1st in a series, collect ‘em all. Why we love The Empty Hearts, Split Squad and The Fauntleroys—and why, in 2014, putting the buddy system ahead of the music industry makes perfect sense. Check out some su-pah sonic samples, below.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Supergroup – the term is both bane and boon, depending on one’s perspective. Record companies hope fervently for the latter, that the combination of names from well-known (i.e. bestselling) bands will strike gold at the cash register or on iTunes. Fans, however, often expect the former – too many attempts fail to realize their potential, whether through lack of chemistry or simply an overwhelming cynicism spouting from motives financial rather than artistic. For every Crosby, Stills & Nash, there’s a Blind Faith; for every Rockpile, a Chequered Past; for every Traveling Wilburys, a Little Village.
Motive rules in this mini-milieu. The bonds of friendship seem to trump everything, even musical chemistry – if the folks involved like hanging out together, that energy usually translates into a good time for band and listener alike. (Not always – see the aforementioned Little Village.) It’s what makes modern collections of musicians best known for other bands work – cf. Monsters of Folk, Divine Fits and the Baseball Project.
Whether or not any of these bands have produced truly great work may be up for debate, but all of them have made solid records and put on entertaining live shows, simply because the members dig playing music together. Fortunately, they’re not the only ones putting the buddy system ahead of the music industry when it comes to kicking out the supergroup jams….
The Empty Hearts exemplify the idea of a group of musicians with their own notable bodies of work getting together to play music simply for fun. On the quartet’s self-titled debut (429), singer Wally Palmar of the Romantics (singer of “Talking in Your Sleep” and “One in a Million”), guitarist Elliot Easton of the Cars, bassist Andy Babiuk of the Chesterfield Kings and drummer Clem Burke of Blondie (among others) play rock & roll in the style of what they enjoyed growing up: the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Kinks, Nuggets. This band sounds genetically constructed to dominate Little Steven Van Zandt’s Underground Garage radio program, and Van Zandt did, in fact, provide the group with its name. But the Little Steven connection means little when the disk spins – from thumping hard rock (“Loud and Clear”) to rough folk rock (“Fill An Empty Heart”), jangling country rock (“I Found You Again”) to blazing garage rock (“90 Miles An Hour Down a Dead End Street,” “Drop Me Off at Home”) and, of course, plenty of rocking power poppers (“[I See] No Way Out” “Soul Deep”), the record contains a dozen cuts’ worth of stripped-down rock & roll glory. It’s no exaggeration to say this The Empty Hearts equals its participants’ more celebrated accomplishments. (Go HERE to read the BLURT interview with the band.)
The members of the Fauntleroys have never reached the upper end of the pop stratosphere the way Blondie or the Cars have, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have seriously accomplished résumés. Guitarist Ivan Julian helped pioneer punk rock guitar with his work in Richard Hell & the Voidoids, has a long and stellar session career and released his own quirky rock & roll record called Naked Flame a few years ago. Singer/songwriter Nicholas Tremulis has a career stretching back to the 80s, and while his sojourn on a major label was brief, it didn’t stop him from building a substantial body of work, the most recent example of which is the excellent From the Babydoll. Drummer Linda Pitmon pounded skins for 90s alt.rock act Zuzu’s Petals and has long been the rhythm keeper for Steve Wynn’s various projects. Singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, here on bass as well, needs little introduction to the Blurt audience. Vanguard EP Below the Pink Pony (Plowboy) focuses the foursome’s various visions into a more streamlined sightline of psych-tinged rock. “Chinese White” and “Suck My Heart Out With a Straw” blast out from strange atmospheres, as if giddily escaping a drug den; “(This Can’t Be) Julie’s Song” ruminates over bad love while still indulging in it. “Worrydoll” and “I’m in Love With Everything” simply rock out with abandon, spiked by Julian’s idiosyncratic guitar figures, while “Take You Far Away” filters what could be a textbook Escovedo anthemic ballad through the looking glass. The record is barely long enough to get a sense of the direction the Fauntleroys want to take themselves, but it’s enough to want to hear the band do more so we can find out. [Stay tuned for a special BLURT review of the Fauntleroys, coming soon.]
Before the Fauntleroys and the Empty Hearts appeared, however, the Split Squad had come on the scene. Chiefly the brainchild of bassist/singer/songwriter Michael Giblin of powerpop underground faves Parallax Project and Cherry Twister, the band also includes guitarists Keith Streng of the Fleshtones and Eddie Munoz of the Plimsouls, keyboardist Josh Kantor of the Baseball Project and the Boston Red Sox (not a band) and shares the services of Clem Burke with the Hearts. Minus 5/Young Fresh Fellows leader Scott McCaughey contributed heavily as producer and sessioneer as well, and Linda Pitmon has been known to deputize onstage. The group launched its debut LP Now Hear This… (Red Chuck) earlier this year, and it’s a doozy. Giblin and company mainline both the punk-fueled power pop of the late 70s (particularly Munoz’s erstwhile homebase) and the garage raunch R&B of 60s stalwarts the Small Faces (whose “Sorry She’s Mine” get a spirited run-through here) into a fizzy frenzy of muscle pop and caffeinated soul. “She is Everything,” “Touch & Go” and “Feel the Same About You” sounds like lost gems from the heyday of late 70s L.A., while “Hey Hey Baby” and “Now Hear This” kick the door off the garage and onto the dance floor. “I Can’t Remember” and the cover of Bettye LaVette’s “You’ll Never Change” showcase Giblin’s comfort with soulful balladry, while “I’ve Got a Feeling” and a take of Terry Reid’s “Tinker Tailor” nod toward heavier territory. “Superman Says,” co-composed by producer McCaughey, jumps right into the early 70s glam rock pool. Burke really cranks up his love for Keith Moon here, and everybody involved sounds like they’re having a blast. But the real revelation is Giblin, whose sharp ear for melody and amazing voice carry the day, despite being the least well-known amongst his peers. Now Hear This… is such a satisfying slab of soulful rock & roll it makes one hope these folks never go back to their day jobs. (Go HERE for review… meanwhile, below is a shot of the Split Squad performing at the 2013 BLURT SXSW day party at the Ginger Man pub in Austin.)
The word “supergroup” need not always inspire a sneer, not if bands like these ply their trade in the name of friendship and fun.
Photos credit: Empty Hearts by Robert Matheu; Fauntleoys by Jeff Fasano; Split Squad (live) by John Boydston