola when he was a Figg -- the songs were turned around for that first three-day deadline. "I was going through heartache at the time, so it gave me the outlet to write a bunch of songs about my ex-girlfriend. The next album will all be songs about how I love being single. The Gentlemen give me the chance to play these kind of songs. I originally presented a lot of them to the Figgs, but it's not what our audience expects."

"Basically, the guy shits songs," is how Valauskas puts it once Gent is out of earshot. "He's as prolific as Jed [Gravel Pit frontman Jed Parish] in that department, so we weren't worried about having enough material. To me, this is just a fun thing that fell into place after our tour with Mike. It seems that the Figgs and the Gravel Pit are both doing pretty well, and we don't plan to go on tour anytime soon. It was one of those informal things where we got offered enough money to make a record. Mike wanted to record the whole thing live to DAT, but Mike Denneen talked us into going to 24-track. It's still the fastest record I've ever been involved with."

The same "faster is better" approach will be taken on the Gravel Pit's follow-up to Silver Gorilla (Q Division), which they want to record this spring and have out by summer. And to judge from the new songs they've played at recent gigs (these even include a Yardbirds-like R&B number), the next album will be their "heavy-duty rocker after the more experimental album" entry. "We want to do a really fast album," Valauskas promises. "I think it'll have the classic Gravel Pit formula of a couple ballads mixed in, but we definitely want to do more of a rocker this time. We've actually been going through songs that Jed wrote back around the time of the Manifesto album [in 1996] and thinking, `How did we miss this one?" "

The New York-based Figgs qualify as an honorary Boston band by now, having signed with a local label, played here frequently, and taken on the hard-pop sound that's still popular in these parts. To these ears, the band have improved immensely since their more retro Imago Records days (and on a tour with pub-rock icon Graham Parker four years ago, they proved his second-best back-up band after the Rumour). Besides, Boston regards the Figgs as a currently hot band, which Gent admits isn't the case everywhere. "When we go on tour, I hear things like `Are you guys still together?' and `Weren't you in a band that did pretty well in Boston?' I'm getting used to it, except when I tell people I'm in the Figgs and they say, "Oh yeah. I remember you guys.' "


Even if the music on the disc weren't any good, I'd recommend that everybody go out and buy the Hearbox compilation Reverse the Curse, which ranks as one of the nicest things that any group of local musicians has done. The disc aims to break the infamous "Rumble curse," which inflicts a lame career on every band who win ('til Tuesday still ranking as the one major exception). The nice guys in question are the Sheila Divine, who donated all their winnings from last year's WBCN Rumble to do a benefit disc for Den Mothers/Quick Fix member Paul Natale, who was going through a battle with testicular cancer. Natale, who's since made a full recovery and paid off his bills, in turn donated the remaining proceeds to writer/DJ/scene friend Mikey Dee, who's recovering from a stroke. True to the concept, a somber mood prevails throughout the disc, with few outright rockers among the 18 tracks (exception: a live track by the Pills, who've yet to be even slightly somber on stage). The introspective mood holds the disc together, making acoustic tracks like Josh Arekalian's "Gone Now Back again" fit comfortably next to sample-driven ones like Master Cylinder's "Back to the Basic Step" (whose main sample is, of all things, the synth lick from Alice Cooper's "Clones"). Jen Trynin's "Under the Knife" is just a repeat from her last album (though a conceptually fitting one), but new stuff comes from the Gravel Pit (whose "Yellow Light Purple" has some nifty spy-movie overtones) and Jack Drag ("OK," perhaps their eeriest track). The Sheila Divine don't appear themselves, but the ranks of Rumble winners are represented by the Ghost of Tony Gold. Still, nothing here is more moving than "Lucky," a new song that Natale does with the Den Mothers. He sounds upbeat and level-headed as he deals with the past year, swearing it wasn't that bad and even apologizing to friends for making them worry. And toward the end he spells it all out: while the band do some Stones-ish woo-hoos in the background, Natale sings, "I'm a lucky guy -- I'm not gonna die." It's a real-life bit of rock-and-roll transcendence, and I personally can't wait until Mikey Dee is back to hear it.


The Q Division studio is on the move, about to vacate its 10-year South End location for new digs in Davis Square. The new Q Div will have two studios instead of the current one, and when it opens up in late spring, we'll have Q Division, Fort Apache, and Rounder Records all located within a mile of one another.

"That shows how the environment's changing," studio owner Mike Denneen comments. "We've been in the South End for 14 years. When we came in, it was full of galleries, after-hours clubs, and Thayer Street lofts. Now there are government agencies and high-end agencies moving in. The center of the music community is across the river now, so it was time for us to make the move."

The old Q Division is going out with a burst of activity: Merrie Amsterburg just wrapped up her long-overdue second album; Francine are finishing their debut; and Fountains of Wayne are due in to record a track for a Paul McCartney tribute. Both the studio and the Q Division label expect to get busier after the move, with more national acts coming in. "It's going to be a more comfortable area to hang out in if you're making a record -- more restaurants and coffee shops, and it's on the T," Denneen notes. To keep things in the family, the next Gravel Pit record is likely to be the one that breaks the new place in.

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