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Hitsville, MA
Baby Strange make Motown sounds; the Model Sons get virtual

Baby Strange frontman Eric Deneen sits across the table at Allston’s Common Ground and explains why, according to their self-penned biography, most of his band’s songs are about "sex, heartbreak, [and] feeling alone."

"Why write if you’re in a good mood?" asks the singer/lyricist, whose lithe physique, gaunt and stubbly face, aquiline nose, and piercing eyes make him look a little like Vincent Gallo — and whose quiet, tightly coiled intensity just reinforces the resemblance. "If you’re feeling good, you should just go out and have a good time. But if there’s something on your mind, that’s when you should write. Let it out." The band’s second full-length, Put Out (Primary Voltage), which they’ll be celebrating with a release party this Friday at the Middle East, is full of songs Deneen says are meant for those wee hours "when you’re alone in your room, it’s three o’clock in the morning, and you don’t want to call anyone and wake them up, and there’s not a bar open in your neighborhood."

But by that he hardly means it’s an album for depressives. "I have no problem with pop music, and having a good time, and songs that are fun to dance to." That’s why many of Baby Strange’s songs are buoyed by an infectious rhythmic drive and a tight melodic sense. And they’re inspired by an unlikely source. Whereas the band’s 2000 debut, Action, and their 2002 The Make-Out Sessions EP drew comparisons with magisterial British guitar rock, the new CD is heavily informed by old Motown recordings. The rest of the band — guitarist/vocalist Kris Ehrig, guitarist Hugh Wyman, bassist Jason Horvath, and drummer Ryan Ennis — absorbed those dusty wax tracks while Baby Strange were on hiatus last year as Deneen recovered from surgery (a risky discectomy to relieve excruciating neck and shoulder pain). "We wanted to have an album that you could dance to and have a good time with but that had depth," he says, citing the Supremes’ "Love Child" and the Four Tops’ "Reach Out (I’ll Be There)." "These great songs that have a lot of depth, the lyrics are awesome, emotional, and really real. But at the same time, they have a great dance beat."

Consider "Put Out." As Horvath lays down a mean, muscular bass line that would make James Jamerson proud and Ennis’s drums lock into a metronomic rhythm, Deneen’s vocals, strangled and sensual, wrap around the song, evoking lusty desire and imbuing the words with a burning fervor. All around, angular guitars intertwine and organs thrum before erupting into a furious tempest as Deneen emotes with an almost pre-verbal abandon.

Yet the Motown sound is just one ingredient of Baby Strange’s melodic guitar rock. Sure, "Nobody Knows You" may echo "Reach Out" or "The Tracks of My Tears" as it sweats in naked desperation ("I’ve lost all of my resolve to fight . . . "; "I’m counting on you"), and "Cynthia" (one of Deneen’s old girlfriends) may recall a mononymic heart-on-sleeve plea like the Four Tops’ "Bernadette." But both songs are marked as much by the guitars of Wyman and Ehrig — slow burning, rumbling, then bursting like thunderheads, shimmering like fever dreams — as by any walking-bass line or propulsive backbeat.

Then there’s "Jukebox Queen," a slow and sad song laced with country feedback, its soulful sway harking back to Sticky Fingers–era Stones. Inspired by a hard-up woman Deneen worked with long ago in a Florida greasy spoon ("She was always singing; you knew that things weren’t good, but she was always singing along with the jukebox . . . it got her through her shitty day"), it’s an evocative vignette. Although Deneen’s honey-rich growl makes him sound like young Van Morrison, the song’s imagery and empathetic, unsparing eye for detail are more in line with one of Bruce Springsteen’s early character studies. "Broken Heart Mechanic," meanwhile, is a randy and rambling ride that, grease-monkeying around with Southern-fried power chords, gets more mileage out of the old car-as-metaphor-for-girl device. And "Your Favorite Song" is a scorching, straight-ahead rocker that conjures the Replacements.

So call Baby Strange — who often play as many as 20 gigs a month — a bar band with a Motown soul. In a nod to Detroit, Put Out was recorded, more or less live, in a sweaty basement studio, in the spirit of the workmanlike camaraderie of the old Hitsville USA. The band also strive to deport themselves with the utmost class on stage, dressing in sharp matching suits. "It was really important for [Motown] bands to try to look their best and be real to the audience," Deneen points out. "Nowadays, especially with rock bands, people are just really casual, and they pretend like they don’t care. We like the idea that you should try to connect with the audience and look your best."

So for a special occasion like the record-release party, they’ll be duding up in their finest threads?

"No, they’re the only suits we have," Ehrig laughs. "Maybe this time we’ll wash the shirts."

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Issue Date: July 16 - 22, 2004
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