Thankfully, the extended legal tussle that took place between the Honeydogs' former label, Mercury, and their new imprint, Palm, didn't claim this album as a victim, thus robbing us of a dark masterpiece and 2001's first truly noteworthy record.
Tellingly, the group -- which recorded some 18 songs during the Here's Luck sessions, including more conventional roots versions of several numbers -- has ditched its comfortable Americana overalls in favor of a decidedly more ornate ensemble. In doing so, the band has thrown down the gauntlet to Wilco (currently preparing a much-anticipated release for the fall), the Jayhawks and any other alt-country-gone-pop contenders for the title of "album of the year."
Much of the somber tenor of Here's Luck is the result of the arduous circumstances surrounding the recording of the album (see interview below) but more specifically with the cycle of songs that group front man Adam Levy penned, the bulk of them composed on piano. Not that Seen a Ghost was exactly an exercise in sunny joie de vivre -- just listen to "Those Things Are Hers" or "Sans Sucre" for proof -- but somehow Luck seems a more intrinsically satisfying merger of music and lyrics than anything in the band's catalogue.
From the mournful opener "Stonewall," it's clear that Levy has decided to replace the dizzying mirth of early Honeydogs tracks like "That's Me" and "Tell Me" with a sharpened sense of the grinding, often defeating realties of the day to day.
Overall, the mood on Luck is not so much black as it is varying shades of gray. The foreboding sense of desolation captured on "Wilson Boulevard" ("A piece of string, holding everything together/Unraveling, about to give way") hints at the coming emotional pall of "Hearts & Heads" ("I was a ticket out of boredom/I was something to do with your hands and mouth") and the absent-minded fatalism of "The Crown" ("Come hell or high water you're going down/Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown").
Elsewhere, the Mott-esque church organ and soaring guitar lines that color the album's brilliant centerpiece "Pins in Dolls" ("You bought a bridge last night, now you're watching it burn/How could you see the light, if your back was turned?") proves the group's capacity for turning out melodious melancholia. No litany of flowery adjectives could do better to describe the song than to simply say it provides the same thrill as hearing "All the Young Dudes" for the first time.
From start to finish, Luck showcases Levy's remarkable gift for painting detailed images -- "Standing with my black socks on, looking just like a busted john" -- with a maximum of verbal economy, especially when surveying the emotional debris left in the wake of heartbreak.
Indeed, much of the themes here surround the lives of people standing on the societal and emotional fringes. To wit: "Freakshow," an elegiac paean to misconstrued oddballs everywhere; the bitter romantic misfits captured in "Sour Grapes"; the tortured and torch-bearing ex left behind in "For the Tears."
Helping shape the Honeydogs' opus is producer John "Strawberry" Fields (Evan and Jaron, the Hang Ups), who takes Levy's bleak dirges and melds them with his own well-defined Anglophilia and meticulous sonic values. The result is an odd but effective synthesis -- sort of like combining the visceral lyricism of a Harry Nilsson or a Randy Newman with the grandiloquent production aesthetic of Todd Rundgren, circa XTC's Skylarking.
Fields trades Ghost's crying pedal steel and soothing swells of fiddle for washes of Wurlitzer, Chamberlain strings, Mellotron and other twiddly bits of noise that make brief, memorable cameos -- the looped drop-out at the end "Freakshow," the electronic swirls on the album's stately coda of "Chasing the Sun" -- all over the record.
The balance of the disc is like a trip though the well-worn vinyl of a discerning record collector: the vocals-through-Leslie trick on "Red Dye #40"; the a cappella intro to "Losing Transmissions," which tips its fireman's hat to Brian Wilson's Smile-opener "Our Prayer" (actually, the snippet is the bridge of "For the Tears" turned backward -- itself a neat little Beatley tribute); the baroque curlicues and effusive violas that turn up everywhere else.
Given the problems and behind-the-scenes business wrangling it took for the record to be made and released, the listening public should feel fortunate that this album -- a triumphant piece of orch pop grandeur -- has finally seen the light of day. Here's Luck, indeed.
New Times talks to the Honeydogs' Adam Levy
New Times: Tell me a little bit about the circumstances of making this record. It seems like the process played a big part in how the album ended up sounding.
Adam Levy: We made the record in the fall of '98 and at that time it was not clear whether we were going to have a deal or not. We had been through a bumpy six months with Mercury. They were kind of hot and cold on us. So we were really surprised when they handed us a pot of money and said "Go in the studio" and didn't really give us any parameters.
We spent about two months in a very insulated setting where neither the label or our management got to hear what we were doing; we didn't really invite friends. We just closed ourselves off intentionally. It was very different from the previous record we'd made, Seen a Ghost, which was a very fun record to do; we partied all night long and had friends come in and play and sing with us. This time we felt like we sort of wanted to lock the rest of the world out and didn't really care about anybody's opinion. So it became kind of an experiment in self-indulgence.
NT: It also sounds like it was a particularly bleak period in a lot of ways for you guys personally.
AL: Well, it wasn't a fun record to make by any stretch of the imagination. [Longtime guitarist] Tommy [Borscheid] had left the band about a month earlier. [Bassist] Trent [Norton] had just had an anaphylactic seizure just like five days before we went into the studio and he was just coming out of a coma -- basically down for the count. We weren't sure he was going to make it at all. The doctors were saying brain damage -- at the very best [Norton recovered fully several weeks later]. So we didn't know if we were going to be able to even make a record. So when we were in the studio there was a certain amount of leeriness about the record deal and the state of the band. I was about to have a baby as well. It was definitely a crisis period in the life of the band, so the mood of making the record was a bit darker too.
NT: Sonically, Here's Luck is a clear departure from Seen a Ghost. Was that something you had planned from the outset?
AL: We've always tried to outdo ourselves, push the envelope with each record. In a lot of ways this record is a logical progression for us from [1996's] Everything, I Bet You back to the first record. This time we wanted to have bigger string arrangements. I was writing a lot of songs on piano and it just felt natural. And a lot of the feels and tempos on this record you don't have on previous records.
NT: There are a lot of pop music signposts on the album: the Beach Boys nod at the beginning of "Losing Transmissions"; the Mott the Hoople vibe on "Pins in Dolls" . . .
AL: Definitely, the record is like sedimented music listening over the last 25 years. It's just a lot of the stuff I grew up hearing. It's a rereading and butchering of the old stuff we all loved listening to.
NT: Your day job for the last decade or so has been as a social worker. What type of work have you been doing specifically?
AL: Mostly working with refugees, immigrants from Somalia. Before that it was doing job placement with kids in high school, juvenile correction system employment and counseling, welfare reform with teens on AFDC. Yeah, it's been interesting juggling the two sides of myself.
NT: Have those experiences found their way into your lyrics at all? I'm thinking specifically of some of the imagery in songs like "Red Dye #40" and "Freakshow."
AL: Well, I don't ever want somebody to come up to me and say, "Wow that's my story." It's more like turns of phrases, expressions I've heard from the kids or little stories of things they'd gone through. Yeah, they do kind of seep into the writing.
NT: It's been close to three years since you recorded Here's Luck. I understand the layoff has been a pretty productive period writing-wise. Is the next album going to continue in the same direction as this one?
AL: Oh, yeah. Actually, the new record is taking shape as a story.
NT: You mean as far as a concept album?
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AL: To me it's more like the process of writing a novel, in that I'm kind of feeling a responsibility to the material to keep things together and cohesive. But who knows? By the time we make it, we may end up scrambling the whole thing up.
AL: Early on it was kind of hard to put a name on the record; it's always a hard, daunting thing. We actually have a running list, but most of them are too obscene to ever repeat (laughs). But for this one -- it was about six months after we'd finished. I was reading my son a passage from Treasure Island and there's this part where a pirate walks into a bar and he's missing a leg and an arm and all his teeth -- basically just falling apart. And tattooed on his bicep are the words "Here's Luck." Somehow it just seemed appropriate (laughs).