Tony McNaboe: The Cost of Living

Regardless of the cost

Tony McNaboe testifies on sophomore release

If you were concerned that the return of Rustic Overtones would mean the ends of their various side projects, it’s clear now that was a fruitless worry. The ancillary releases have intensified as the Overtones continue to hone their second post-break album. The new year already brought us a Plains album featuring Dave Noyes (a limited edition, but still), and this summer [of 2009] will see releases from a new Dave Gutter project (a duo release with Evan Casas), Spencer Albee (not that he’s an Overtone anymore), and now Tony McNaboe, who’s crafted another soulful solo album, both self-produced and -recorded (though Jonathan Wyman did the mixing).

As is the rage, nowadays, there are guest spots by the likes of Gypsy Tailwind’s Dan Connor and fellow Overtones Nigel Hall and John Roods, but this is very much NcNaboe’s album. It is more overtly spiritual than 2003’s Destination, more personal, raw and dispirited, and it’s no tossed-off, let’s-see-what-happens affair. He both moves himself forward artistically, drawing on hip-hop and chanted singer-songwritery fare a la Citizen Cope, and creates songs with substance.

In fact, The Cost of Living [the record is in very few places online, even Bull Moose is out, but it does exist at Down in the Valley, which is like the Minneapolis Bull Moose, I think] reads like a trek through a deep winter and a man who’s just coming out the other side, touched up by a bit of frostbite. In 2003, Ray LaMontagne was opening for him. Nowadays, McNaboe’s got his band back together with another album on the way. What happened in the middle? “Tired eyes, ain’t slept in two days … I swear I’m killing myself a little bit every day”; “Lately if you see me/ I apologize … I failed my family and friends”; “There’s beauty in this somewhere/ and I just got to find it.”

Whether he’s playing a role in individual narratives, or testifying about his own faith, McNaboe doesn’t blow smoke up anyone’s dress on the new record. There isn’t, however, any sign of self-pity or resignation. On the six-minute title track—housing the potentially maudlin line, “he can’t feel a thing from his neck to his feet/ but he can still feel a heartbeat”—he takes pains to finish the chorus with vocal move up, so that the cost of living doesn’t seem like a burden, but rather a jewel to be coveted, as though what you get back is always worth what you pay.

If anything, McNaboe doesn’t go as far with his music as he does with his message. At times, there’s full-on incongruity. For “Doomed,” a slow piano ballad indicates a love song, and the first verse indicates he’s, like, doomed to love this girl forever, but then he’s failing his family and friends (“that’s what people do”) and that faithful, grateful guy is gone and I’m depressed but snapping my fingers and singing along.

In the finishing “A Prayer, Pts 1 + 2,” he’s thanking Jesus, confessing all, asking to be taught to stand up and walk again, savoring every word of every verse like a gobstopper, but the synths that drive the melody feel really cold. It’s such an organic message delivered in such a digital way. There are times when you can just see the ProTools screen in front of you and McNaboe painting in the bass line (“I Know You Hate Goodbyes”).

So, maybe it’s just taste, but I find myself gravitating toward “Miracle,” where his voice is most naked, the piano is pretty-sad, and when the effects enter it’s like the sun coming through a window and lighting up all the dust in the air, an accent instead of a means.

“We know tomorrow’s on the way, and it’s a brand new day,” but seeing is believing, and there’s a difference between being told something and actually hearing it.

[Photo thanks to WCYY. I believe it’s an Alive at 5 gig from the week this album was released.]

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: www.purevolume.com, 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 myspace.com, 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.