There is a Light
Is it at the end, or just the beginning?
The shows are starting to pile up. What started as a pair of Rustic Overtones reunion shows at the Asylum has turned into what you might call a tour: “Yep,” confirms drummer Tony McNaboe, as if he can’t believe it himself, “we’re going to all pile into the van again…”
In a world where supply and demand are intricately linked, the Overtones — McNaboe, guitarist and vocalist Dave Gutter, keyboardist Spencer Albee, bassist Jon Roods, and horn men Dave Noyes, Jason Ward, and Ryan Zoidis — have got the factory running at full steam to crank out enough product to please the newly teeming masses. Exhibit #1 dropped Tuesday, July 24 [2007, which is when this review initially ran], in the form of Light at the End, which was initially advertised as an effort to bring some old tapes to light, but sure feels like a cohesive and impressive album, and certainly isn’t a reason for a kick-ass band to go back to not being a band at all.
This Saturday and Sunday, Rustic Overtones will play their first plugged-in, full-band shows in more than five years for a crowd that bought up all the tickets in less than a week, forcing the band to add two more shows the following weekend, if only because they felt bad for the kids ponying up as much as $50 (possibly more!) on eBay and the like. They’ll also now play shows at old haunts like Harper’s Ferry in Boston, a new haunt like the Stone Church in Portsmouth, then a gig in Albany for good measure.
Why stop there?
In answer to that question, McNaboe sounds a lot like Terry Francona — let’s not get ahead of ourselves, folks. But the man who got this whole thing going again sounds positively ecstatic about what they’ve accomplished in just a few months, “and things are going pretty well — who knows?”
What I know is that this is likely the band’s best album, with all apologies to Rooms by the Hour, which, judging by Bull Moose sales, is being discovered for the first time by plenty of new fans despite the fact that it was released first in 1998. (How popular are Rustic in this town? The manager of Beal’s Ice Cream tells me people even there freak when she plays Rooms over the cone joint’s tinny speakers.)
First of all, Light’s got the best version of “Hardest Way Possible,” which was on Rooms and Viva Nueva, the Tommy Boy release that ended a years-long odyssey from label signing to CD release in 2001. Why release this song a third time?
“This is the way we’ve always wanted to release it,” says Albee, “and now we finally can.” Featuring vintage, five-year-old Gutter vocals and a full string arrangement, it’s the most R&B of the three versions, and least aggressive, but don’t worry: They left in that crazy falsetto that finishes the tune. There’s a test for Gutter, should they choose to play the song live. His voice has definitely aged, gaining a smoky, world-weary quality that allows him to convey more emotion than ever before, but doesn’t keep him from grabbing you by the throat when the occasion arises.
Other old favorites are here as well, including live favorite “Rock Like War” (the inspiration for fan-blog www.rocklikewar.com [sadly, this no longer exists…], to which I am forever in debt for supplying me with an unbelievable live track of Rustic playing Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”). “Rock” is basically a song in two parts, a war and peace, if you will. In the front half, digitally enhanced horn blasts pound through the speakers in the chorus, just after Gutter has asked us to “wake me up in the summer, not the winter” (how’s that for fitting, what with the whole reunion in the summer of 2007 thing? Maybe I’m pushing it). In the second half, “we can stand out in the storm and fill this bottle full of rain and sing along” with a gentle keyboard bounce and horns that “sing” a “nah, nah, nah.”
Then get ready for a bang-up transition into track three, “Dear Mr. President,” a song that confers incredible power with nothing but a ukulele, acoustic guitar, and a simple bass line. In a nuanced and narrative collection of verses typical of Gutter’s hip-hop flavored writing we are introduced to a stinging indictment of the war, care of “a soldier with the 82nd Airborne stationed overseas/ My family and my friends are praying that God is watching over me/ Even God can’t save us now.” The chorus runs reggae just enough to remind you of Marley’s best populist moments. It’s thrilling, really.
To put this track in such a prominent spot on their first disc in six years, to reintroduce themselves this way to a fanbase that’s had plenty of time to move on, shows real guts and conviction. And lest you think this smacks of piling on, remember that Gutter and Roods’ Paranoid Social Club was one of the first local bands to write and perform anti-war material following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Later, in “Oxygen,” we’re implored to “make love not war” in a track that was recorded while the invasion of Iraq was just a Bush daydream while he whittled away hours between executions in Texas.
Other new tracks include the uber-singalong “Troublesome,” the biting and sarcastic “Black Leather Bag” (listen for Gutter’s high harmony on the bridge), and the title track, which comes last at track 10, punctuated by piercing horns and a swirling keyboard part. As with many songs here, Rustic finds a way to take dark material and infuse it with hope. Though “this wicked world is twisted sideways,” “all things will turn around.”
Oh, and speaking of hope, let me just say this: There is a hidden track, and Rustic nerds are going to freak out. Freak out to the point where you “can’t stop laughing,” maybe.
The song here that gets me in full freak-out is “Carsick,” with fat-bottomed horns and the single best chorus on the album, a wonderful mix of pleasure and nostalgia: “The radio is loud, but nothing’s on.” There’s an extended instrumental break that shows you what the seven-piece band can do without a single player soloing, and then we’re reminded, “If we drive slow/ We won’t get there at all.”
That’s right, as Twisted Roots would say, “Brick on the gas.” Next stop, Albany.