Jangly Byrdsian psychedelia, ornate Big Star-esque pop and paisley-powered college rock par excellence—any questions?
BY BILL KOPP
At peril of engaging in a mild bit of hyperbole, Donovan’s Brain can rightly be described as a college-rock supergroup. “College rock” – those of you over thirty may recall – was the label applied to music of the 1980s and beyond that didn’t quite fit on commercial FM radio, but was quite popular in its own semi-underground way. Duran Duran wasn’t college rock, but R.E.M. was; Human League didn’t qualify as college rock, but New Order did. College rock was eventually re-branded as “alternative,” a slightly less meaningful term: alternative to what, exactly? Oh: yeah: commercial product served up by the likes of Bon Jovi. (BLURT, it should be noted, has an ongoing series called “The College Rock Chronicles” that is instructional, having featured, to date, everyone from the Dream Syndicate, the Gun Club, Green On Red and Winter Hours to Dumptruck, R.E.M., Dreams So Real and NC’s Snatches of Pink, with a side dish of college rock godfathers Big Star and Dwight Twilley.)
“Supergroup,” of course, was a classification that had come about nearly two decades earlier: when musicians of some individual renown came together as a new group, they earned the tag: Crosby, Stills, Nash and (sometimes) Young; Cream; Blind Faith; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Or, in much later years, the Traveling Wilburys.
But back to college rock for a moment. The jangly sound – often thanks to Rickenbacker guitars – was a key component of some of the era’s best outfits. And a knowing update of ‘60s garage rock coupled with a new wave edge; that was part of the mix as well. And some of the groups that exemplified the best of what college rock had to offer were The Windbreakers, Rain Parade, and The Long Ryders. Each of those groups reached their apex in the 1980s; they recorded and released music that may have not shifted millions of units, but they created music that was critically well-received, and that has stood the test of time.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Most of the aforementioned acts have long since broken up, their members having moved onto other things (not to mention having their gotten three decades older). But their creative impulses have not dimmed, and select members of those groups, along with others of note and skill, formed a collective known as Donovan’s Brain. (Above: “Take Me With You When You Go,” from 2013’s Turned Up Later album)
The group, which is loosely based out of Bozeman, Montana, includes guitarist Matt Piucci, late of Rain Parade and – of all things – Crazy Horse; guitarist Bobby Sutliff (The Windbreakers; go HERE to read our feature on Sutliff from 2013); Tom Stevens (The Long Ryders) on bass. And if that’s not enough college rock/alterna-cred, the group’s lineup features guitarist Deniz Tek (of American/Australian punk heroes Radio Birdman) and drummer Ric Parnell (better known to rock fans as Mick Shrimpton, spontaneously-combusting drummer for Spinal Tap, and also a member for a time in Atomic Rooster). The group is rounded out by names slightly less well known but of equal musical caliber: founder Ron Sanchez (multiple instruments), Scott Sutherland (many instruments as well), and vocalist Kris Wilkinson Hughes.
But pedigree only takes one so far: none of this history would matter one whit if the music wasn’t worth the listener’s time. Happily, the players and composers involved have, in Donovan’s Brain, created music that’s in many ways more timeless and potentially enduring as the music they made in decades previous. The group plays down the composition credits, but the fourteen songs on their new Heirloom Varieties (released on Sanchez and Tek’s Montana-Australia label Career) were—as you’ll discover if you read the credits very carefully with Google at hand—written collectively by Sanchez, Sutliff, Sutherland, and Stevens. That said, it’s clear that the other players bring their unique and estimable talents to bear on the arrangements.
After the delightful (if slightly tentative and wobbly) country rock of “Brighten Up Shop” (above), the soaring and winsome “Houseboy” will evoke smiling memories of the twangy, Byrds-influenced end of college rock sound. The more deliberate pace of “Saw it coming” is very reminiscence of Third-period Big Star, filtered through Rain Parade’s paisley-psych sensibility. (Look closely at one of the photos here and you’ll no doubt notice that Sutliff is sporting a Big Star tee.) The whooshing phased-guitars of “Up to Me Down to You” lean even more in a Rain Parade direction.
“Great Divide” feels like Bobby Fuller Four (specifically, the classic “Love’s Made a Fool of You,” which is quoted) crossed with the Flying Burrito Brothers; lots of shimmering electric guitars and winningly loose-limbed vocal harmonies abound. The twelve-string guitar solos are maddeningly short, as they should be in a great pop song: “leave ’em wanting more” is always a good creative strategy.
Some simple yet effective piano is a key ingredient of “Long Time Ago,” a Tom Petty-esque contemplative and melodic number. “Scant Information” revives the paisley underground vibe, with subtle use of Mellotron and backward guitar figures.
Kicking off what’s noted as Side Two (the disc is available on vinyl as well) “Wedding Bell Ring” sounds like the best Byrds tune you’ve never heard: adding to the creamy Rickenbacker guitar is some tasty Leslie-effected soloing and an extended bridge that’s strong enough to be a song itself.
Guitar distortion – something largely absent from Heirloom Varieties – roars in the spaghetti-western flavored “Selfish Modern.” Parnell’s galloping drum parts duel with aggressively strummed acoustic and wailing electric guitars. When the song breaks out midway, it’s reminiscent of The Long Ryders, but with a harder, more menacing edge.
“It Wasn’t My Idea” would have fit nicely on Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, Rain Parade’s 1983 debut. The beautiful guitar solo alone is worth the price of admission; the vocal harmonies are icing on the cake.
“Let it Go” has a melancholy air; its stacks and stacks of chiming, melodic guitar work eliminate the need for lyrics; word would have only gotten in the way in this breathtaking instrumental. “Lightning Life” saves its “Eight Miles High” styled guitar solo until nearly the end. The dreamy “Light in the Window” is a nice slice of retro-psych a la The Dukes of Stratosphear. The disc wraps up with the languid “Sailing off the Edge,” a minor-key workout that combines many of the disc’s best qualities – that Ennio Morricone vibe, those bright Rickenbackers, that keening Mellotron – into a lengthy and dramatic whole.
With Heirloom Varieties, the modern-day supergroup that is Donovan’s Brain has created a consistent, solid album that only gets better in repeated spins. If you’ve skipped to the bottom of the review looking for a quick summary, here it is: Heirloom Varieties is a likely pick for my Best Albums of 2015 list.
Below: an earlier version of the band circa 2009 performing live at the Seattle Terrastock festival.
Photos courtesy of Ron Sanchez and Career Records. Clockwise, from top left: Sanchez & Sutliff; Kris Wilkinson Hughes; a young Tom Stevens; Tek, Sanchez & Parnell; Scott Sutherland; Steven Roback, Sutliff, Matt Piucci & Sanchez (taken at 2013 Sutliff benefit concert). More DB details at http://donovans-brain.net/.