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|The Family Business: Roman Candle, August 29 at Huckleberry’s|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Written by Jeff Ignatius|
|Wednesday, 26 August 2009 15:33|
Roman Candle has had bad luck following good fortune in the music business, and it's almost certainly more frustrating than just-plain-rotten luck.
What was supposed to be the group's major-label debut, on a Hollywood Records subsidiary, was shelved for nearly three years despite persistent buzz about the band and the record. The long-time-coming album prompted Pitchfork to call Roman Candle "one of the great unsubstantiated rumors of modern pop-rock."
V2 Records eventually bought the masters and put out the CD, The Wee Hours Revue, in 2006. But that label was effectively closed seven months later. It was at that point that the members of Roman Candle had an epiphany.
The band - brothers Skip (guitar and vocals) and Logan (drums) Matheny, and Skip's wife Timshel (Wurlitzer and Farfisa) - was in the United Kingdom in early 2007. Somebody offered to babysit for Skip and Timshel, and they decided to see Tom Stoppard's play Rock 'n' Roll, which concerns rock music and Czechoslovakian Cold War politics.
"Our record label had just shut down, and we were kind of reexamining starting over with a new record with no label, and we already had a really long run of bad luck in the music business with labels ... ," Skip said last week, promoting the band's Daytrotter.com show on Saturday at Huckleberry's. "And it was incredibly inspirational to learn about all these folks ... . [The Czech band] The Plastic People of the Universe ... were totally underground. ... They were making music not to have any sort of success or any sort of attention ... . They were just playing music because that's what they kind of had to do ... that act of making music just for its own sake ... ."
The North Carolina-based band was in the early stages of making its next record - what would become Oh Tall Tree in the Ear, which was released in May 2009 on the Nashville label Carnival - and Skip said the play provided some clarity. "You have to kind of dig around and figure out who you're writing for ... ," he said.
Roman Candle's sound is amorphous, earthy rock and roll, simultaneously literate and passionate. The label "Americana" often seems lazy and vague, but it's appropriate for the band's not-quite-here-and-not-quite-there rock. Skip's voice drives, soars, hopes, and laments, and while he's not a great singer, he is often a great rock vocalist - full of heat that gives the lyrics an impromptu quality and still able to articulate clearly. While much of Oh Tall Tree in the Ear is musically subdued, "One More Road" shows him to be a fiery guitarist, as well.
"Why Modedern Radio Is A-OK" could be just another screed against the whippersnappers, but Roman Candle turns a tired refrain into a story and an anthem about the painful associations of great songs: "Don't play Neil Young, and don't play Van Morrison / Just let some high-school emo band start versin' and chorusin' / Because there's no way it'll break my heart as far as I can see / And that's why modern radio is A-okay with me."
The band has a longstanding relationship with Chris Stamey (of the dB's, and the producer of Whiskeytown's Faithless Street), and "he's always got a finger in whatever we're doing, by our choice," Skip said. Stamey co-produced the new album with Jason Lehning, whom the band chose after talking with several producers because he was "a family fit for us."
That's a recurring theme for the group. Skip's and Timshel's children (ages two and four) travel with the band, as do Skip's and Logan's parents (both retired schoolteachers), who take care of the kids during shows, making it even more of a family affair than it already was. "It's our version of being in a band," Skip said. "Lots of people develop heroin habits. And we just have kids."
The children, Skip said, are excellent sounding boards, and if a song makes it on a Roman Candle record, you can be sure that the young ones approved: "The reason that kids are great judges of rock and roll is that they get it on that [primal] level that you're trying to get back to." From the Isley Brothers to Animal Collective's "Brother Sport" ("a total kids' song," Skip said), children know good rock music.
"We run all of our music by our kids," he said, "and if they're bored with it, chances are other people will be bored with it."
Roman Candle decided to release four EPs with Oh Tall Tree in the Ear, inspired by British singles with an album A side and "three kind of listenable B sides ... a fun little piece of art," Skip said. Three have been released so far, and they're available for free (at the lowest bit rate) on the band's Web site. (You can also purchase higher-bit-rate versions.)
"We had to do something that didn't take us 40,000 years to put out," he said, noting that two of the EPs were released a day after being recorded. Skip called that experience "incredibly gratifying considering our history in the music business."
Roman Candle will perform on Saturday, August 29, at Huckleberry's (223 18th Street in Rock Island). Gringo Starr will also perform, and the all-ages show starts at 7 p.m. Admission is $5.
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