Being the best that never was can be a drag. Just ask Dead Hot Workshop. They've been Tempe's top alternative band for almost a decade. They've wowed critics, won (and lost) record contracts and watched their work championed by "lesser" local bands like the Gin Blossoms--Robin Wilson wore a Dead Hot tee shirt on the Blossoms' debut David Letterman appearance--and the Refreshments, who quipped about pretending to be Dead Hot Workshop on the single "Down Together." It says something that such big-time acts have long pushed for Dead Hot's success. It says even more that Dead Hot still hasn't made it.
Karma Covered Apple could change that.
The new CD is Dead Hot Workshop's most spirited recording to date, a considerable jump from the solemn, scattershot brilliance of the band's previous efforts. Singer/songwriter Brent Babb has always had a way with melody and poetic suggestion, and his vocals, at once passive and impassioned, have helped shape his angst-riddled efforts. But Babb's past songs also tended to sound weary, especially on disc, as if he and his ever-promising band grew old before they had a chance to be new.
Karma Covered Apple presents a born-again Dead Hot. The CD's opening cut, "Both Ways," kicks with bright dynamics, assertive playing and peppier, more confident vocals. The newer, tougher Babb comes out swinging again on "Push Luck Shove," asserting that "I'm not crazy/My free fall spins farther round/I never wanna come down." This is far from the over-introspective Babb of past CDs, the one slump-shouldered by the weight of his own world.
Even so, Babb's still no Mr. Rogers. There's always been a theme of confused identity in Babb's writing, and it's here, too. "You say I'm the only one/I see a little bit of me in you," he sings in "Push Luck Shove," before adding the inverted question mark, "Are you with me or against me?"
Babb's genius is to couple such near-existentialism with an honest feeling for the lost and the weak, even if he indeed finds it's him he's singing about. The bend-until-you-break ennui makes for an open empathy for fellow souls: "You hide in your room," he sings on "Round Record." "But you're my favorite tune/Somehow sometime soon/I'll hear you."
Karma Covered Apple shines best when Babb literally searches the heavens for answers to his glancing doubts and concerns. "Noam Chomsky," for example, is ostensibly a stunning song of meandering melody and only occasionally sensical word forms. It doesn't matter that you can't actually define "demographic acrobats riding elemental artifacts through realistic kinds of cul-de-sacs." What does matter is how the tune wanders in search of a chorus, settling in on itself like some dwarf star as the Babb "whispers to the heavens through a megaphone." The song's buildup, enhanced by beautiful keyboard work and backup vocals from fellow Tempean Emily Curtis, is a wonder, a cosmic, stargazing goosebumper that proves art exists in the most ambiguous of platforms.
Equally impressive is "Oh Well," a beautifully contemplative song more reminiscent of Dead Hot's older, reticent world view, yet more convincing. Babb sings of himself ("Sometimes you come up short, sometimes not at all"), others ("Every friend in need/I sometimes see 'em come/I sometimes watch 'em go") and the wish to escape it all. Yet even here, by the end of the song's mournful, country-tinged melody, there's a hint of hope: "You pull up your stakes you won't get very far/Maybe there's no reason/Maybe we just are/Oh well."
Babb's touch-and-go reflections are bolstered by his longtime bandmates--bassist G. Brian Scott and drummer Curtis Grippe--who deftly handle the many drop-step melodies and subtle tempo shifts with an ease appropriate to Babb's lyrical shrugs. A small galaxy of local musicians adds to the mix, most notably the aforementioned Curtis, who seems to appear on the CD's best songs, and ubiquitous hard-rock guitarist Michael Johnny Walker, who helps push the sneaky-good "Magic Bullet," and kicks even harder on "K-Tel," the disc's most energetic basher and one of the band's better live tunes. (Also of note: Dead Hot's former lead guitarist, Steve Larson, whose gnarled leads gave added texture to the band's live sound, is featured on only one Karma cut, "Slide Song.")
As solid as the new CD sounds, the packaging is saddled with the type of screw-ups expected of Tempe's prototypical slacker band. The lyrics to "Noam Chomsky," for example, are nowhere to be found on the CD booklet; "Slide Song" is identified as "69" on the lyric sheet; and some of the songs on the back cover are out of order while others seem to be hiding.
All of which is almost forgiven when considering the band's photo in the CD booklet, a goofy portrait of the trio as all-American astronauts. It's an inspired piece of weirdness that somehow makes sense.
But making sense is far from Dead Hot's strength. The band breathes through Babb's wonderfully elliptical songs, and by the end of the CD, he still sounds at once upbeat and confused, his bewilderment and self-assessment good-natured but soul-deep. For instance, on the CD's closing cut, "Strangers," he ponders how we "step outside of ourselves like strangers," adding, "I guess all my friends are strangers in the end." The song sways like an anthem and it works as an all-encompassing take on Babb's muse, an honest mix of hope and genuine wonder at what makes strangers tick even to themselves.
Another local songwriting hero, Bruce Connole, leader of the neo-country act The Revenants (formerly Suicide Kings), asks similar kinds of questions. But whereas Babb stares at the sky to figure himself out, Connole keeps his eyes focused on the nearest mirror, squinting at the greatest mystery he knows. Connole's search for clues is a singular mission and one that marks The Revenants' tuneful new Epiphany CD, Artists and Whores, as one of the best local CDs in years.
Anything less from Connole would be a shock. He's played a prominent role in some of the Valley's best and most popular acts of the past two decades, including Billy Clone and the Same, the Jetzons, and the Strand, all major-league bands that never made it because of Connole's notorious abuse of not-so-controlled substances. Connole, like Babb, should've been more than a contender. But if Babb took too long to find success, Connole simply disappeared, hiding from the big time with bouts of self-medication.
A sad story, but one that inspires a peppy kind of pessimism that hums throughout Artists and Whores. Connole uses a retro-country sound to relate his thinly metaphored views on living and losing, and it's a perfect fit. What better format for a white guy to sing the blues? Connole opens the CD by proclaiming "Mama always called me a child of sorrow," on "Forever," the assessment bouncing along astride a crispy, two-step tempo.
He later asserts that "it's a long and lonely trail/A midnight ride to each new hell I find," again presenting the downer sentiment in upbeat fashion.
The same goes for "Flower on My Grave," a mournful song that comes off as almost playful, the tightly constructed music keeping things from getting too morbid. "Heaven only knows where the broken-hearted go/Will they find peace beyond this misery?" Connole asks. "Angels up above will fill their hearts with love," he answers, but then can't help wondering if they'll more likely "cry for all eternity."
Indeed, as the CD progresses, Connole tries to flirt with standard-issue optimism, as on "She," a danceable song of hope amid the spilled tears and toppled beers. But even here it's still a boy-gets-dumped song: "Nobody looks that good walking away," he sings, and you can almost see the view from the bar stool. Connole goes on to color his baritone, twang-tinged vocals with more ominous tones, as on "Cradle to the Grave," in which he proclaims himself a "leather-wearing Jesus, a bastard son of man." But there's always a hint that such words are aimed at an audience of one, as if the writer only half believes what he says. He can't help letting you know that "I've walked through fire and held my head up high," but the tough talk seems at once a beating of the chest and a drop of the eyes, a soul in search of validation, counting its losses and hoping someone doesn't quite believe the bluster.
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The ambiguity that comes from such an unreliable narrator puts many sides to a song and adds realism to the overwrought imagery. It also helps if it's all carried by a catchy tune, and Connole's no slouch when it comes to hooks. The other Revenants further paint the pictures with sharp, crisp playing that bounces off producer Clarke Rigsby's pristine production.
Guitarist and back-up singer Deke Taylor complements Connole wonderfully, and the rhythm section, bassist Scott Kalkbrenner (who's since been replaced by ex-Freudian Slip slapper Paul Schneider) and drummer Bobby Domings are there at every turn--especially Domings, the kind of steady drummer you don't think about until you concentrate on what he's doing, and then it's hard to keep your ears off him. A slew of stellar studio musicians, led by legendary guitarist Al Casey, adds dollops of subtle but effective sounds, making for a refreshingly under-the-top performance throughout. Indeed, the band and attendant studio pals never seem to be showing off, just doing what they do best with efficient confidence, much different from the laid-back, catch-as-catch-can No Depression movement still favored by most "Americana" country acts.
Connole's preference for an older, slicker kind of country is especially evident as he closes Artists and Whores with "Prodigal Son," a song choked with old-timey sentiment. The depression and despair that have taken him this far take a break as we find the narrator back in his hometown to "see my father and mother/Whose hearts I broke long ago/I waited so long to set things right." But you can feel the clouds roll back in before the first verse ends, and suffice to say that by the closing chords Connole's standing over gravestones and singing of how he simply "waited too long."
If the metaphors in "Prodigal Son" suggest Connole's waited too long to set his musical talents right, he's wrong. Artists and Whores is strong enough to resuscitate a songwriting career that looks far from over.