Rustic Overtones: New Way Out

Days of the New

The orchestral stylings of Rustic Overtones 2.0

When drummer Tony McNaboe delivered the burned copy of Rustic Overtones’ New Way Out, he tucked it inside the packaging of the re-released and re-mastered Long Division, the band’s first proper album, complete with horn section and keyboardist Spencer Albee. It’s fitting, as New Way Out is the first proper album by Overtones 2.0, post Albee and seemingly with a brand-new string section, present on each of the album’s 13 tracks.

It would seem that 2008’s Light at the End was just that, the end of an era, despite it having been released to trumpet the band’s reunion. There is no doubt that New Way Out is again appropriately named, a record that, for all its Dave Gutter-penned lyrics and Tony McNaboe-pounded skins and Jon Roods-plucked bass, is far from that core of primal energy that launched that band and drove it to its many heights (and then became Paranoid Social Club, though we’ll get to that in a bit).

In its place is a textured and dense amalgam of the collected band’s many tastes and endeavors – the funky soul of Zoidis’ Soulive; the gentle orchestral waves of Dave Noyes’ Seekonk; Jason Ward’s concert band roots; Gutter’s sedate solo work with Evan Casas – as captured in a practice space cum recording studio presided over largely by Roods. Finally endowed with a freedom to start from scratch, unencumbered by manager, producer, or label, and armed with some 15 years of experience as professional musicians, they have crafted what is clearly their most important artistic work, though it may be at the expense of some of the fire and brimstone that once drove their fans’ frenzy.

The band’s hits – “Simple Song,” “Check,” “Combustible,” “Iron Boots,” “Rock Like War,” “C’Mon,” even “Hardest Way Possible,” to an extent – have largely featured a Gutter at his most urgent and strident. I can barely picture him live without seeing his eyes smashed shut, his spine ruler straight and muscles taut, his fist punching the air.

That pose makes but few appearances on New Way Out. For me, the band have always lived and died with Gutter; now I and many others are experiencing him in a new sublimated role. Rustic haven’t quite become the Borg, but they are as much of a cohesive unit as you’ve ever heard them.

This may be because there are so many of them it can be hard for any one person to stand out. The liner notes list no fewer than 29 musicians that lend talent to the record (and you thought Spencer’s School Spirit Mafia was big…). And for that matter, the band members wear tons of hats. Roods alone gets credit for “upright + electric bass, keys, percussion, vibraphone, bells, guitar, vox, vacuum, wd-40, broom, delay.” I’m not even sure if a couple of those are jokes. The songs are so layered there could be virtually anything in there.

Rustic are fully invested and unapologetic, though. The opening track is the title track, coming to life with rising orchestral surge as from a Broadway musical and moving to a languid chorus: “I found a new way out/ If you don’t want to make a change, you should shut your mouth.”

With that statement made, however, they move into a “Drive My Car” Beatles take called “Everybody Needs to Be Somebody’s Friend,” where the horns again bleet, Gutter takes a more swaggering approach, and “whoo-hoo-hoo” backing vocals punctuate the verse. Here’s where you might notice Albee’s absence, though. He may have added harmony in the chorus, and probably would have pushed to popify the chorus as well, instead of ending it moving downward to make it more bluesy. As it is, the finish is dark and brooding, meditative before washing away into static.

“Nuts and Bolts” doesn’t get any sunnier, with a goth intro full of cello transposed with a fluttering flute, accompanied by a narrative of a woman who’s been caught in a car accident, and now has “sutures in her skin/ Like tracks for tiny little trains.” Nor does “Like the Blues,” a sprawling and lugubrious ballad that features a somewhat rare extended guitar solo from Gutter, crunchy and gritty against the purity of the backing strings. At just under seven minutes, it’s been trimmed significantly from the 10-minute-plus version they previewed for me in the practice space one temperate summer evening. “Can’t Shake You” has a bit of Wilco-style rock mid-song, and some soulful female backing vocals, but generally lounges out to five minutes of ballad.

Even the more upbeat tunes don’t exactly rock out. “All Together” is an us-against-the-world anthem, cool as hell as Gutter and Nigel Hall trade riffs in the verse to create a feel like Gnarls Barkley doing “Crazy” with the full orchestra at the 2007 Grammys. “Downside of Looking up” you may have heard on the radio, its trumpet trills and rising strings giving way to a bass-riffed bridge filled with ghostly chanting.

“The Same Does Not Apply” shows off reverbed Gutter strut and some “Start Me Up” guitar bits, but, seriously, is that the upbeat song?

With just about every tune here, the string sections, written about by Noyes and Zoidis, are downright lovely, but is that why anyone listens to Rustic Overtones? The string section? Maybe they will now. The band will have to hope their fans have grown with them and no longer thrive solely on those itchy ska parts, Gutter’s primal screams, the explosive choruses that send a crowd into a frenzy.

Because, if they did [in 2009, anyway], they’d probably just go see Paranoid Social Club: Gutter, Roods, and McNaboe playing some of the funnest rock music you’ll ever come across in a beer-soaked club.

When songs off New Way Out get finished, crowds will applaud genuinely, they’ll be awed and amazed, they’ll turn and hug their significant others and mouth, “can you believe that?” Which is great. It’s just that when “Check” gets finished people are bathed in sweat, hopping on the balls of their feet and screaming at the top of their lungs. The chorus of “Combustible” is one of my top-10 all-time favorite live-show moments. Every time I see it.

And there’s nothing that says the live set can’t have elements of both. I just have to admit I wish this new album had elements of both. I’m awed. I’m amazed. But I’m not bathed in sweat. Then again, I can get the swine flu for that.

Rustic Overtones: Let’s Start a Cult

Cult of personalities

Rustic Overtones want you on their side

What’s the go-to motivational tactic used by every coach of an underdog team or demagogue looking to gain followers in a hurry? It’s us against them. Us against the world.

With Rustic Overtones’ eighth release, released in 2012, you’re either with them or against them. They don’t really care which. Let’s Start a Cult is everything their previous release, 2009’s New Way Out, wasn’t: All those string parts? Gone. The big and symphonic works that added up to an hour of music? This time they’ve stripped down to eight tunes and three minutes shy of a half hour. The guest players and revolving line up? With the addition of Gary Gemitti on drums and Mike Taylor on keyboards, they’re back to being the line-up you know and love: three horns, guitar, bass, drums, keyboard.

That doesn’t mean they’re back to hitting up-stroke ska songs and fire-breathing anthems, though. For this release, at least, they’ve gone much more organic, almost Edward Sharpe in their pop construction at times, and with a touch of lo-fi aesthetic that feels raw in a way they haven’t felt since before they were in the studio with Bowie.

It’s no mistake. “I like it gross,” Dave Gutter slinks on the devious “I Like it Low,” “I like the smell of cigarettes inside my clothes,” and there’s a baritone sax from Jason Ward that slithers through the weeds before being picked up by Ryan Zoidis’s tenor sax and a gritty trombone from Dave Noyes. The horns as a whole feel more part of this album than anything since before the hiatus – that you don’t really notice them is perhaps the best compliment I can pay to the arranging. They are wholly of the songs, rather than being ornaments.

“If there’s something you’re feeling inside, you should let yourself go.”

Oh, they’re tempting all right. “Let’s Start a Cult, Pt. 1” gets you right from the open with a poppy little flute line and digital hand claps and an “ooooh-oooh” bridge: “They can’t stop us all / How can they stop us all? / If we’re together.” They’ve embraced some new-school digital production here, too, integrating it so they manage to be space-age and ‘60s pop at the same time.

Just like they can combine old-time bluesy ballads with ‘80s sax lines in “Say Yes,” where Gutter knows how easy it can be to just join crowd: “It was hard to resist / They were pumping their fist / They were raising their flag in the distance.” His flittering guitar ain’t bad here either.

Gutter’s turned out some of his best lyrics in a while, too. The indie/big band “Solid” has this gem: “That’s not a halo, that’s a hole in your head / It’s not cold in the place that you go when you’re dead.” Ouch. It’s as mean as the low down Jon Roods bass that fuels the verse of “We’ll Get Right In” before it launched into melancholy pop for the chorus.

Remember? You’re with them, or you’re against them. And if you’re not with them? Well,  as the ultra-dynamic album closer says, “fuck it / Let’s go out with a bang.”