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Rock goddesses
Heavy Stud release Straight Out of Lakeville, and Eileen Rose comes home

Anyone who’s been to Somerville’s Abbey Lounge has probably noticed the sign that’s posted prominently in that venue’s music room: "Heavy Stud — Goddesses of Rock & More." Many of us have long wondered what that’s supposed to mean: are they more than just the goddesses of rock, or are they the goddesses of more than just rock?

The band’s two singer-guitarists, Melissa Gibbs and Meredith Byam, aren’t completely sure either. But like most things in Heavy Stud’s world, that sign comes with a story. It was hung on the door in May 1997, on the night of one of Heavy Stud’s first gigs and the first-ever rock show at the Abbey. "Oh, God. I got so wasted that I forgot to get paid, and we left our equipment there," says Gibbs. "And then you had to go back the next day to pick it up," Byam continues. " . . . Right, I was with my parents. They saw the sign on the door, and I said, ‘Mom, you really don’t want to come inside here,’ " Gibbs concludes.

Friends since childhood and still pretty much inseparable, Gibbs and Byam are the trouble girls of the local scene. They’ve gone to all the parties, stayed at the Abbey till way past closing time, and seen their share of exclusive backstage functions (both were staffers at Fort Apache Studios in the ’90s). For a long while they were also sending out the most creative gig flyers in Boston rock history; these ranged from a paper airplane (the first flyer that actually flew) to plaster fingers for a Halloween show. The practice was abandoned only after a show at Lilli’s when they sent nips of tequila to all 60 people on their mailing list. "Most of them showed up, and we still spent more money on the mailing than we made on the show," Gibbs recalls over beers at the Abbey.

But the group’s first full-length, Straight Out of Lakeville (Sodapop), makes it clear that they haven’t just been living it up in the past six years: they’ve also developed Heavy Stud from a scrappy punk band into a tight, loud power-pop combo heavy on the hooks and harmonies. The band, they admit, had something to prove. For starters, they’ve been criticized for playing up their sex appeal on stage — and more recently, after this year’s Rumble, for not playing it up. "That does it — at the next gig we’re gonna wear spike heels and make out with each other," says Gibbs, probably in jest. "Our drummer said we can do that only if we turn and face the drums," Byam reminds her.

"We’ve always had a chip on our shoulder," Byam goes on, in a more sober tone. "People don’t take us seriously. They don’t think we write good songs, they basically think we suck. So we went into this album saying, ‘Let’s prove that we’re not a train wreck.’ " Gibbs adds, "We wanted to show people that we’re song-oriented. When people see us live, they can’t always hear the melodies, maybe they miss the vocals and the lyrics. The only thing we tried to do was to write the catchiest, poppiest songs that we could."

They succeeded, and under producer Scott Reibling it comes across: all 10 songs make the most of the two women’s vocal interaction. ("The vocal takes went on for hours," admits Byam. "He’d say, ‘No, I’m not using the auto-tuner; you just have to sing it again.’ ") Having lost more drummers than Spinal Tap (the disc has five, including the Upper Crust’s Jim Janota and American Hi-Fi’s Stacy Jones), they’ve recruited the all-pro rhythm section of bassist Owen Burkett and drummer Chris Foley, both ex–Star Ghost Dog. Riebling also ensured that you can hear the lyrics, which is where the band’s depth lies. "Hooked" opens the disc with a darker-than-expected look at addiction. Byam’s lyrics don’t spell out whether it’s about love or something more dangerous. Gibbs plays the sharp cynic on "On Two," which is about one of the more dysfunctional rock-scene relationships she’s observed.

The most retro-sounding tune, and one of the catchiest, is "Over the Top," which includes a couple of new-wave allusions. The kickoff sounds similar to Blondie’s "Hangin’ on the Telephone," and there’s a Cars-ish organ deep in the mix (it shows up just at the mention of "my best friend’s car"). With a rousing chorus of "1999 over and over," it’s the kind of song that condenses the feeling of a good wild night into three minutes.

And a wild night was exactly what inspired the song, as they explain in their usual conversational counterpoint. "It was a night that ended up in complete chaos," Byam begins, and Gibbs picks up the story. "We were recording in a studio where they thought we were just dumb girls. They tried to charge us $600 to transfer two songs to two-inch tape. So we peed in their front foyer . . . " "That part isn’t in the song," Byam points out, and Gibbs continues, "It was nearly New Year’s 2000, and we had this rule that we had to listen to Prince’s ‘1999’ as many times as possible. We played it all the way to the Abbey."

"Wasn’t that the night that the guy pulled his pants down?" Byam asks. "Yeah," Gibbs answers. "We didn’t have serious jobs at the time, so we really could party like it was 1999."

Both do have serious jobs at the moment: Gibbs is a certified public accountant, and Byam runs a vintage-clothing store, Poor Little Rich Girl, in Davis Square. So they lead respectable lives outside the band, but they save their wild nights for the shows — which means this Saturday’s release show at the Abbey should be a proper party. Another currently hot pop combo, the Rudds, are opening, and Heavy Stud have invited along some of their musical friends — notably Ross Phasor/Rock Bottom guitarist Charles Hansen, over whose head hangs their threat to make him play Van Halen’s "Eruption" between every set. Order your own tequila and check to see whether "1999" is still on the Abbey jukebox.

CAN YOU REALLY GO HOME AGAIN? Eileen Rose is about to find out. Seven years and a musical lifetime ago, she was the frontwoman of Fledgling — a solid, loud guitar band who got a more exotic touch from her vocals, though a falling out with their label, TVT, kept them from national exposure. By then, Rose was based in England, and after the band fizzled, she went off to the countryside to figure out her next move.

In the process she did some hurting, some hard thinking, and some serious growing up — none of which ever did a songwriter any harm. When she reappeared with two solo albums — Shine like It Does (Compass, 2001) and Long Shot Novena (Sanctuary, 2002) — it was clear that she’d found her own voice. No longer tied to Fledgling’s two-guitar sound, she stripped things down and brought in some blues and cabaret flavors, making good use of a diverse crew of players (the British band Alabama 3 signed on as her back-up group around the time their Sopranos theme went through the roof; also pitching in were the Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock and a couple of ex-Fledglings). Her voice took on a bluesy rasp, and she learned as a lyricist to spill personal details without stating the obvious ("See How I Need You," from the second album, is one of the more literate and effective seduction songs to turn up in a long while). Both discs made her a critics’ darling in Great Britain, where she opened tours for big names like Ryan Adams and sold out 500-seat venues on her own.

So Rose is feeling some understandable culture shock now that she’s back in Boston and starting out somewhere near square one. It was the need to be close to her family, along with her own recent marriage (to former Confidence Men member Seth Goodman, who’s also her bassist), that brought her back to town. "There are things you do for art, and then there’s the responsibilities of being a grown-up," she says over white wine at the Middle East. "But if you don’t deal with your responsibilities, what are you going to write about? You can write about being in a band and going on the road, but those songs always suck." Besides, she said, the acclaim she got in Britain was starting to make her nervous. "I was lucky. First it was Mojo and Time Out that liked me, but then the NME [New Musical Express] decided they liked me too, and they never like anything that Mojo likes. So I had to get out before they started hating me."

Thinking back over the past few years, Rose recalls her post-Fledgling retreat as a personal and musical watershed. "I was taking care of my broken heart. I ended up renting this cottage in the middle of nowhere, got a digital eight-track recorder, spent a year writing and learning to ride a horse. And I stopped feeling sorry for myself when I realized that my mother had eight kids when she was my age." Meanwhile, she rediscovered her love for idiosyncratic songwriters like Marianne Faithfull and Tom Waits. "I was still young and pissed off when I was in Fledgling — and that’s fine, you’re supposed to be pissed off when you’re young. But that was also a band, and a band needs to be democratic. I hate the cliché, but I did start to please myself after the band ended."

That also meant looking back to the ’70s for inspiration. Her first disc was produced by folk-rock veteran Jerry Boys (of Fairport Convention/Steeleye Span fame), and both were largely done live in the studio. "On the Novena record we went residential, got a bunch of beer and wine, and banged it out in a week. It turned into this post-punk, alt-roots, Americana jumble. Which is great, because I’m old for pop but still young for the blues."

Although she’s barely played out since returning to Boston six months ago, Rose is planning to hook up with some local players and get her third album under way. "I’m getting deeper into torch music now," she notes, having overdosed on the British audience’s love for Americana. "If I meet one more Gram Parsons wanna-be who wants me to be Emmylou, my God! I can’t even go on about Tom Waits anymore." She’ll be doing a Wednesday residency at Central Square’s Zuzu through August.

Issue Date: July 18 - 24, 2003
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