Animal Suit Driveby: 110 Miles

Imposter costume

Animal Suit Driveby only look like an ordinary band

Have you heard? They have the Internet on computers now! Sorry for the tired Simpsons reference, but it so nicely captures what seems to keep happening with everybody’s favorite way to waste time at work. Just when it seems like the Internet isn’t going to be the great equalizer that will allow talent to disperse itself regardless of the great arbiters of taste, another distribution medium comes along and recharges my hopes that the good old World Wide Web just might allow great music to find its way to just about everybody who wants it, whether they know it or not.

It should come as no surprise that the bands taking advantage of every newest thing are young, hungry, talented, and playing music that’s new and original, and therefore very, very scary for those sorts of people who run radio stations and labels and have to worry about what Wal-Mart and Circuit City want to put out on their shelves for the masses to consume in mass quantities. Take the case of Animal Suit Driveby, who, hailing as they do from the sprawling metropolis of Hampden (though they’re now living down south, and by that I mean Massachusetts), the band didn’t exactly have a huge base from which to draw local fans. So they got themselves a Web site, of course — der, everybody does that.

But it’s not enough to have a site with a bio and show listings and some mp3s anymore. Bands have to utilize other Web sites to attract fans:, for instance, where, despite competition from 95,000 other bands (yep, 95,000), Animal Suit Driveby currently find themselves as one of just 17 featured bands on the home page. And, at 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday morning [in February of 2005; currently, a search on PureVolume for Animal Suit Driveby produces zero results], there were 7500 or so people online checking out the site, all of them surely at least glancing at their album cover. Apparently, people are taking the bait. By last count, more than 18,000 people had chosen to play one of the five songs available for listen, with about a third of those people choosing to download “Bottomfeeder” to have for their very own.

Fans can also choose to “spread the virus,” clicking on a fan page that allows them to download posters for ASD’s upcoming EP-release show, or put Animal Suit in their email signature, or tell people about Animal Suit’s page on, where people who become their “friends” can get immediate updates on show information, download information, just about any friggin’ information the band wants to disseminate. And this isn’t spam. This is stuff fans actually want. This is real-deal, exciting stuff, driven by the new affordability and availability of high-speed computers (does that sound archaic?) and broadband connections. With these Internet options, the band’s fanbase becomes an instant community, taking the concept of the fan club, where kids used to get a signed eight-by-10 glossy every once in a while, to an entirely different level of intimacy.

It’s intimacy these fans are clearly desperate for, if they can in any way identify with ASD’s lyrics and music. On their 110 Miles EP, produced by Jon Wyman (who maybe I wouldn’t talk about so much if someone else in town could hold his jock, production-wise), and set for release this coming Tuesday, Animal Suit paint portraits of the disaffected and the disturbed. Which makes the album’s opening, about 15 bars of acoustic guitar and maybe a cello, so sweet. The suits these animals wear have hard shells, for sure, but cover a soft underbelly.

That first tune, Subject A, is the standard radio rock organization of guitars idling like an engine, popping like there’s maybe a cylinder somewhere that needs work, before roaring to life with the chorus [above, it’s performed by The Killing Moon, a band that grew out of Animal Suit, but it’s the same song]. Here, though, the chorus really hums with Chris Michaud’s baritone sax and Dan Lafayette’s trombone, a descending riff that supports lead singer Ryan Hannan’s exhortation that “we’re all just shades of grey.” The subject A, in particular, “wants to throw it all away/ He’s sick of all the pain, want to turn it into rage.”

Whatever it is that Hannan uses for fuel, his choruses are certainly pyrotechnic. In “Sugar Pills,” he’s spectacular, pulling the listener along into a manic frenzy without actually speeding anything up, really above average in delivery and timing, holding onto a final “yeah” to make you hold your breath. What’s beautiful is that he contrasts these muscular choruses with a conversational verse structure that should remind of indie soul singers like Living Colour’s Corey Glover, or TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, his band supporting him with alternate rhythms like you might find on a Fishbone or Police album (pre-Synchronicity).

But what’s driving this disaffection? Per usual, it’s a disappointment with the very people who are telling kids what to do all the time. “Bottomfeeder” gets at this notion’s core. Opening with a Toad the Wet Sprocket guitar tone and featuring a little bit of that heavy white-boy reggae thing, but in a way I haven’t really heard before, Hannan wonders: “Aren’t you supposed to be the bigger one?/ My dagger alone facing your big black gun/ Ease the hammer back real slow/ Press the barrel to my throat and say,/ ‘There was a time there for poking fun/ Seems it has turned into obsession/ It’s been overdone’/ Look what I’ve become/ Parasitic leech, bottom feeder.”

It’s a distrust of flawed judgment, the same kind of judgment that probably tells young bands they have to get signed, get a label, get management. But in that game, as Hannan notes in the chorus, “deception’s always been your best friend.”

The hope comes in “A Book of Love Stories,” featuring little guitar trills that break down at the beginning, a reminder of prog rock — Yes, especially. The verse is engaging immediately, Hannan’s older-than-his-years voice accompanied by the sax with a mournful harmony that’s much more thoughtful than simply mimicking his melody. “Your skin is a canvas for my heart to paint,” Hannan sings, “so let go/ And if we’re careful not to wait, we’ll hear nothing and see everything we all believe in each other’s eyes/ We can share one sensation.”

Wasn’t that the promise rock and roll made to us, that we could all tap into something bigger? Well, hey, they’ve got rock and roll on computers now.

Sara Hallie Richardson: A Curious Paradox

Curiouser and curiouser

Sara Hallie Richardson says hello, to say goodbye

Sara Hallie Richardson, we hardly knew ye. Just as she holds her coming out party, and CD-release joint, next weekend, she plans a move to New York City the following week [this originally ran in February 2009].

Don’t worry, though. She says she’ll be back. And let’s hope so. The girl has a voice like the icicles hanging from your rooftop, crystalline and sharp (and you kind of want to lick them a little bit). She knows how to put together a song, too. She professes a love for Bjork, and you can hear it on her debut disc, the nine-song A Curious Paradox, with its digital whirs and spare arrangements and vocal wanderings. But she has a bit of Feist’s playfulness, too, to counter some Joni Mitchell world-weariness.

She’s also a cold weather girl. She studied music at UMaine, recorded the album at Bangor’s 32Central with Michael Flannery (of Feel It Robot), and turns icily fine lines: “Never mind the winter/ Never mind that snow will soon collapse your heart.” That’s from “Seymour,” which, with its plodding snow-shoe bass, quick inhalations of crisp sound, and finishing wind chimes, is cold through and through. 

It’s a refreshing cold, though. While warm, crunchy guitar tones can certainly wrap their arms around the listener, Richardson instead aims for frigidly distorted organ chords, like those that open “Sulu,” spare and echoing to a fade. It’s the crisp nostalgia of “the night, it fell upon us/ The sky of cobalt blue/ The prospect of having all of us together/ But no one showed/ Just you and I/ And in each other’s arms/ We found home.” It’s a song like sitting out in the snow, wrapped in snowpants and blankets, and staring up into the brightest stars the Maine woods have to offer, the moon casting a half-time daylight.

And though it becomes a bit formulaic even in the nine songs here, it’s a thrill when the manufactured beats charge in aggressively late in the song, drums heavy on the high hat and soaring vocals that grab you by the throat.

It’s the same charge you get out of the late-arriving electric guitar churn in “Penny Castles,” or the rolling backbeat and swarming organ in the second half of “Bottom of the Sea.” It would be too easy to call it letting her hair down. It’s the tension and build the Cambiata employed to great effect on To Heal, for a recent example; a long, slow crescendo wasn’t out of place among the romanticists.

Luckily, Richardson doesn’t always give in to this construction. Sometimes he lets the tension burn and simmer, as with the excellent “Lonely Hearts.” The three single notes followed by a strum in the open are all that ever backs Richardson as she lets her voice crush you with its simplicity, only arcing a bit lower into a minor chord for “then came the day/ You turned and walked away.” For a 20-second mid-song bridge there is a bit of acoustic guitar rolling fingerpicking. Then it’s back to that 1-2-3-strum. There are very few voices that could get away with nearly three minutes of that. But it’s lovely and enchanting.

Her falsetto in “Sandy” — it’s easy to fall for it, let’s say that. It’s enough to forgive a line like, “As I watch the leaves fall from trees outside my window/ I realize why they call it fall.” Especially with that stand-up bass, brushed cymbals from the drums, “that’s what saved me.” Her tremolo is pretty fine, too.

And I honestly don’t know what to make of “Sometimes,” a cover that’s not a cover of the Jonathan Edwards tune. See, the whole song is actually there, from what I can tell, complete with what sounds like the hiccoughs of a record player, and Richardson seems to be singing harmony backing vocals over it, way high up in the register. It’s like that time Natalie Cole sang with her dad, adding her vocals to his track, except instead of bringing an old track into the present, Richardson seems to be purposefully pushing “Sometimes” deeper past its 1971 roots, turning it into a Judy Garland ballad of the early 20th century.

As a thought-piece and an album closer, both, I think it works. But with only nine songs here in total, I guess I’d rather hear what else Richardson has up her sleeve.

Not just a vocal talent, she’s got some very interesting songwriting ideas and manages to avoid many of the singer-songwriter conventions that young great female vocalists often fall into as solo artists. New York City may very well embrace her and keep her in its clutches, but should she return to our little scene, she ought to be warmly welcomed back.