North Carolina’s Michael Rank, currently on a creative roll, has been on the scene for decades. An appreciation of his early band. Above, L-R: Sara Romweber, Rank (note leather pants), Andy McMillan.
By Fred Mills
Listening to Tarheel singer/songwriter/rocker/twanger Michael Rank’s stunningly great new album Horsehair a lot lately—hell, it’s been a goddam fixture on the office and car stereo for weeks now. It finds the former Snatches of Pink frontman collaborating with Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire, and it’s a match made in Gram ‘n’ Emmylou heaven. As we noted in the BLURT review of the record, he marries back porch soul to countryish roots rock, and “matters of the heart rarely stray far from Rank’s worldview, as he colors the rest of these outlaw folk tunes with nods to ex-wives, current flames and, of course, son Bowie Ryder, his most consistent muse.”
I practically had to arm-wrestle contributing editor (and Blurt blogger) Michael Toland for who was going to do the review honors as Toland is as much a fan of the dude as I am. (Go HERE to read his review of 2013’s Mermaids, and HERE for my review of 2012’s Kin.) Ultimately I said “uncle” and gave Toland the review, since I’ve written about Rank so frequently over the years that I risk being viewed as not particularly objective when it comes to his records. Well, fuck objectivity, y’know? The whole notion of “being objective” when it comes to discussing art, and particularly rock ‘n’ roll, is a journalistic smokescreen; you can’t write about an emotional experience from a distance, and when critics attempt to do so, their lack of engagement with their subjects shows. I’ll take passion over objectivity any day, because the whole reason I got into rock writing in the first place was because I realized that just listening to music wasn’t enough for me—I had to share my enthusiasm, share the wealth so to speak. In that regard, “Rock Journalist” became the proverbial accidental career.
Horsehair is Rank’s fifth solo album in three years, last year’s Deadstock and 2013’s In The Weeds joining it and the other two mentioned above. That’s a pretty impressive output by any measure, and it’s not an overstatement to say that Rank’s been on an extended creative roll during this time; release-wise, he basically went silent in 2007 following the release of the final album by his previous band Snatches of Pink. In absorbing Horsehair of late and thinking about what Toland wrote, I found myself thinking back to when I first encountered Rank and his music—the aforementioned Snatches of Pink.
It was 1985, and a cassette tape arrived in the mail with little fanfare. Titled The Stupid Tape and boasting a somewhat primitive-looking dark blue j-card, it featured six songs performed by what was at the time a 4-piece Snatches—Rank on guitars, Andy McMillan on vocals, Sara Romweber on drums and Jack Wenberg on bass. Raw and ragged but definitely right, the six-song tape had a primitive, careening-yet-hard-twanging cowpunk/garage quality to it on such eventual Snatches classics as “Salty Dog” and “Ones With the Black” that seemed thoroughly at odds with the prevailing jangly college rock of the day.
1987’s Demonstration/Demolition, also a tape, continued in the aesthetic, and by the time of the first “proper” Snatches release, 1988’s Send In the Clowns LP (released on the Athens-based Dog Gone, a short-lived indie label founded by then-R.E.M. manager Jefferson Holt) the group was also developing into a solid live act with a decent fanbase.
I forget exactly when I saw the group play for the first time, but it was probably around this time in Charlotte, at which point I was the resident Music Editor for alternatively newsweekly Creative Loafing and it had become my “mission,” as it were, to cover artists that the other local media either overlooked or deliberately ignored. Snatches of Pink certainly fit that bill, lurching into town from Chapel Hill on gas fumes and truckstop tacos and aiming to shake some action while shaking up the populace. “Where is the nearest liquor store?” most likely was the first thing they would ask when they arrived at the club.
Booze clearly fueled this band, which had slimmed down to a trio, McMillan having assumed the bass position (and sharing vocals with Rank) for 1989’s Dead Men. This LP, along with next year’s 4-song mini album Deader Than You’ll Ever Be, which was cut live at CBGB as a promotional radio release, is what solidified their image as a hard-drinkin’, unrepentantly badass group who clearly did not give a shit what folks—and, significantly, club owners and bookers—thought about the band as long as they came out to the show. That was another quality about Snatches which more than simply endeared me to ‘em: hailing from a long line of rock ‘n’ roll rebels that included such miscreants as the Rolling Stones, Iggy & the Stooges, Alice Cooper, Johnny Thunders and the Replacements, the Rank-McMillan-Romweber musical mafia were long, and I do mean loooonnnng, on attitude. They lived the part and looked it, too, each member’s shaggy, unkempt hair shrouding his or her face to the point that you figured it was only a matter of time before someone tumbled off the edge of the stage (no doubt this happened on a number of times, but I can’t say if it was due to not being able to see or simply too fucked up to walk). Rank in particular had a British rock star thing going for him, part Keef, part Nikki Sudden, part Hanoi Rocks, what with his penchant for tight pants, flowing shirts and colorful scarves. I mean, he probably wore eyeliner as well, but since I couldn’t see his eyes from under all that hair…
Snatches of Pink were the kind of group that drew a line in the sand between them and the “nicer” artists that the Triangle generally sent down to Charlotte, and a lot of us opted to join ‘em on their side of the line. My good friend Michael Plumides operated the city’s 4808 Club and was an early supporter like me, his own thumb-your-nose-at-the-powers-that-be sensibilities fully in synch with Snatches’. On more than one evening, standing in the audience watching the trio in full spin cycle and at maximum decibel, he and I would marvel at their undeniable outlaw charisma while assuring ourselves that, yes, this is the best fucking group in North Carolina right now. The band was a helluva lot of fun to hang out with, too, whether passing the bottle around or yammering on about the latest records we’d bought or bands we’d seen. During this period I struck up a friendship with Rank that I am proud to say endures to this day; he knew I was a fan, first and foremost, but I think he also knew that I “got” where they were coming from and weren’t simply fostering an image for no other reason than they could do it. He was a guy that understood rock ‘n’ roll tradition and wanted to find where he fit in to it.
There were naysayers and detractors too, one of them also owning a local rock club. I remember having a long conversation with Jeff Lowery (R.I.P.) of the 13-13 Club in which he groused about how unprofessional and arrogant Snatches was. Lowery was an astute booker and brought hundreds of terrific acts to town, but since he was coming from a businessman’s point of view, it probably wasn’t surprising for him to have a problem with a group that knocked over mic stands and monitors, left broken bottles on the stage and ignored the soundman’s pleas to turn down the volume and distortion. I have no doubt that Snatches left a trail of disgruntled club bookers in their wake during their initial run.
Not that their reputation among fans didn’t precede them. They scored a semi-major label record deal for 1992’s Bent With Pray; Dog Gone was, by design, a regional indie, so the distribution and marketing oomph of NYC’s Caroline Records was a no-brainer. In addition to benefiting from a decent recording budget the record found the band experimenting with a softer, psychedelic, more overtly melodic side; just opening track “Mother Crane” alone, with its strummy acoustic guitars, dreamy backing vocals and modal vibe, suggested some heretofore only intermittently displayed folk and roots influences. They didn’t go soft, however, merely expanded the range and depth of their songwriting and arrangements—which, I reckon, is the product of any band’s natural evolution and maturation—while still being able to rock out on a moment’s notice.
The album also served to introduce the stylistic shift displayed on Rank’s subsequent solo debut, 1993’s Coral, also on Caroline, which was dreamy and gorgeous and bursting at the seams with plangent guitars and no shortage of 12-string flourishes. In retrospect, these two albums can be viewed as a foreshadowing of Rank’s current incarnation as a folk/country-tilting troubadour, not necessarily examples of proto-Americana (the records have more of a baroque British feel) but certainly a glimpse of where his songwriting was headed. They also suggested great things loomed for Snatches, given the proper marketing and a healthy touring regimen to get their music showcased outside their immediate region.
And then—silence. In the summer of ’92 I left for Arizona, and as a result, lost touch with a lot of NC friends in the pre-Internet era. Meanwhile, no more music would emerge from the Snatches camp until 1996, and when it did it was, confusingly, under the name of Clarissa rather than Snatches of Pink. Perhaps someone at their new label, Mammoth, had convinced them that the original name was a tad too suggestive for the brave, bold, politically correct new world of commercial alt-rock; or maybe the band just viewed the three-year hiatus as an opportunity to start with a clean slate, but either way, it was a misfire, strategically, as the group’s Silver album failed both to capture a new audience and to hold on to the old Snatches fanbase. Of the former I am certain, because I was working in a Tucson record store and observed firsthand how Mammoth totally dropped the ball in terms of exploiting its distribution arrangement with Atlantic to effectively market Clarissa; of the latter, well, this particular fan thought it was a wonderful record, but my gut feeling is that a lot of people just thought Snatches had disappeared off the face of the earth.
Which it pretty much did after that, at least until 2003 when Rank resurfaced with not one but two albums, one as a heavy-rocking reconstituted Snatches Of Pink, Hyena (featuring Romweber on drums, Marc E. Smith on second guitar and a procession of bassist) and the other as a new group, Marat (whose Marat album was a co-writing project of Rank and John Ensslin, late of NC’s Teasing The Korean). The new-look Snatches would also go on to release Stag in 2005 and Love Is Dead in 2007, with Marat issuing Again in 2005, and all five of these Rank-helmed projects from the ‘00s are worthy entries to the man’s discography but none of them really got the exposure they deserved.
At any rate, this story is less an abbreviated history of Michael Rank and more a belated appreciation for one of my favorite North Carolina bands, the classic Snatches lineup of Rank, McMillan and Romweber. I dearly love those core records and I cherish every memory of seeing them perform live.
Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of info out on the web about Snatches; there aren’t even all that many good early photos of the band online. And the Trouser Press entry is relatively succinct, and incomplete, while the Wikipedia listing is criminally bare-bones and way out of date, with a bunch of dead links listed. There is an official Snatches of Pink website, although it appears to have gone dormant in 2009, and it doesn’t really deal with the early lineup(s) and albums, just the latter-day incarnation. It’s worth noting, though, that during that phase an indie documentary about the band, Now It’s A Rock N Roll Show, was released in 2007 by Trickle Down Productions and directed by Daniel Adams so you can get details about it at the site. (Below: two trailers for the film, which includes plenty of early-days content)
Meanwhile, Bent With Pray, Rank’s Coral and Clarissa’s Silver (which in my mind is a Snatches album) are all readily available, and fairly inexpensively, at eBay and sundry online sources while the three Dog Gone titles surface from time to time (the somewhat rare CD version of Dead Men is even showing currently at Discogs, ranging from $9 to $35). The more recent Snatches CDs can be found easily too, and Love Is Dead is also available at Rank’s Bandcamp merch page along with all his recent solo titles.
Almost as good, and maybe even better considering the ease of access: Rank has posted Send In the Clowns, Dead Men, Deader Than You’ll Ever Be, Bent With Pray, Hyena and Stag all at that Bandcamp page as free downloads (even though I own physical copies of everything, I have been downloading each title while writing this because, well… just because). Speaking of free downloads, back at the Snatches website is a link just called “bootleg” and whattaya know, it is 13-song, lo-to-medium-fi live show from the group’s trio days, Charlotte’s Fucking Web, pictured below, featuring such Pink gems as “Ones With the Black,” “Goin’ Down” and “Salty Dog” plus a ridiculously thrashy cover of the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years From Home.” I’ve got a pretty good idea about that concert tape’s provenance, but I’ll leave that to your fertile imagination, fellow Snatches buffs.
Bottom line: don’t just take my word for how great the band was—find out for yourself by listening to ‘em. The stuff’s out there. Then go get that new Rank album Horsehair. Dr. Toland and I command you.
It’s been a great run, Michael. Salute! Keep ‘em coming, brother.
Photo of Michael Rank by Andy Tennille