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.

The Popsicko: Frankenstein Presents the Popsicko, Vol. 1

Albee alone

With a new band and a growing résumé as a local producer, Spence makes a name for himself outside of his Rustic day job

Originally published Oct. 13, 2000

Frankenstein is an apt name for Spencer Albee to adopt. The whole that he projects is certainly the sum of a number of parts. He’s the keyboardist for Rustic Overtones, and like everyone else he’s waiting for the album [what would be Viva Nueva] to come out so they can get on with their musical lives. That’s a given. But as of October 14, with a performance at the Skinny as part of the Shebang music festival, he will be the frontman for his very own band, The Popsicko. Albee will then release a 14-song album —Frankenstein Presents The Popsicko, Vol. 1, on which he sings and plays 90 percent of the instruments — October 31 through his own imprint: FPFC, the Fun Portland Fun Club. 

He’s the man in the big cowboy hat, curled up and weather worn. He’s Captain Beautiful on the 1995 Rustic Overtones record Long Division. He’s currently sporting a pinkish stripe of a goatee, saying with a straight face that he’d like to be known as Frankenstein. “Do you think I’d run into copyright problems with that?” he asks earnestly. He figures that as long he doesn’t use the image he’ll be fine.

And that’s not all. Albee has become the producer-in-demand around town. In the past year he has manned the board for Loud Neighbor’s initial 10-song demo, No Gain; four 6gig tunes, including the single “5” that’s getting all kinds of radio-play in anticipation of Tin Can Experiment’s release on October 16; and a good portion of Jeremiah Freed’s five-song demo. He even produced the last song, “You Could Be Mine,” on Jenny Paquette’s latest album, See What You Do, and, starting late this month, he will begin production on a new Hawthorne album, Traces of the Muse, which will appear in early 2001.

Whether he’s Albee, Frankenstein, or the King of France, he is a driving force in the Portland music scene, and more than just an industrious 24-year-old. He’s talented as hell.

Just ask Shawn Saindon, local singer/songwriter and the organizer of the Bull Moose Shebang event that will feature 14 local bands in all. He signed up The Popsicko before the band had even played a show together, or even practiced together as a working band. “I heard the CD from Spencer a couple months back and it blew my mind, and I knew it would be successful,” says Saindon, an admitted pop fan with a penchant for the Beatle-esque sounds that pervade the disc.

Saindon was also impressed enough with Albee’s production abilities to enter into talks with him to produce his next album, though their schedules have so far precluded setting a date for getting in the Studio (capitol “S” intended; it’s the sometimes confusing name of Tim Tierney’s studio on Casco Street in Portland). His production is “really slick for a local producer,” says Saindon. “He’s got a lot of talent for using the technology he has to get that national-act sound. He and Jim Begley are really into the music that they do.”

It is telling the Saindon mentions Begley, as he and Albee have become inseparable as a producer/engineer team, working together as early as the 6gig project, and even earlier than that. “The people we were each living with were both coincidentally getting married,” recalls Begley. “So we were left as bachelors, and we ended up living together for about a year.”

They discovered that they had a lot of mutual interests — Spencer a performing musician with Rustic Overtones, Jim with a degree in music performance from UMass Lowell and a trained studio engineer working at the Studio — and they ended up doing their first recordings right there in their kitchen. Begley would bring mics home from the studio and they’d work with whatever they had on hand getting some of what would eventually be The Popsicko on tape.

It was only a matter of time before they started collaborating on professional projects. Finally, the opportunity presented itself. “He was friends with 6gig,” says Begley. “So I set it up at the Studio, and Spencer sold us as a team.”

Albee has a penchant for recognizing a break and going for it. “I was at Prime [Artist Studios, a local practice space] when Walt [Craven, 6gig’s lead singer] was at Prime,” recalls Albee. “And then Steve Marquis [6gig’s guitarist] was in with Rig, his old band, doing “Hit the Ground” at Big Sound, and I said, ‘We really need to get that.’ ”

Albee and Begley ended up recording and mixing four of the songs that would eventually wind up on Tin Can Experiment. Ultimatum Records licensed and re-mixed their original production, combining the result with the efforts of legendary producer Ron St. Germain, who has heavyweight albums by Creed and 311 on his résumé.

“That was my real foot in the door,” says Albee.

It didn’t hurt that Albee went through the experience of recording the Overtones album for Arista. “I learned a lot from working with Tony Visconti, David Leonard, Roger Sommers,” all seasoned industry producers, says Albee, “I got to sit and watch them work, and now I can listen to records and say, ‘I know how that happened.’ ”

If the new Popsicko album is the evidence, it’s pretty clear that Albee now knows how to make things happen as well. The record was put together in bits and pieces, whenever Begley, Albee, or Studio head engineer Steve Drown could get away from the grind to record. “We all hit it off,” says Begley. “Spencer and I did a few tunes, Spencer and Steve did a few tunes together, we did a few tunes with all three of us. It would be whoever was available.”

The same was true of the “guest musicians” that play on the project. Eggbot plays the coronet. Jeremiah Freed guitarist Nik Goodale lends soaring guitar riffs. Spencer’s sister Katherine sings backup and plays some horns. Begley plays drums. Drown plays guitars. Overtone Ryan Zoidis lends some saxophone. Overtone Jon Roods even recorded a bass track in the old kitchen. When the Popsicko plays out, Albee will be out front on guitars and keys, while Eggbot handles the rest of the keyboard duties. Begley, who also fills in for Motor Booty Affair on occasion, will play drums. Pat Hodgkins will play bass. Albee’s old friend Adam LaCasse will come up from Boston for lead guitars, and sister Katherine will lend backup vocals and horns.

Because of this catch-as-catch-can approach, each song on the disc takes on its own personality. “The cool thing about doing tunes one at a time,” says Begley, “is that every song sounds completely different.” Some are decidedly low budget, where they were going for an old-school production value; others are very, very slick, making use of every effect available. Each song is clearly a different experience for Albee, and it seems natural that each song should have a different sound and feel.

“Two Feet,” the first single, is driven by Albee’s blues piano and a crescendo of voices in a very hip radio chorus. The production talent is in the little things: a bridge that consists of an apparent lunatic rambling in the background; a fade-out of Albee whistling the melody while he snaps his fingers to the beat.

What directly follows is a Ween-esque send-up of the Portland bar scene: “Beer Goggles.” This time it’s space-age synth effects, wild yells in the background, and crunching guitars that define the sound. Blur-like “whoo-hoos” carry the song home, until Albee sneaks in a little classical piano over the distinctive sound of someone scanning the radio dial for something different.

Which is then, of course, what the listener gets, with “The Mess I’m In.” All of a sudden we hear Albee over the top of simple synthesizer chords that reveal his undying reverence for Paul McCartney’s Wings. It’s Beatles with a disco ball, Sergeant Pepper in a vinyl suit. There are soaring George Harrison “oohs,” “aahs,” and guitar solos. The high-pitched John Lennon “yeah” feels so right.

“I love the Beatles, but there’s something about Wings that’s just different,” says Albee. “They’re the one band that define the ’70s. I feel like I was born at the wrong time; I wish I was 24 in 1970, so I could witness the birth of heavy metal and synthesized funk.” And if we take “The Porno Song” as an example, he’s also interested in living some of that decade’s depravity. “Spread your cheeks, show me that ass,” says an anonymous porn star repeatedly in a seamless splice. “Do you still want me?” he asks. “Yes I do,” replies the imagined blonde. What follows is a hilarious plea to be “like the guys in the magazines, getting laid, getting paid.” Surrounded by serious songs about world peace, getting over bad relationships, and dealing with corporate greed, it is a calculated risk. Yet, says Albee, “it’s my mom’s favorite song. I mean, some parents may be offended by it, but if they’re parents they had to have had some porno in their lives at some point.”

It’s all part of Albee’s æsthetic, which is appealing to more and more folks all the time. “He knows that I am looking for him to bring us into hipness,” says Hawthorne lead singer Mike Falkingham. “Our big weakness was that we were writing what we thought were really good songs, but were missing a very tiny thing that could turn it from a mediocre song to a very high-quality single or album cut.” Falkingham believes that Albee can provide just the right amount of mojo. “Spencer will not change what Hawthorne is,” he says, “but he can do anything and everything he wants to make the sound better, throw in effects, a sample, anything.”

All of this points to questions about whether this solo activity as producer and frontman might be a safety net against a worst possible Rustic scenario. Could Albee and Begley become a producer/engineer team on the level of Mitch Froom and Tchad Blake, who work with Cheryl Crowe, Los Lobos, and Soul Coughing; or Mark Howard and Daniel Lanois who oversee albums by Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris? Is Albee ready to take his pleasing pop voice and step out from the shadows like a Phil Collins leaving Genesis? We’ll find out.

“It’s just something else that I like to do,” says Albee. “I really enjoy being in the studio. I like working with other people and artists, and right now, it sure beats all the shit jobs out there. The work may have its ups and downs, but I can keep my life simple.”