What were you doing in 1994? Whatever it was, it’s the rare few of you who haven’t been changed indelibly since then.
So it is with Rustic Overtones, that collection of rock, pop, ska, R&B, jazz, and classical musicians who’ve become a comfort food of local music, and yet find themselves grappling with how to go forward following the most indelible of changes – the shocking and sudden death this spring of Dave Noyes, the band’s trombonist, arranger, and so much more.
They have, of course, had line-up changes before in their eight-album, 25-year career. Of the current six-piece configuration (the keyboard chair at the moment seems to be a rotating guest spot), just frontman Dave Gutter, bassist Jon Roods, and baritone saxophonist Jason Ward could be considered “original” members. Heck, they took a five-year hiatus during which most people assumed they were over for good, before re-emerging in 2007.
But with their new album, to be released Friday, Nov. 29, we have the distinct experience of listening to them mourn in public. That it is self-titled would indicate a rebirth, but the way forward is built not simply on their memories of Noyes, but on actual demo tracks and voice recordings he left behind.
Their emotional ties to the album have whip-sawed. It began as a cool Noyes-led, mid-career indulgence where they explore influences generated by a recent obsession with Brazilian psychedelia (this is a fun rabbit hole: Os Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, Jorge Ben Jor, Lucas Santtana, etc.). Now it serves as a memorial, each song fraught with more meaning than the last.
But Noyes would never have wanted it to be anything other than fun and enjoyable and cool and smart and they have delivered in impressive fashion. This is easily their best work since their return; they have mastered a combination of their fire-breathing roots and new elegant sophistication, all balled up with a powerful nostalgia that gives everything an emotional charge.
Take “In Your Bed,” a ska-popping mid-album track that reads on the surface like a love note: “Can I just get in your bed? … Anything’s better than spending this time without you.”
But Gutter’s vocals have a deep-seated need that calls to mind Police-era Sting and every “you” gathers more consequence in its repetition. It’s a powerful treatise on loss, on missing someone so painfully you’ll do anything just to breathe in their scent.
The slow swing of Lucas Desmond’s alto sax above the bouncing keyboards moves into a full solo in the finish, where Roods’ bass line arcs up and down, like an answer to a question you wish wasn’t true.
Similarly, it’s easy to see “Black Shirt” as simply a great new crowd-pleaser for the live sets, with a thrumming and insisting bass line that ripples through the soles of your feet and some classic Gutter vocals, clipped and bracing, barking out lyrics that feature a progressive chorus.
But it’s hard not to think of that old Morrissey line: “I wear black on the outside, cuz black is how I feel on the inside.”
You might even think the opening “An Ode to Nodes” is a sort of jokey and syrupy – new trombonist Jamie Colpoys laying it on thick – with a bit of melody that will remind longtime fans of “Feast or Famine,” until you listen closely to the finish. There’s a distorted rhythm line, almost like an irregular heartbeat, and then Noyes explaining: “Then I go to the minor here and get out of it.” And he does.
Fans and friends and people “in the scene” will be emotionally struck. The realization that the album’s closing horn part is an actual recording of the musicians who closed Noyes’ funeral stopped me in my tracks. And yet casual fans just giving the album a spin, or adding a song to a playlist, will simply experience a cool and imaginative exploration of jazzy, slippery rock that delivers great dance tunes and lounge-y singalongs.
As they sang on their last album, “the show must go on.” We should be thankful, even if it’s the hardest way possible.
Sam Pfeifle wrote the weekly “Beat Report” for the Portland Phoenix from 2001-2014, is excited to be home, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Best of Rustic
New to Rustic Overtones? We’ve got you covered. Here are five tunes guaranteed to get you out to their next live show:
• “Simple Song” — From 1995’s “Long Division,” this isn’t the very beginning, but it’s foundational. The opening verse from Dave Gutter, accompanied by just a bit of electric guitar, sets the emotional hook,
then the fat-bottomed horn lines reel you in: “Love is my wine and you can drink it till you’re drunk/ You ain’t got shit if you ain’t got funk.” Indeed.
• “Hardest Way Possible” — This song appears three times in the Rustic catalog – on “Rooms by the Hour,” “Viva Nueva,” and “Light at the End” – each with a tweak. The general consensus is that “Light at the End” is the way the band really wants it to sound, but I’m partial to the version I first heard, on “Rooms.” Regardless, it’s emblematic of the kind of intricate orchestration that is a Rustic hallmark.
• “Combustible” — From “Viva Nueva,” their full-studio-production album, this has become a frequent encore at shows and is often accompanied by a trip into the audience by Gutter. If you don’t get off on shouting “combustible” four times at the top of your lungs, this band is maybe not for you.
• “Carsick” — The last gasp of Spencer Albee spacey keyboards, from “Light at the End,” and the beginning of the Rustic comeback from their five-year separation, this song is both sweetly romantic and a rave-up, all in one. If I could bottle Jason Ward’s baritone sax here, I’d drink it for breakfast every morning.
• “Martyrs” — While there are still plenty of rockers in the new material, this is a good example of the thoughtful, melodic, but still interestingly complex pieces the Overtones have introduced in their second career. The element of nostalgia has wormed its way in and suffuses much of their new record.
Want more? Check out this Spotify playlist of the Overtones’ greatest hits:
— Sam Pfeifle