Jim the Mule started recording its second studio album, Last Solid Ground, in March 2007, and a rough mix was finished in August.
And then the Quad Cities quartet had to do a big chunk of it again.
A catastrophic computer crash resulted in the loss of half of the tracks. The band recovered nearly all the bass and drums, and a few other snippets - one guitar track on a solo, a backing vocal, the pedal steel on "Three Feet High," for example. The rest was gone.
"There was actually a lot of stuff left over," said guitarist and lead singer Tom Swanson. "It was just scraps and bits and pieces." (I consider Swanson a friend, although he might feel different. He's also a former Reader employee, and he can't deny that.)
The loss was a fortunate accident, Swanson said last week. Although the band no longer had all the component parts of the record, they did have that initial mix from co-producer Justin Farley, and they got to spend some quality time with that rough cut of the record.
"It is the best thing that could've happened to the album," Swanson said. "We got to listen to the thing for two and a half months straight before we even went back in the studio. ... The main benefit of it was that the performances are better, but also I think the tones are better, too, because we had time to go back and beat everything up."
The band - Swanson, guitarist Dan Videtich, bassist Jason Gilliland, and drummer Ryan Koning - returned to the studio with more live experience with the songs, and with some ideas for new recording techniques.
The differences won't be obvious to the casual listener, Gilliland said, but they're there in the dynamics. Swanson recorded each track with two amps instead of one, for example. And multiple microphones gave the band more flexibility in fine-tuning the sound; they could turn the "room" sound up or down, depending on what the songs needed.
Last Solid Ground is a smart rock record with country in its veins, like a scuffed-up Old 97's. While the band's 2005 self-titled album felt comfortable and familiar, the new record is loaded with pleasant surprises, from the opening a cappella intro of "Shoot the Moon" to the cowbell-and-hook majesty of "Three Feet High" to the raw emotion and airy reverb of Videtich's "Am I Awake."
There's still plenty of swampy stomp and twang, and Videtich's slide guitar serves as a strong anchor. But the combination of playfulness, variety, and detail reveals something richer than a compelling country-rock album.
"Orange & Brown" features light percussion and a watery guitar effect under its patient slide guitar, and Swanson's singing has an almost pleading tone, seemingly seducing a woman by putting her down: "Talkin' off your underwear / You were such a pretty girl / But that's neither here nor there / Check your defunct crown."
The lyrics, particularly those by Swanson, remain appealingly opaque. "Justification Portion" is a bit of shit-kicking nonsense that's nonetheless evocative: "You've got a bandage on your foot / A chip on your shoulder / Disease on your mind / No light to read with / No pen to write."
For all the evident care and attention put into Last Solid Ground, the band doesn't have delusions. Its members aren't 18 and won't be hitting the road for months on end; they don't expect to win a worldwide audience. Swanson said he'd be happy with a little national exposure.
And while the band makes enough money to pay expenses such as a gas and hotels, nobody's getting rich.
Swanson said jokingly that the band lost $4 last year, and Gilliland quickly added: "But the year before that we made four dollars."
Jim the Mule will perform a CD-release concert at the Capitol Theatre on Friday, August 1. The show starts at 8 p.m., and The Dawn will open. Advance tickets are $3 from the Capitol box office and Co-op Records, and admission is $5 at the door.