THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT. 6: Winter Hours

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An evocation of a time, a place and a musical fever dream: the late, great ‘80s New Jersey pop band will never be forgotten. [UPDATE: We’ve just learned of the sudden and tragic passing of guitarist Michael Carlucci on Oct. 29.]

BY FRED MILLS

Ed. note: For this installment of my ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: archival interviews with Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley and Green On Red) I’ve decided to resurrect liner notes I penned back in 2008 for a Winter Hours tribute album. Titled A Few Uneven Rhymes and issued by the Main Man Records label, it was a 2CD collection dedicated to the late, great New Jersey folk-rock/power pop quintet. The record assembled the likes of Dumptruck’s Seth Tiven, the Violent Femmes, Gordon Gano, Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws, the Feelies’ Glenn Mercer and Translator’s Steve Barton, additionally including a track by East Of Venus (featuring W.H. alumni Michael Carlucci and Stanley Demeski along with Mercer and the Bongos’ Rob Norris) plus a previously unreleased 1989 Winter Hours demo. Clearly a work of love by all concerned, including yours truly, it was intended to finally give the ‘80s New Jersey outfit its due—and, in particular, honor charismatic vocalist Joe Marques, who had tragically passed away in 2003 from a drug overdose.

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       As longtime BLURT contributor Jud Cost put it in his review of the album, “[Many of the ‘80s] bands, including Winter Hours, survived longer than common sense would have predicted. It was a wonderful era, full of weekly surprises, that won’t come again. Here’s a chance to get a real taste of those halcyon days, maybe for the last time.”

       Indeed. It’s hard to fully convey the loyalty and love that Winter Hours generated among fans, but back in the mid ‘80s we clung, sometimes desperately, to “our” bands, and when one of them broke up we felt the loss deeply. Getting together in 1983 in the Jersey town of Lyndhurst, the group’s classic lineup featured Marques, Carlucci on guitar, Bob Perry on guitars and vocals, Bob Messing on bass, and John Albanese on drums. And Winter Hours appeared to have arrived fully formed, on the evidence of debut 12” Churches, what with its overtones of vintage folk-rock—the EP even included a cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”— and pristine Byrdsian jangle. Two more 12”ers followed, 1986’s The Confessional and, most notably, the stunning Wait Till the Morning EP which featured the title track and “Hyacinth Girl,” both destined to become timeless classics of the jangle-pop milieu, the type of songs you find yourself playing over and over because they sound better each time. That 12” and the Leaving Time debut longplayer, also issued in ’86 by the small regional indie Link Records, were rapturously received at college radio, as was the 1988 12” Say the Word, leading to a deal with major label Chrysalis, which released the group’s self-titled second album in 1989.

        Meanwhile the group was touring the East Coast regularly and I was lucky enough to see them several times in Charlotte, NC, where I was living for most of the decade and became friends with the bandmembers (notably Carlucci who I still reconnect with from time to time thanks to the miracle of the Internet). Chrysalis, unfortunately, could never figure out how to break the band nationally—recall how, by ’89, a noisier, far more unruly sound was rearing its head across the country in Seattle, and as Let’s Active Mitch Easter so famously remarked to me, by the end of the ‘80s if you came out holding a 12-string you were asking to get your ass kicked—and the law of diminishing returns gradually conspired to make the band throw in the towel.

Yet though Winter Hours lasted less than a decade and only released a handful of records, the music endures and rarely do any of the songs sound dated. And then, that was it—at least until the tribute project came along, followed a couple of years later by Arena Rock’s expanded CD reissue of Winter Hours, thereby making it possible for a new generation to discover the group’s beauty and brilliance anew. The fact that so many of the artists on the trib were contemporaries of the band is additional testimony to the love and loyalty I mentioned above.

        There’s not a ton of info about Winter Hours on the web, although guitarist Carlucci has set up a very nice Facebook page for the band that features a slew of photos, some of which I’ve reproduced here. There’s also a decent article about the band at the NJ.com website, occasioned upon the release of the tribute, so I’ll just leave you with that along with my own words from 2008, below, which are less a history of the group and more an appreciation—not to mention an evocation of an era that is long gone but never fails to generate fond memories. Also included here are a few choice tracks that I guarantee will melt your hearts. To this day, they still melt mine. (FM)

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The Best Dream I Ever Lived

 “Dear Fred, just want to say thanks again for all of your help & support concerning Winter Hours and the new music scene. If I can be of any help to you in any way up here, please let me know. Hope you have a wonderful summer. I’ll keep you abreast of Winter Hours in the future. Yours, Michael Carlucci.” ( — from a card sent to me, postmarked May 27, 1987; found 2008, tucked inside the sleeve of a Winter Hours LP)

By some estimations, the mid ‘80s milieu within which Winter Hours operated never even existed — it was all a dream, a kind of mass hallucination experienced by disparate pockets of non-mainstream music lovers. How else to explain the near-simultaneous appearance, in towns all over the country, of bands and fans either creating or soaking up pristine pop and folk-flavored rock sounds that aimed to touch the heart, and the soul, the same way those sounds grabbed the imagination of a generation of Anglophiles two decades earlier?

Back then there was no Internet — no email, no MySpace or Facebook pages, no newsgroups — through which to disseminate the latest up-to-the-second music information. There were no cell phones, either — no text messaging, no unlimited minutes, no calling plans — meaning a person could go broke pretty quickly yakking long distance on the land line (in the mid ‘80s the term “land line” hadn’t yet been coined, by the way). No, if you wanted to tell someone about this incredible group you’d just discovered, in all likelihood you’d send them a letter or a postcard and hope it would arrive before the band passed through their town.

Yet somehow we managed to reach out and touch each other, to paraphrase an old phone company marketing line, and as the decade progressed a network (analog, natch) gradually evolved to bring together fans and bands, college radio deejays and amateur rock critics (such as yours truly), fledgling managers and promoters — often in a very random, ad hoc fashion, but always with a sense of purpose and mission. This is important, we thought. And so we kept pushing forward, one step at a time.

Winter Hours was among those pop-minded groups that found itself right in the thick of the burgeoning college rock scene. (For those of you reading this who are too young to “get” the term “college rock,” just think “indie rock” without the hoodies, messenger bags and ironic hipster stances, or perhaps a pre-pre-pre Hot Topic strain of alt-rock.) The New Jersey quintet’s musical and philosophical peers were spread out all over America — among them, Athens’ R.E.M. and Dreams So Real, North Carolina’s dB’s, Connells and Let’s Active, Austin’s Zeitgeist/Reivers, California’s Game Theory, Connecticut’s Miracle Legion — and it wasn’t uncommon for ardent fans of one combo to be just as vocal supporters of the other groups. We compared notes and passed around live tapes, often — as evidenced by the Michael Carlucci correspondence above — connecting with the bands themselves to ensure that when they did come to our towns they’d know they were appreciated and would want to return.

We certainly welcomed Winter Hours, right from the get-go with their first three EPs, 1985’s Churches plus 1986’s The Confessional and Wait till the Morning. The latter’s “Hyacinth Girl” in particular was a dreamymooodyjanglycool anthem that managed to ride the college-rock zeitgeist as memorably as any tune from the era, and the group continued to craft anthems alternately piercing and punchy all the way through 1989 swansong Winter Hours. In Joseph Marques’ resonant vocals and poetic lyrics, the band had its own Jim Morrison, charismatic and beautiful, but minus the hippie baggage; in Carlucci and Bob Perry Winter Hours had a dynamic, versatile guitar team that could turn from atmospheric to earthy in the space of a single measure; and in the Bob Messing-John Albanese rhythm section that manned the first few records there was a suppleness and sensitivity afoot to power those romantic tunes the band so excelled at. (Albanese was one of several talented drummers who passed through the ranks and was in the lineup the times I saw the band play; he was later replaced by Frank Giannini of the Bongos, followed by Stanley Demeski of The Feelies.) Anyone who experienced the group during its heyday will tell you: as songwriters and musicians, Winter Hours had the gift; it also possessed an uncommon chemistry that helped bring the material vividly to life.

Nowadays I have trouble remembering a lot of what happened back then, and like I suggested before, sometimes it seems like a dream. As with many of you, at the time I was hurtling forward at such a rapid pace that I rarely stopped to take stock of all that was going on around me. Since I wrote for rock magazines throughout the ‘80s I’m fortunate enough that some of my impressions and memories got written down. But only a fraction. If someone were to ask me to name all the shows I saw from, say, 1983 to 1989, I’d probably be able to come up with ten, fifteen, twenty at most before stalling and having to consult my master list of live tapes that I either recorded myself on my trusty old Walkman or received in the mail in a swap (did I mention that there were no MP3s or FLAC files in the ‘80s?).

Hold that thought. There it is right there on my list: Winter Hours, the Milestone Club, Charlotte NC, 4-24-87, audience recording, 65 minutes, EX- sound quality. Tangible evidence that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t a dream after all….

 

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