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Bruce Connole and Richard Taylor sit outside Tempest Studio taking a smoke break. They're relaxed and upbeat, but something feels faintly awry. Maybe it's just because I'm so used to seeing these honky-tonk devils tear up Nita's Hideaway on Wednesday nights, but they seem a bit out of place in the noontime glare of broad daylight. Connole shields his eyes with black shades, and gives off the cool vibe of someone who knows the sun's out there, but won't deign to recognize its existence. Inside the cramped studio, located behind engineer Clarke Rigsby's Tempe home, Rigsby is readying the tapes for some vocal overdubs, the final touches in The Revenants' forthcoming second album.
Okay, maybe it's really their first album, if you consider that this band's 1997 debut was released under the name Suicide Kings, until some California malcontents also known as the Suicide Kings forced Connole and his cohorts to get a new handle. For a short time, that new moniker was Lucky Ofay and the Gray Boys, until popular demand forced a second ballot, and Connole settled on the appropriately spooky name The Revenants.
In a way, it's fitting that this upcoming Epiphany Records release, titled Artists and Whores, is the country-rock quartet's first under this name, because Connole and Taylor refer to this album as a new beginning, a watershed for the band. When Rigsby steps outside to tell them he's ready to do some tracking, Connole points to the producer/engineer and says, "He's the guy you oughta be talking to."
Connole and Taylor are careful not to insult Andy Barrett, who produced the Suicide Kings album. But it's clear that they feel the first album didn't capture the band's live energy, a feeling confirmed by fans who've told them the songs sound much better live.
Actually, in its own stark, roughhewn way, the Suicide Kings album was an impressive achievement. With that album, Connole, the 43-year-old veteran of popular rock bands like The Strand, the guy whose talent always seemed at war with his capacity for self-destruction, served notice that he had re-emerged at the other end of a dark tunnel with clear-eyed songs of regret and humorous desperation. The vintage country sound fit the new, mature Connole like a glove, particularly on tracks like the poignant "King for a Day" and the rocking "Even Hookers Say Goodbye." But it's easy to see why Connole says that with the new Revenants album, he feels that he's been produced for the first time.
"Clarke is a real producer, which I think is rare," Connole says. "I've been in all kind of weird situations, and I've run into a lot of guys that said they were producers. But he knows the music. As a band, you can get the songs to a certain level. It sounds good in clubs, and your friends are all, 'Oh, wow, that's really cool.' But Clarke makes it sound like a grown-up record."
It's easy enough to hear what he means. On this final day of recording, Connole is fixing a vocal for the song "Blood River." Weeks earlier, on his first attempt, he had slipped into an overly twangy country affectation, or, as he puts it, "pressed the hick overload button." As he steps behind the mike to attempt a new, straighter version, the differences between albums one and two immediately become apparent.
"Blood River" was one of the lesser tracks on the first album, a plain, demo-ish recording that cried out for ornamentation. In its new, remodeled incarnation, the guitars shimmer like the desert sun, and a wicked Dobro guitar solo lifts this fast shuffle to its intended plane of profound tragedy.
As he records his vocal, Connole jokes at his occasional miscues, chalking up a botched note to "the wayward phlegm" and later describing a vocal crack as "that puberty thing, that Brady Bunch thing."
The rough mixes I hear offer proof that The Revenants are blossoming as a band at precisely the point when they have the right studio guidance. One of Connole's favorite cuts, the melodic gem "Marie," particularly benefits from the Rigsby touch, with washes of pedal-steel guitar, a jolting Hammond B-3 organ solo, and a Dobro rave-up at the coda. A more somber track, "The Prodigal," features a brief but gorgeous violin intro and tells the story of a repentant son who returns home to find that he "waited too long to set things right." The song climaxes with another burst of recording inspiration: a group choral that Connole calls the "drunken chorus" ending.
While it's easy to read Connole's own story between the lines of "The Prodigal," like most effective writers, he's mixing imagination and personal experience to create something more potent and universal than either would alone.
"I have this character in my head, who this guy is, who does what he does," Connole says of his songs. "We were talking about this yesterday when we were gonna do this one particular cover. It was a Leonard Cohen song, and it had a very poetic line in it: 'I took the dust from the long sleepless night, and put it in your little shoe.' And I go, 'The guy that sings all those other fucking songs, he wouldn't say that.'"