Rustic Overtones: Light at the End

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 [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.

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.