A funny thing happened the last time Spinning Jenny had a CD-release party: The group broke up! At the stroke of midnight! Keyboardist Brett Hinders, who had been in the band only for a few months at the time, recalls how it all came to a head during the show intended to launch Pinata Full of Bees, Spinning Jenny's self-released debut CD.
"It was something else," he says, shaking his head. "All of a sudden, our lead guitarist threw his guitar right on the floor, the drummer kicked over his drums, and they both walked out. Took off in the middle of a song! Everyone in the crowd was stunned. Nobody said anything. What could you say? I think I muttered something stupid like, 'We'll be back after a short breakup.'"
That was back in 1995. Founding members Stephen Easterling (guitar) and Damon Doiron (bass) reconvened several weeks later, joined by Hinders and new drummer Scott Hessel. Since then, this harmony-heavy power-pop quartet has endured its share of fiery trials, not the least of which has been Hinders' near-fatal auto accident, which left him with a seven-inch gash across his diaphragm and nerve damage in his left leg, injuries that sidelined him from the band for four months. While he recovered, the group continued to gig as a trio, giving Hinders his cut of the profits until he could return full-time.
Shortly before Hinders resumed live duties again last October, the band began recording a second CD for its own Big Marble Foot Records, the 10-song Dandelion, which hit local stores in late April. It catches the band in somewhat of a transitional musical period: halfway between the lighter, ornate stylings of witty British popsters XTC that Spinning Jenny favored early on in its career, and the heavier approach it has since adopted. The latter comes across like a hookier version of Better Than Ezra, with more emphasis on dense harmonies and shorter songs. (Also, in an effort to avoid confusion with the countless other U.S. bands inexplicably named Spinning Jenny, the Tempe foursome recently decided to call itself the Jennys.)
While release parties in mid-April at Long Wong's and the Yucca Tap Room went off without trouble, the month leading up to them wasn't so copacetic. Once again, the band found itself going through personnel changes in a very public manner, and this time it was Hinders doing the storming-off. The incident occurred during the Jennys' regular Sunday-night stand at the Yucca Tap Room, when a midset disagreement between Easterling and Hinders about stage volume escalated into a messy shouting match outside after the gig. Somewhat diplomatically, Hinders has little to say about his sudden departure, other than it was inevitable. "When you have two really intense individuals trying to navigate a band, that's not chemistry," he offers, not fully able to conceal the disappointment in his voice at not carrying Dandelion to full term.
"I do this all the time, asking people to watch the volume," notes Easterling, a quiet individual who seems even more reticent recounting the Yucca Tap Room event. "After about the fourth time, I'd kinda had it with Brett. He decided he didn't want to listen to me."
Despite its flowery name and a cute cover photo of a kid cursed with flyaway hair, Dandelion offers a leaner, meaner Jenny than its sometimes candy-coated predecessor Pinata showcased. The change is reflected on the new album's most powerful cuts--"John the Gardener," "Pop My Heart" and "Dark Red Autumn"--all of which have little or no keyboards on them.
"Keyboards in the mix always softens the guitar attack," explains Easterling. "When you decide, 'Let's get heavier because it's more fun to play that way,' the little spots where keyboards fit in keep getting smaller and smaller--you start writing towards guitar."
For example, "Dark Red Autumn" rides on dense chromatic chord clusters that intermingle with the background vocals into one gorgeous hum, sounding not unlike HYsker DY. Plus, its terrific fade-out captures all the beauty and sorrow of dead-of-night longing.
Easterling writes all of the Jennys' lyrics and brings songs into rehearsals in various stages of completion for the band to flesh out. This loose approach can induce a mild case of musical schizophrenia, and, not surprisingly, Dandelion moves from crunch to calm midway through its 10 songs. "I Don't Forget," the only occasion on the album that Hinders takes over as lead vocalist, more closely resembles the work of a pop band such as Material Issue than it does Dandelion's heavier opening tracks. Ditto for the sugary "This Is Pop," an homage of sorts to fragile XTC front man Andy Partridge that Easterling gave the same title as an early XTC single.
"Yeah," sighs drummer Hessel, "but getting songwriters to change titles is kind of taboo."
Easterling doesn't even attempt to conceal his huge XTC fandom. "I've got a sealed copy of their Mummer album, which I've never heard," Easterling says with a smile. "The day they stop making records, I'll have a new one to listen to."
Like XTC, one of the Jennys' biggest assets has been the way the band consistently pulls off the incredibly intricate harmonies of its studio recordings in a live setting.
"I'm an advocate of as many vocal parts as possible," notes bassist Doiron, who bemoaned the loss of a fourth voice when the band was whittled down to a trio. "If harmonies aren't controlled, they can be overkill. But if it is controlled, it's very satisfying to me."
Doiron linked up with Easterling in 1990 in a band called Trash Cadillac, a short-lived offshoot of the hugely popular local outfit the Strand. When Strand/Trash Cadillac lead singer Bruce Connole left, Easterling took over principal vocal chores, and Spinning Jenny was born.
Hessel, who didn't sign on until '95, recalls, "There was quite a big buzz about the band right off the bat. Coming from such a popular band, they got a lot of critical notice and won Best Alternative Band in the Arizona Republic in 1994. Funnily enough, I never saw them until I joined, but I remember hearing them from outside of Long Wong's and thinking they sounded very Beatley."
The band's popularity continued to grow, swelling with the release of Pinata Full of Bees, which garnered a four-star review in Audities Magazine. Drawing raves from diehard power-pop publications such as Audities should have come as no surprise, however, because Spinning Jenny was the Valley's most militant pop band, writing songs that champion the form in its classic sense--three-minute manifestos with lush harmonies--while simultaneously sarcastically peppering the songs' lyrics with passing-fancy buzz words such as samples and alternative. For a time last year, the Jennys even hosted Pop Explosion nights with other like-minded bands at whatever club it happened to be playing.
That modern pop music has moved away from the melodic pleasures the Jennys always have embraced is a sore spot for bassist Doiron, whose insistent bass playing and grim head-nodding provide a compelling onstage focal point. That sentiment is channeled quite effectively on the new CD's "Pop My Heart," wherein some "smart guy" is giving the band "you-and-what-army" admonishments: "Everybody wants to jump in the pit, Pop Boy. Are you a chicken?"
"I've taken a hiatus from listening to the radio," Doiron avers, just after some of the other band members have finished rattling off the names of their current musical favorites. "I let them [radio programmers] sort out what they wanna call music. It's real hard for me to listen to the radio, because I think I should be on it."
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At least television looms large in the Jennys' future. A producer took a liking to the band's Web site (www.thejennys.com) and e-mailed them. The band, in turn, sent him a Pinata CD, which he loved and thought would be the perfect soundtrack to an upcoming eight-part PBS series called The Invisible Universe. "It's about people and their fear of math," explains Hessel. "It's geared to high school students." Currently, a deal is in the works with PBS to use all 10 songs from the CD.
Meanwhile, the band plans to embark upon an extensive regional tour slated to promote Dandelion. Listening to the new album with the cheap wisdom of hindsight, Hessel admits it is the product of two distinctly different bands in two distinctly different periods. After Hinders' split, there was some talk of pulling Dandelion's release and reworking it, but the Jennys ultimately issued it as a thank-you gesture to the people who supported the group these past two years. And a follow-up might not be far behind.
"We've been writing a lot of new songs," says Hessel, "and that's why we're really anxious to turn out another CD behind this one as quickly as possible. One that sounds like one band: the Jennys."
The Jennys are scheduled to perform on Friday, May 23, at Long Wong's in Tempe; and on Wednesday, May 28, at Martini Ranch in Scottsdale. Call for showtimes.