Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Team Spirit

We're in This Thing Together
Rich Restaino & The Obits

Rich Restaino & The Obits were one of the first bands I ever listened to for a Demo Sweat. They're still one of my favorites, with the willfully anachronistic love of vocal harmony and sophisticated arrangements we share. As many nice things as I've written about the band in the past, before having the chance to really inhabit their new CD We're in This Thing Together I believe I've sold them short. I recognized Restaino from the first as a disciplined songwriter whose central late-70's influences gave him an unfashionable, two-level approach: big, wide melodies, simple rock changes, and sugary vocal hooks for people listening on AM radio through crackling car speakers; unfathomable depths of backing vocals and additional instrumentation for those who like to spin LP's with headphones on. Most people don't listen to records any longer, and hardly anybody music on AM radio, so there's a appealingly perverse charm to the style.

The early, tentpole tracks on This Thing Together continue in the vein I've come to expect from Rich & The Obits. Opener "Spirit of the Law" and "Susie" are songwriter-pop a la Joe Jackson with the backing vocals and embellishments tracing basic classic rock structures. "Best Friend" despite its melodica lead-in shows the truth of the album's title -- for music more about the sum of its many parts than any one performer, every ingredient in the mix must click. The patly obvious story and choruses to "Best Friend" are below Restaino's standard.

As the album matures, a different picture of the band emerges. As The Obits start sharing around lead vocals and including material by members besides the leader and friends, they develop a distinct character of their own. Those of you who are music fans but without much experience playing in bands may not appreciate how much the cult of personality comes into play with a rock group way before the screaming hordes and the champagne dreams. Before you can even play a show, you have convince other people to play with you. You have to teach songs, you have to schedule practices and enforce attendance at them, and you have to keep everybody feeling involved and happy at the same time. Doing this with a four-piece band is difficult. An eight-piece band? Ridiculous. With their guest horn players The Obits are fielding enough musicians to go five-on-five. Restaino must be doing something right.

Vocalist Sara Shansky's "Turn Key" is a smoky, smartly distinct use of the band's three-part flapper harmonies. And if it's not the most memorable song in existence, guitarist Hunt Wellborn's "Too Slow" is notable for a truly inspired howl of a lead vocal. "Save It for the B-Side" might be the highlight of the record, at least from a rock writer's perspective -- its lyrics condemn hack-y pop singles. Other than just making room for other people's songs, We're in This Thing Together as it spreads out and dabbles in new styles in its back half seems to really draw on the strengths and talents of everyone in the expanded band. They move past playing current rock (with unusually old-fashioned influences) to really burying themselves in early pop history, from Chuck Berry to the Andrews Sisters. "Friendly Traveller" has a beautiful, peaceful chromatic horn line that suits it lyrical themes just so. "The Staying Kind" digs in doo-wop like Billy Joel at his most digestible. "Sallie Mae" is a simple acoustic duet that sells its very blunt subject with a convincingly truthful performance from its singers.

Bassist Alexei Sefchick, who also co-produces with Restaino, gives things a commanding, Jamerson-acolyte bounce. The mix, which tries to strike a balance between making everything clearly audible and also being a fair approximation of what the band really sounds like, does so at the expense of the drums and the rhythm guitar. To document a gargantuan band within the limitations of digital formats is so difficult that bands of this type have completely fallen out of fashion since CD's eclipsed LP's. I admire them for trying, and I forgive the slightly cool, practiced feel that comes of getting all these many crucial elements stacked up right. I'm intrigued more than ever to see them live to see if they have a fire to match their high creative level.

Tonight at 6 Rich Restaino & The Obits are appearing in-studio on KOOP 91.7's Writing on the Air program. That's less than an hour from now as I'm writing this Wednesday, but if you miss it live the old shows go up as podcasts on the Writing on the Air page. The program usually has prose writers talking about their work, but to increase the degree of difficulty the producers are having in the whole darn band. They're going to be talking about their music in addition to playing it, so it may be of particular interest. From the evidence on their record there must be a wealth of good storytellers in this band.

1 comment:

  1. I sincerely appreciate your thorough and thoughtful review. I find it hard to argue with anything. I've achieved enough distance from "our baby" to take what you have written in the best possible way . . . although the Billy Joel reference (digestible or not) chills me. . . Gotta say I was hoping more for Dion! : )I'm so pleased to see you give deserved space and accolades to songs by Sara, Hunt, and Zimmy T. However, keyboardist Lloyd Wright deserves mention. Thanks again, Westy. I'll keep reading. Hope we cross paths this SXSW week!