Who started the rumor that rock and roll for grown-ups was supposed to be about mellowing out? As anyone who’s actually grown up can attest, that’s when life starts getting interesting, not to mention complicated. Yet you don’t hear a lot of albums that do for adults what the Replacements’ Let It Be or Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade did for alienated teens by turning the random struggles into something meaningful and drawing inspiration from disorder.
That’s where recent standouts like Lucinda Williams’s Essence and Steve Wynn’s Here Come the Miracles come in — and it’s definitely where you’ll find the Continental Drifters, who headline T.T. the Bear’s Place this Saturday. Formed 10 years ago by a pack of cult figures, the Drifters have long been one of the American underground’s resident treasures. But good as their previous albums have been, you had to see them in the right setting to get the real picture — you had to be there, say, at 4 a.m. in their home town of New Orleans when they were launching into the night’s fifth encore.
Not the case with their third album, Better Day (Razor & Tie). This time the songs were arranged in the studio instead of being played live for years beforehand. And it’s the best indication of how the band members’ history in notable pop combos (dB’s, Bangles, Cowsills, Dream Syndicate) has been enriched by what they’ve learned since. Better Day may have hooks and harmonies all over the place, but the band haven’t spent 10 years absorbing local sounds in New Orleans for nothing. And though the songs touch on loss, loneliness, and divorce (Peter Holsapple and Susan Cowsill went through one of their own last year), the album’s hopeful title can still be taken at face value.
Vicki Peterson’s “Na Na” opens the disc with one of the sadder verses to kick off a CD this year. She has the same kind of sweet California voice that she showed in the early Bangles; but it’s not a verse that she could have written as a 20-year-old: “Somebody’s little girl to someone else’s wife/What happened in between was the dying of a dream/And that’s the story of my life.” Then the band crash in, and it sounds less like broken dreams than like a slew of broken beer bottles. Three-part harmonies and fuzz guitars come into play, and a song that starts out self-pitying turns beautifully tough.
Holsapple’s “Live on Love” is one of the more uplifting songs this side of U2. And Cowsill has developed a flair for emotion-packed ballads. Her “Peaceful Waking” is a generous break-up song, with understated vocals to match; guitarist Robert Maché admitted in a recent phone interview that he was in tears while laying down his solo. And bassist Mark Walton, who doesn’t usually write or sing for the band, comes up with “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be.” The song has a spooky Southwestern feel, with accordion and acoustic lead guitar, to suit a lyric about hanging out too long by oneself in a bar. “But that’s okay,” the singer shrugs on his way out the door, “Tomorrow’s gonna be an even better day.”
“You know what this record sounds like? It sounds like a bunch of happy accidents,” Maché notes, shedding some light on the band’s unusual working methods. “We sort of panicked and said, ‘Oh my God, we have this record to make. Hey Peter, you remember that song you played on piano last New Year’s Eve? Hey Susan, did you ever finish that one you had?’ When we were cutting ‘Na Na,’ I was talking to Vicki as the tape was rolling: ‘Do you know what you’re going to play? Oh, shit — me neither.’ But we kept a lot of the first takes — in some cases those were the only takes.”
The band’s emotions also come out spontaneously. “We were going over our last album [1999’s Vermilion],” Maché continues, “which is supposed to be such a pop record, but we were going down all the songs: loss, sorrow, death, disappointment, misery — then there’s a ray of sunshine at the end. To me this one is nothing but positive — I thought a couple of the songs referred to the shake-ups people had been through, but I’d find out later it had nothing to do with that. It’s more like we’re saying, ‘Life throws you a lot of weird curves, and you have to roll with that.’ That’s a very adult approach; if we weren’t adults, it might be all about teen angst. But I personally don’t feel I’m mellowing out at all, and happily so.”
The Continental Drifters headline T.T. the Bear’s Place this Saturday, July 7, with Crown Victoria and the Dirty Truckers opening. Call (617) 492-BEAR.