Pop songs, more often than not, employ a narrative. The lyrics tell a story: a tale of broken hearts, a paranoid ditty, an adolescent anecdote. Choruses and solos fill the gaps and tidy the proceedings by song's end.
Yet Glendale's quirky Rum Tenor may just make you reconsider that conventional wisdom. The roots-soaked sextet challenges the pop norm by creating narratives without relying solely on words. Not all of Rum Tenor's songs are descriptive instrumentals -- some are variations on the straightahead country ballad. The songs that do weave wordless, atmospheric impressions reveal this band's true strength, however.
Considering the unusual size of the band, Tenor's cohesive transitions between the tragic and the beautiful are noteworthy for the way they are selflessly executed. A preternatural maturity seeps through their songwriting. No one player in the band walks over anyone else or indulges in instrumental origami. Rather, it's the band's minimal arrangements and deliberate pacing that allow Rum Tenor to turn a room's silence into a work of art.
"I think the hardest part for us creatively is not when to play, but when not to play," elaborates drummer Bobby Lundberg, also a group vocalist on those rare lyrical occasions. "What we shoot for is more space. We also like the fact that we can have seven or eight guys onstage and the parts with the space stand out so much more than when we're all playing at the same time."
Rum Tenor consists of five other permanent members: bassist Bill Cole; violinist David Sleigh; multi-instrumentalists Jay Hufman and Jeremy Randall (he plays the singing saw); and pedal-steel guitarist and banjo player Matt Wiser.
The band will release its first full-length album, Song for Charlie and the Girls Who Took His Picture, during a CD-release party scheduled for January 29 at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Several other musicians contributed to the disc, playing moody instruments such as the vibraphone, clavinet and melodica. The album will be self-released on the band's label, Bleak House Recordings.
The album sounds like pieces of a soundtrack for a movie that does not yet exist. The melancholic tone of Rum Tenor's songs pushes through swelling crescendos and gloomy dimuendos, moving the listener along a seemingly chronological tour of a depressive's fractured mind. It's not all that surprising, then, that the band lists Tucson's Calexico as an influence. Calexico's mariachi-spiked folk rock has been fittingly labeled "desert noir"; it's tough not to put a label name like Bleak House under that shadowy designation.
The songs "Country Chorus in a New York Taxi" and "Endless Summer" from Song for Charlie . . . showcase the ability of Rum Tenor to shut up when it's most necessary, even with all those instruments playing at once. "Country Chorus" offers a galloping arrangement that expands into sweeping musical vistas -- and then closes into quiet isolation.
"Endless Summer" is a signature song for the band. The tune uses repetition to build tension. Randall's work on the vibraphone occasionally supplies the song with a breezy release, but mostly it's an airtight composition that builds on itself. Lundberg's gentle brush-drumming and Cole's thrumming bass are at work here, too, and Randall masterfully loops a repeating solo on his Epiphone that is barely audible behind the drums, bass, guitar and pedal-steel. David Sleigh's intense violin is also repeated for obsessive effect.
The intensity "Endless Summer" produces is comparable to the terrifying work Kronos Quartet did for Darren Aronofsky's brutal, drug-addled film Requiem for a Dream. "Endless Summer" isn't a terrifying song, but it shares a psychological sentiment with Requiem's soundtrack that suggests Rum Tenor's compositions have the ability to carry a narrative even if that narrative isn't explicitly stated.
At least for this listener, picking up on Randall's sparse guitar work on "Endless Summer" is a gateway into Rum Tenor's subtlety and nuance. Lundberg attributes that to Randall's addiction to nicotine.
"Jeremy says that he smokes so much onstage he's not able to play a lot. We always make sure to bring him an extra pack of cigarettes to keep him from playing through all the songs all the time," Lundberg jokes.
Lundberg likes to spread the credit. Bassist Bill Cole, according to the drummer, supplies a solid bottom to the songs, which has allowed the band to transcend its first incarnation as what Lundberg calls "Muzak."
"Bill is the best bass player in the whole world," Lundberg says cheekily. "He's what makes Rum Tenor's music listenable."
Cole's background lies in Motown and funk, making him something of an odd man out in this band.
"It's easy for me to be overly busy," says Cole of his bass playing, "so I've learned to practice restraint playing in this form."
If there's a physical presence in the group that personifies Rum Tenor's sound, it's pedal-steel player Matt Wiser. Not only are his droning chords a proper touch of spook, but his hunched-over, expressionless figure onstage is a talisman to the band's melancholy. He also looks like he's blind, hulking over his instrument.
Apparently, his stage intensity isn't a coincidence. Asked Wiser how he wants his music received by the band's audience, and you get this response: "I want them to hurt . . . real deep inside."
Can't say the rest of Rum Tenor wishes for a desperate crowd, but it does at least reach that cathartic place live you can feel in the pit of your stomach. For that reason alone, the band is just too soothing to accuse them of any real ill will.
Along with Lundberg, Rum Tenor also acknowledges Jay Hufman as a leader. Hufman stands out as a songwriter and uses the mostly unused microphone to lead "We're Home" -- the first track on the new disc. "We're Home" is country-blues and is far, very far, from Hufman's Floridian punk roots -- he shared the sunny scene there with such grind-core notables as Ass Suck. During live performances, Hufman also sings a honky-tonk cover of R.E.M.'s "Rockville."
Usually, the band riffs off what Jay has put together during its practices.
"We gather every week in a room once used to hang meat, and set up our instruments," says Lundberg. "Jay, being punctual as well as studious, is set up first and begins to pick out chords on his amplified acoustic guitar that he'd written the night before while I set up my drums. Then as other members show up and set up, they start to play along."
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Another notable song with lyrics -- which was left off Charlie -- is "The Saint of Rio Bendo." Lundberg sings on this track in a register approaching a tenor. Cole's bass polkas behind a banjo, and Wiser engages his pedal-steel in an unusually uplifting mood. "Rio Bendo" is about as cheerful as Rum Tenor gets and would have added a welcomed moment of levity to the album.
At the moment, Rum Tenor is looking for ways to expand its audience and earn gigs outside the Valley but has yet to master the art of self-promotion. Instead of sending material to interested venues, Lundberg sends e-mails describing Tenor's sound. When asked to recall how he described Rum Tenor in one of those promotional e-mails, Lundberg replied quickly and ironically, "Gay bluegrass country." It's a statement that's more self-effacing than it is smart-ass.
Clearly, Lundberg and friends don't take themselves too seriously, and while they're earnest about their songs and their playing, they understand how difficult it can be for an anomaly to find shows with traditional rock bands.
Even so, Lundberg keeps his hopes up -- and issues a challenge: "Look out! We're going to come light-rock your town!"