Rustic Overtones: Let’s Start a Cult, Part II

The show must go on

The Cult of Rustic Overtones continues

In the basement of the Franco Center in L/A this past Saturday [this was November 23, 2013] , various of the Rustic Overtones are signing CDs and T-shirts, posters and packs of Rizlas. Jeff Beam is upstairs opening their benefit show for the Good Shepherd Food Bank and the guys are eager to chat about their new album, a second volume to follow on 2012’s Let’s Start a Cult.

Jon Roods: “What do you think?”

Sam: “We were just listening to it on the way up. It’s so well orchestrated…”

Roods: “Yeah, we’re grown-ass men, now.”

Later, watching the seven-piece band, augmented by a four-piece string section, there were certainly signs of maturity. Some gray hair, maybe thinning in places. Frontman Dave Gutter’s daughter gamboling about. Dave Noyes’ epic Cosby sweater.

You’d never know it from hearing them play their hits, though. They opened with a huge “Hardest Way Possible,” a song they’ve released on three of their now eight full-length records (it’s worth noting that next year will be the 20th anniversary of their first album, 1994’s Shish Boom Bam). The singalong that marks the second movement of “Rock Like War” was soaring. And “Gas on Skin” – well, from the extended, rippling jam to Gutter’s crisp and powerful delivery, it was as easy as ever to see why it’s been a live favorite since Viva Nueva in 2001. I’m not sure how you could stay in your seat for that tune.

Except there were plenty of fans sitting in the Franco’s Center’s plush red seats.

Hey, the fans are getting older, too. Just as there were plenty of kids who couldn’t help but crowd the stage, there was an equal contingent content to nod their heads in relative comfort. Similarly, while the Overtones may be playing live with as much passion and precision as they ever have, on their albums they have exchanged some of their youthful aggression and fire for a mature and worldly approach.

Be glad they did. The result of years of experimentation with ska, R&B, hip-hop, rock, and Latin sounds is some of the most progressive and interesting music being made today. While almost all of popular music can be bucketed into electronic/rhythmic, country/stringband, and radio rock, the Overtones continue to forge new ground with intricate horn parts, layered keyboard lines, and lyrical work from Gutter that shows he’s never been more inspired.

The biggest departure from the rest of their oeuvre on Let’s Start a Cult, Part II, though, comes in the form of Gary Gemetti, who has now truly settled into the drummer’s spot vacated by Tony McNaboe and brought with him a jazz-influenced, quick and light hand that drives the eight songs here with a skittering urgency you haven’t heard from Rustic before. What he’s doing live sometimes sounds like the programmed beats from the Postal Service. Good God is his cymbal work impressive.

He’s best on “Martyrs,” where the horns match his Latin vibe and help introduce a guitar solo from Lettuce/Soulive’s Eric Krasno. Gutter is quiet in the open, but lets energy seep into the first taste of the chorus and then consistently delivers the hook with evolving couplets. Best is this one: “We don’t need no torture/ We get obsessed over pleasure or pain/ Oh, we could be mothers and fathers/ We don’t need to be martyrs.”

Fans of his vocal work should notice that he’s still got the chops, delivering trademark screams on stage with everything he’s got while his work in the verses has tended to sweeten as he’s become more contemplative with age. It’s also worth noting, as on “Bedside Manor,” that Matt Taylor has finally filled the keyboard/harmony vocals chair in a way that hasn’t happened since Spencer Albee left the band half a decade ago.

Gutter’s wordplay on “High on Everything” is at its most agile and poignant. There’s a touch of “Gas on Skin” in the intro, and a better version of the low-down sulk of “I Like It Low,” and then Gutter insistently right in your ear: “They gave us alcohol, it made it hard to focus/ They gave us Adderall, it made us smell the roses/ They gave us Claritin, they gave us Ambien/ We woke up in the ambulance.” Gutter to delivers, too, a guitar break in the style of ’80s Jeff Beck.

At its core, though, this album is all about bassist Jon Roods. Not only did he engineer it, as he’s done since New Way Out, but his playing has become a highlight of the band’s songwriting. He’s present right from the get-go of “The Show Must Go On,” with a dynamic line that is the ultimate mood-setting for a song that, itself, is designed to set the mood for the album as a whole, with Beatles-style backing vocals and vibrant horn lines.

If Roods isn’t the most musical bassplayer in town, I don’t know who is. On stage, he and Gutter have become inseparable, always set up in tandem to the front, with Roods acting as an unflappable melodic foundation that allows Gutter to be emotionally pyrotechnic.

Such is “Us Vs. Other People,” with spacey keyboards, congas, and an ‘80s vibe like an R&B version of Alphaville. Combined with the horn lines, Rood’s bounce creates something like a fusion base that supports an aching descending vocal riff from Gutter in the chorus: “Still, in essence we’re the same.”

Which is all there is to it. This is a band with talent that has brought them into more side projects and opportunities than is worthwhile to recount. That has had every opportunity to abandon a big-band rock effort that hardly makes sense anymore in today’s music industry. While most bands pare into duos and trios to make the the finances work, Rustic goes ahead and swells to 11 pieces with the strings, as they did on Saturday night to magical effect.

Yet, still, in essence, they’re the same.

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.