Señor Happy get sad
Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano
During a 12-month period some time ago, Señor Happy frontman Derek
Skanky smoked dope with Robert Pollard, received a naked photo from Yoko Ono,
and got dumped by his girlfriend. Any one of those experiences would likely
drive somebody to write good pop songs. Since Skanky went through all three,
it's no wonder that he turned out an album as grabbing, and as classically
broken-hearted, as Señor Happy (the band's debut, out now on Q
Division). There's a mess of pop passion on the album's 12 tracks, which mine
the timeless cross of dirty guitar tones and upbeat hooks with yearning,
heart-on-sleeve vocals. There's enough grit here to make it alterna-rock
friendly, especially with Señor Happy's non-traditional sense of song
structure (the song's over when they're out of hooks, so the 12 tracks whiz by
in a half-hour). But the album, which was recorded mainly in the band's old
Brighton apartment, also harks back to homemade '70s and '80s gems like Shoes'
Black Vinyl Shoes and Game Theory's Distortion of Glory, where
the stripped-down sonics kept anything from getting between you and the song.
You also have to admire a band who can record a powerhouse drummer like Tom
Polce (now in Señor Happy full-time after stints with Letters to Cleo
and the Gravy) in a residential neighborhood. "We only got busted once," notes
bassist Joe McMahon when we talk at Cambridge's Thirsty Scholar pub. "And we
had incredibly cool neighbors. Amazingly enough, you could throw a football
from our house to the local police station. But we'd record during the day and
always stop by 10 p.m., so nobody ever complained." Then again, they don't live
there anymore. It's also true that the band's sound is as gentle as it is noisy
-- their labelmate (and now Q Division publicist) Ed Valauskas of Gravel Pit
pegged it as "Elliott Smith backed up by Crazy Horse." But if there's a
traditional pop flavor to Señor Happy's album, that's partly because the
songs were written for the most traditional of reasons.
"I broke up with my girlfriend and then I wrote 12 songs," is how Skanky sums
it up. "Some of the songs don't even make sense, it was just me singing
syllables over riffs. But you can apply every lyric to a relationship, like
when you go through personal turmoil and turn on the radio. And it's a fuckin'
nightmare, because every song is about a woman." The ex-girlfriend played such
a major part in the album that her picture (as a pre-teen) is on the back
cover. After writing the songs, Skanky was able to win her back and rekindle
the relationship. Then he dumped her himself. "That's why my songs are getting
even more personal, because it made me question all the shit I've done in my
Another Q Division connection came into play when Jen Trynin stepped in to
produce the three non-homemade tracks on the album; it's her first outside
production job (these tracks include extra guitar from Josh Lattanzi, then in
Trynin's band and currently holding the bass slot in Orbit). And though she
didn't slick up the band's sound, she did bring a good editorial sense -- the
Trynin tracks on the album are the ones fleshed out to three-minute length.
"She was adamant about making it more user-friendly -- repeating choruses and
simplifying it. Which was a change for us, indie-rock snobs that we are." That
last statement is borne out by the band's choice of T-shirts during the
interview: Skanky has a Pavement shirt, McMahon a Swervedriver one. And Skanky
had one of his personal indie-pop moments when he shared a joint with his
heroes in Guided by Voices. "It was backstage at Avalon, after they played that
show with Urge Overkill. It was great, I walked into the dressing room and they
were sitting there in a circle, just like on the back cover of Alien
Yoko's butt figures into this story in a more, uh, roundabout way. One of the
early incarnations of Señor Happy was a cover band who formed to play a
bunch of no-account gigs around Connecticut, calling themselves Yoko Ono's Ass.
The band didn't get much notice, but the name did: the Hartford Advocate
singled them out for the area's best band name. Then Yoko's lawyers found out.
"They called us and said, `She's not thrilled with the name of the band, but
she thinks it's funny,' " Skanky remembers. "Two weeks later we got a
letter from her, and it said, `I hope you strive to live up to the standard of
the name you have chosen to bare.' " She enclosed a blown-up photo of the
body part in question, complete with a "Love, Yoko" signature. Thus the disc's
credit, "Recorded at the House of Ass." The photo has graced their practice
space ever since.
"We feel a little guilty that we never wrote back, though," Skanky says. "How
often does John Lennon's widow send you a photo of her ass?"
CINDY LEE BERRYHILL
When cult-hero songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill last
hit this area, about a year ago, she got a boost from a pop star she'd never
met. Turned out that a pair of albums she made for Rhino 10 years ago got
discovered by some rabid Jewel fans, who heard a bit of similarity in their
approaches (on those albums, Berryhill could have been Jewel's older, more
cynical and bohemian sister). Berryhill linked up with the Everyday Angels, an
Internet cadre of Jewel fans, who sponsored a tour of informal living-room
shows. She wound up playing three gigs in people's houses -- one in Boston, one
in Taunton, and one in Brewster on the Cape.
"The last one was like a mini Woodstock," she says from her San Diego home.
"We got a hundred people and had to move it onto the porch; people brought
their chairs and sprawled out on the lawn. Then they'd go in the water, come
back, and we'd play some more. There was so much scuttlebutt on the Net about
how successful the first show was that we got treated like queens." She did
similar shows in the Midwest, encouraging fans to make DAT and video
recordings, which are now being swapped around the Net. And the irony of
getting embraced by fans of a next-generation songwriter? "Pretty funny. Guess
I just wasn't made for these times."
The Brian Wilson line she's just quoted suggests where Berryhill's heading
these days: beginning with the Garage Orchestra album (released three
years ago on Cargo), she's gone for a textured pop sound that brings out the
songwriting quirks that were hinted at on her acoustic albums. "The things I'm
writing now have even more harmonies. I discovered this revolutionary new
instrument to write on; it's called the piano." After a show at Johnny D's last
week, she'll be back at Green Street Grill on the 20th, a week from Sunday.
TWISTED RICO COMP
The best thing you can expect from a local
compilation is that you'll be blown away by a band you'd never heard of before.
The just-released Twisted Rico Class of 1998 -- a 14-song collection of
bands in the Twisted Rico management stable -- accomplished that with the
opening track, Static's "California." The lyrics bespeak an anthem that needed
to be written, with a chorus of "I'll never move to California" and a long list
of reasons why ("I don't wanna meet Madonna!"). And the track has a great
British Invasion sound to it (sounds a lot like the Move, in fact), complete
with faintly accented vocal and a guitar riff making the best use of "Louie
Louie" I've heard in a while.
Good stuff continues with a few new numbers by established bands. Boy Wonder's
"Break the Spell" pulls in Paula Kelley's now-trademark mix of exuberant hook
and vocal vulnerability. Ape Hangers' "She Comes Again" is an uncharacteristic
mid-tempo number that brings the Neighborhoods to mind. Other highlights
include Caged Heat's garage blues (or maybe it's punk with harmonica) and the
Pills' hyperspeed power pop ("All That Way" crams in three verses, two
choruses, and a bridge in 1:22). A fast-and-basic old-school sound prevails
throughout; the exception is Denise Hradecky's Liz Phair-sounding "Old 45" --
an acoustic number that pulls the Phair-ish trick of dealing with a mundane
experience (spinning a scratchy vinyl disc) in sexual-sounding terms. All of
the above-named bands, and a couple of unnamed surprise guests, will be playing
at the disc's release party, this Saturday (the 12th) at the Linwood Grille.
Slide continue a weekly residence at the Plough & Stars
tonight (Thursday) with Laurie Geltman guesting . . . Silkwork
are at the Middle East, Lars Vegas play the Lizard Lounge, and Nathan & the
Zydeco Cha Cha's stomp down at Johnny D's . . . Reunion of the
week: the Classic Ruins do it one more time at Club Bohemia tomorrow (Friday).
WGBH's resident blues authority, Mai Cramer, celebrates the 20th anniversary of
"Blues After Hours" at the House of Blues that night, with Byther Smith and
Luther Johnson playing. Tuscadero headline the Middle East, and the Push Kings
play their last show before a move to San Francisco at T.T. the Bear's
Place . . . Big pop at Bill's Bar Saturday with the Gravel Pit
and the Sterlings. The infamous Punch Drunk Monkeys play the Midway Café
with the Johnny Black Trio. Alterna-country hero and former Bostonian Gillian
Welch is at the Somerville Theatre, Bim Skala Bim and Beat Soup are at the
Middle East, Creeper Lagoon and Spoon are at T.T. the Bear's Place,
Cheerleader, Flexie, and January are at Mama Kin, and songwriter Jenifer
Jackson is at the Lizard Lounge.
Promoting a new live EP, Tom Leach plays for free at Charlie's Tap on Monday;
the Red House Painters' Mark Kozelek is at the Middle East . . .
Tuesday begins the anniversary festivities at T.T. the Bear's Place, with
pop 'n' ska from Bim Skala Bim, the Pills, Popgun, and Tidal
Wave . . . Roots-rock ace Dennis Brennan is now playing
alternate Wednesdays at the Tir na n-Óg pub on Somerville's Union
Square; he'll be there this week. And it's old-school night at T.T.'s with the
Allstonians, Eric Martin & the Illyrians, the Bristols, Shods, Charlie
Chesterman, and a reunion of political punks Last Stand.