Despite our holier-than-thou attitudes and go-down-with-our-Titanic-size predispositions, we rock critics love to eat our words. Well, as long as it's us serving our own plates and not some yob bent on humiliation and revenge; the public pillory should be reserved for those musicians with outsized egos who really deserve it. Besides, it makes us look self-effacingly cool and not so stodgy when we come around and admit that Scott Weiland might not be such a dick after all. To say nothing of getting us reinstated on record labels' promo lists.
So I'll go on record to confess that a few years ago, in another venue, I pronounced Knoxville's Superdrag to be, uh, kind of a drag, singling out 1998's Head Trip in Every Key for watered-down crimes against the time-honored Power Pop Code of Behavior. Maybe I was just reacting to the presence of Green Day/Rancid enabler-hack Jerry Finn, who helmed the recording sessions, or perhaps I was working out some subliminal grievance against Elektra Records, one of the more notoriously stingy labels in the biz when it comes to helping out journalists, promo-wise. But with the benefit of hindsight and a brand-new Superdrag album, I'd have to say that Head Trip now doesn't sound as bad as I remember. Imperfect, and bearing obvious concessions to label-dictated slickness, yes; but a lousy album, no. Did I derive any private satisfaction that the album took a fast train to nowheresville? I'll never tell. I'm not that smug.
To briefly recap, the Superdrag arc follows a '90s record biz story line so painfully familiar as to be a Spinal Tap-esque cliché, minus the dying drummers: cool indie band forms in '93, hooks up with cool indie label Darla, issues a cool indie 45 followed by a CD EP, becomes the darling of the cool indie set, then A&R label types, not yet superjaded on cool indie bands, come a-courtin'. Band scores a BuzzBin hit with Regretfully Yours' lead single "Sucked Out," spends most of '96 touring in support of the album, then records the fateful follow-up album mentioned above. That's when things begin to fall apart; Elektra grows wary of its newly ambitious group's eagerness to expand its songwriting and instrumental skills ("Uh, guys, we don't hear a hit single . . ."), and that, combined with musical chairs in the A&R department, spells promotional doom. A third album is only partly finished before a band-label divorce becomes final, but waiting outside the magistrate's office is -- you guessed it -- cool indie label Arena Rock, eager to return the group to its rightful cool indie roots.
Which only makes the story's ending all the happier. For those who underestimated Superdrag, In the Valley of Dying Stars sounds so tasty, it's triumphant. It brims with over-the-top, unselfconscious exuberance, from the opening track "Keep It Close to Me" (which combines the crunch of the Clash with the keening melodicism of the Raspberries) and "Lighting the Way" (an ace descendant of Cheap Trick's "Surrender") to the quirky-yet-lush, Dwight Twilley-styled wall of sound that's "Bright Pavilions" and the obligatory Paul McCartney-at-the-piano anthemic heartbreak ballad "Unprepared." There's also a crucially subtle vibe of discontent, part personal tragedy and part I'm-growing-older resignation, that helps locate the group's material with the classics.
Unlike so many contemporary alterna-punk/pop groups that wear their mundane alienations ("Daddy didn't buy me a scooter when I was 12"; "I sure hated my math teacher"; "The customers at the coffee shop are lousy tippers," etc.) on their sleeves, Superdrag clearly has no truck with negative creeps. Death and loss, in "Unprepared," are treated respectfully, not whinily, and the tune becomes an elegant requiem for the departed, while in "Lighting the Way," a looming relationship disaster is attended to with the perfect balance of cautious reflection and determined resolve ("I been up every night/Walkin' down that highway/If I can't make things right/I'm gonna do it my way/Send it straight to you/Like you put a price on everything you do"). And it's hard to resist anyone who mounts a pop song's rhyming scheme involving "reciprocity," "animosity" and "trajectory" ("Gimme Animosity") by way of invoking matter-of-fact bitterness without a trace of irony or self-pity.
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The bottom line: Left alone to work out arrangements in the studio without anybody peering over its shoulders, Superdrag crafts the kind of glossadelic, three-and-a-half-minute classics that'll be instantly and equally embraced by longtime fans of the band as well as aficionados of old-school '70s power pop.
Midway through the recording of In the Valley of Dying Stars, the group's original bassist quit -- no, he's still quite among the living, and the drummer's still doing fine, never mind Spinal Tap -- but Superdrag quickly rebounded and finished up the album at its Knoxville home studio.
Given the circumstances of Arena Rock's fortuitous intervention and the what-doesn't-kill-you-makes-you-stronger injection, it's safe to say that with an album this solid, the band is safe from the prying documentary lenses of all those aspiring Marty DiBergis looking for the next "Where Are They Now?" VH1 sad sacks. To the members of Superdrag: Guys, I take it all back. (You complete me.) To the readers: While you're all busy smelling the Superdrag glove, don't fret about me. I'll already be back at the casa, rinsing off my plate of humble pie and pondering which unlucky combo's career I can deep-six next. To be . . . continued?