The prolific Chapel Hill rocker and Americana maven unexpectedly pivots to classic ‘70s soul and funk. “I’m someone who likes to create the albums that I personally wanna be listening to at that exact point in my life,” Rank tells BLURT. “I have no interest in writing the same sad ass country song for my entire life. Or the same out of tune Johnny Thunders song again and again.”
BY FRED MILLS / PHOTOS BY MISSY MALOUFF
When Michael Rank set about writing his latest solo album—his seventh in just five years—he felt an emotional and stylistic push in a markedly different direction from its predecessors, all of which were, to varying degrees, Americana-informed. 2015’s Horsehair, in particular, featuring Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire, was a deep, lingering dip into outlaw folk and Appalachian country territory, McEntire playing Emmylou to Rank’s Gram (or Bonnie to his Clyde, as some observers put it). Americana, in fact, was what Rank has been known for as a solo artist, itself a marked contrast from his previous work with Chapel Hill’s Snatches of Pink, which, for two stints (late ‘80s/early ‘90s with the original three-piece; then again from 2003-07 in an entirely different configuration), purveyed a singular brand of hi-nrg Stones raunch and Heartbreakers ‘tude. (You can check out my assessment of Snatches elsewhere on this website; by way of spoiler alert, it is titled “Why Snatches of Pink was the Greatest NC Band of the Late ‘80s.”)
Yet if one peered closely at his work over the years, it was possible to detect a cornucopia of influences, and stirring occasionally among them was the classic soul and funk of the ‘70s, with artists like Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield clearly sharing shelf space in Rank’s music library with his beloved rock ‘n’ roll. For the 24 songs populating the new three-disc (!) album Another Love, then, soul is the operative term. As you’ll read below, those two soul icons, along with several others, loom large here, with Rank’s guitar ditched in favor of Rhodes and Wurlitzer and the live band mostly supplanted by drum programs and keyboards. Crucial to Another Love is co-conspirator Brian Dennis (late of ‘90s outfit DAG), who performed his studio and sonic wizardry upon Rank’s instrumental and vocal tracks; Rank claims the record wouldn’t have happened without Dennis, which is high praise indeed, considering the songwriter’s prolific nature that, since 2012, has seemingly resulted in an album every nine or ten months.
As one might imagine, with 24 tracks to contend with, there are highlights a-plenty on the album, far too many to isolate here. Yours truly’s favorites—as of this writing, and subject to change tomorrow—include the sleek minimalism of “Kings,” what with Rank deploying one of his more emotive vocals, doubletracked at that, a frequent strategy on the album. There’s the relative swagger of “I Do,” a low-down-and-down-low Prince-like confection featuring Dennis on guitar, his old DAG bandmate Bobby Patterson on bass, and guest vocalist Raney Hayes joining Rank at the mic. You want funky? The title track is pure Sly & the Family Stone—maybe a hint of Stevie Wonder too, with Rank (speaking of doubletracked vocals) singing the low and high parts. Hold that thought: Throughout Another Love, Rank relies on his falsetto to underscore the soul component; “Women in Love,” for example, finds him soaring aloft with remarkable passion, like the aforementioned Mayfield or a classic gospel singer. He’s always had the capacity to hit the high notes, but in 2017, he seems to have climbed the mountain.
And on penultimate number “Horses,” possibly the standout, and perhaps the most “live” sounding one as well, Rank, Dennis, and Patterson get their funk/blues band mojo seriously working. It’s an incredibly infectious track with a psychedelic edge, one which seems destined to be a crowd-pleasing show-closer in concert, maybe even with a cape-draping finale. (Rank claims that he has no plans to perform the album live, however, but we can always hope.)
The bottom line: Rank has always worn his heart on his sleeve, and then some. (2012’s two-disc Stag, in particular, was a harrowing document of a brutal breakup, but one can trace Rank’s emotional journeys through his early Snatches songs, too.) On the nakedly confessional—and, significantly, ultimately defiant—“Roll Away” he sings:
“Well honey I ain’t wondering why
I ain’t countin’ my time
I feel there’s something goin’ on…
Well baby this ain’t workin’ for me
I think there’s something goin’ on…
Roll up to the window sill
Baby watch you roll away
I’m better off these days
There ain’t nothin’ left to say.”
I would propose, then, that the pure essence of soul—exploring the vicissitudes of love in all its good/bad/transcendent/ugly dimensions—has always informed this man as a songwriter. He really feels it as a concrete thing, not in the abstract.
Rank and I convened recently via email to talk about the new record, and we touched on a number of things, from obvious questions about what inspired him this time around to how he looks back on his early Chapel Hill days. I couldn’t resist asking him about his son, Bowie Ryder, because fatherhood is a topic he and I always seem to slide into whenever we have the chance to get together in person. We’re a long way from those drunken club nights, following a particularly explosive Snatches of Pink gig. (Rank: “Bowie’s ten years old and all cool. Thank you for asking, I really appreciate that. Parenthood is the ride that just keeps on spinning. Here, lately, I feel like it’s just holding a mirror up to all the areas of my personality I need to do a lot of work on(!!!). But shit, better late than never, right?”) Bowie has always gotten a dedication and shout-out on Rank’s record sleeves, a small but telling gift that the young man will surely cherish many decades from now, and Another Love is no exception, with Rank writing, “I love you always… forever and a day.” To me, this is also emblematic of Rank’s current immersion. He really experiences love as a living, breathing, pulsing creature, never less than a constant presence, day or night.
Incidentally, Rank has his entire back catalog available at his Bandcamp page, and in the case of those long out-of-print Snatches of Pink records, you can even grab them as free downloads. (Nice touch, that.) Check ‘em out, and also visit him at his official website and Facebook page.
BLURT: By way of a long-winded first question: Starting with Stag in Feb. 2012, you’ve released seven SOLO full-lengths, which is an average of 1.4 albums per year; broken down another way, we’re talking 65 months and 87 songs that appear on those seven albums, which is an average of 1.34 songs per month. While it’s not unusual for songwriters to be writing constantly, in terms of recording and releasing material, I think you’d be hard pressed to find many who are this prolific—most would have to plead to having a backlog of songs they haven’t finished or haven’t gotten around to properly recording; only Robert Pollard comes to mind as your peer in this regard. Please discuss why you are a statistical outlier.
MICHAEL RANK: Man, whenever I hear the word “outlier” I always imagine a bunch of villagers with torches and shit, snaking through the marshes yelling “Outliiiierrr!!!”. Hunting Frankenstein-monster style… But yeah, I write a lot of tunes. But to be honest, when you do the math like you just did it somehow doesn’t sound quite as impressive. I feel a little let down; seems like it should be more(!!). If I had a “team” like I did in the old days, I’d get them to start fact-checking and re-crunching those numbers(!!). But songwriting is still cheaper than therapy, after all…
On a slightly more serious note: Give me a sense of your writing regimen or habits—do you work on a particular song until you feel it is completely finished, or do you always have several that you’re working on at the same time? Do you ever have material left over after you’ve finished an album?
There were a couple of significant changes for me in regards to the writing for Another Love. This was the very first time in my life where the songs were all written starting with the beat. That was the entry point. All 24 songs. I had never done that before with any song from my past. The other difference is this is the first time in my life that I wrote entirely on keyboards. I haven’t even touched a guitar in well over a year. Everything was created on old drum machines and Rhodes/Wurlitzer keys. I try not to ever have songs stockpiling while I’m writing. I like to write a song and then immediately record it before I move on. And nothing gets carried over. If a track doesn’t make an album then it’s done. Tough love.
It’s a three-disc album, so do you think of each disc as a separate entity, or do you view the songs as one continuous flow? Someone listening to it as a digital download might get a different experience from, say, me, listening to it disc by disc.
I’m someone whose real awareness began in the ‘70s. For everything, but especially music. So for me, album lengths should ideally be 35 minutes or so like back in the day. Maybe a touch longer. The last thing I wanted was to put out a single physical CD that played for 2 hours straight. Ain’t no one got time for that. But I put a lot of thought into working out the sequence for this album so that it would work not only as a triple disc experience, but also as one continuous flow. It was a jigsaw puzzle laid out on my living room floor for a few weeks there towards the end.
The obvious question is, why the pivot away from your signature Americana-tilting singer-songwriter sound to a classic soul/funk approach? What kinds of records were you listening to leading up to writing and arranging these songs? How about when you were growing up?
The album that completed the circle for me from growing up to the making of Another Love was Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. That work has been a constant for me for a long, long time. Arguably my favorite album ever. But other albums that specifically played into the making of Another Love were D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Black Messiah. Brian Dennis, who created this album with me, and I spent a lot of time with the sounds on those two D’Angelo albums. Bilal, Erykah Badu, Curtis Mayfield, Bernie Worrell, Shuggie Otis, obviously Prince… we dug through all those artists’ sounds and vibes. And in regards to pivoting away from the styles I had been previously working in, I’m someone who likes to create the albums that I personally wanna be listening to at that exact point in my life. I have no interest in writing the same sad ass Country song for my entire life. Or the same out of tune Johnny Thunders song again and again. And don’t get me wrong—I love that shit dearly, but there are plenty of folks already spending a lifetime doing that.
Your singing style on the album doesn’t so much break from the past as it finds you exploring your upper register more. How much of this was a conscious thing, and how much was just a natural reaction to the music you were creating? Were any of the songs originally more in a twang-and-strum style that you wound up remaking/rearranging for this album?
All my favorite singers take the “high road” when it comes to vocal range. D’Angelo, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Eddie Kendricks… and certainly all my favorite Stones’ Mick moments were when he worked his falsetto. It’s a comfortable place for me to exist in. It’s the aesthetic I’ve always dug the most. And again, it’s what I personally want to be hearing. And none of these songs were ever in a different style. They all were born to be exactly who they are.
Pick a few songs on the record that you feel are most representative of the album and your current direction and what you think “works” in them.
“Women In Love”: I know it’s bad form to choose favorites but this one’s probably mine. It’s just got that thing. It bubbles. It’s sexy. It’s like the sound of wet marbles.
“I Love You”/ “40 Days”: Man, I have always dug Disco. I never had any problem going from The Dead Boys to The Bee Gees. And I still don’t. I really dig these two tracks ‘cause they are dusted in that Disco gold. The sound of where I’m headed next.
“Sing”: This was the very last song that got recorded, maybe second to last. I had sent Brian my vocals, keyboard, and the beat for him to add his performances to. When he sent back his files for me to hear I got a message from him saying that he had actually scrapped my keyboard entirely and only used my vocal and beat. Now I’m a Leo, and I was proud of my shit, so when I heard that message in the car I was sitting at a stoplight and I was instantly bummed out and starting to cop an attitude. When the light turned to green I pressed play on the mix he sent me and then totally lost my shit. I was screaming and dancing in the seat and just over the moon. When I hit the next red light and called him back up I was literally hoarse from the five minute party I had just had listening to what he created. True story. I adore this track.
How did you come to work with Brian Dennis? What did he bring to the table? Certainly, employing drum programming instead of a live drummer is a radical shift for you.
It’s no exaggeration whatsoever to say this album wouldn’t exist without Brian. Brian was the very first artist in my entire life that I sought out a collaboration with and then handed over the wheel. And anyone that knows me knows I don’t relinquish that wheel when it comes to my creative shit. But with Brian it felt right. I trust Brian. And from very early on, it became crystal clear to me, and to any innocent bystanders, that Brian knew exactly what the songs were asking for. I literally felt like a kid on Christmas morning every single time I’d get his tracks to a song. And I’ll never forget that feeling. He’s as good as it gets, he honestly is. And now, God bless him, he’s tracking the follow-up album with me!
What are your plans for performing the material live?
No plans for any gigging this year. What fulfills me the most is writing songs and creating in the studio. That’s where I’m feeling the most alive. In a perfect world, I woulda dug doing a handful of cool dates but the time and expense involved in putting together a new band is just not where my focus is at right now. I’m already way into the next album at this point.
Looking back on your previous solo albums, which are your favorites now?
Man, I try not to look back too much to old albums. But Horsehair [released in July of 2015] was pretty special. As an artist you are always trying to capture something that often goes beyond any easy definition. Visions are an elusive animal. But I think with Horsehair we got real close.
If we go all the way back to your first solo album, 1993’s Coral, and Snatches of Pink’s Bent With Pray, from 1992, I can definitely hear some early groundwork for Another Love being laid, as both those records steered in a more soulful, atmospheric direction than previous Snatches albums. Is that a fair observation?
Yea, totally. Especially with a track like “Dove” off of Coral. That tune’s got Another Love written all over it. And certainly there were many moments on 2016’s Red Hand (another solo album I really dig) that led right into Another Love.
So how do you remember the original Snatches of Pink period, you, drummer Sara Romweber, and bassist Andy McMillan?
The original Snatches of Pink lineup was my life in a lot of ways. It’s the elephant that never really leaves the room. I only clearly remember it in bits and shards. We were so committed, well beyond the actual music. It was all so proudly worn on our sleeves. So much attitude. It didn’t get to where I dreamed it would have, and that honestly took a piece of me that I’ll never quite recover, but I’ll always feel so proud of what we left out on the field. Day in and day out.
Sara and I still talk every few months and I can’t convey how grateful I am for that. She was so giving and so loyal. We always needed her far more than she ever needed us. She’s beautiful and I’m so grateful I remain in her life. Fred [Jenkins], our long-time road manager, and I still talk every week. We go see concerts together. I still seek out his approval and thoughts with every one of my releases, month after month, year after after year. And Andy has chosen not to talk anymore. At least not to me. And that has really broken my heart. Every memory always begins with him and me. But there are only so many times you can leave a voicemail for someone telling them you love them and that you miss them and then never get a single reply. The last time I saw him I was crossing the street and he saw me, put his head down, and quickly walked to his car and drove away. And I struggle with that. And I struggle with the absence of any explanation… aww shit, man, I’m sorry but I don’t wanna talk about any old news anymore today. That shit just leaves me sad.
Lastly, what’s on the horizon?
Man, it’s all about the next [record] right now. I’ve got another new album entirely written and all my vocals, keyboards, and beats are all tracked. Brian is just about to dive, and hopefully this time I can keep it down to a single disc.