By Eleni P. Austin
Anyone who is passionate about music usually has that one band they loved desperately, but that band never achieved the acclaim or financial success they richly deserved. For many Los Angeles denizens in the late ‘80s, The Balancing Act was that band.
Formed in 1984, the four-piece, featured Jeff Davis and Willie Aaron on guitars and vocals, bassist Jeff Wagner and drummer Robert Blackmon. Their debut EP was produced by ex-Plimsouls front man Peter Case and released in 1986.
The EP garnered enough attention to get them signed to Primitive Man, an imprint of the very influential indie label, I.R.S. Their first full-length album, Three Squares And A Roof arrived in 1987. Quirky instrumentation and clever wordplay, rendered it nearly perfect.
The band quickly followed up in 1988 with Curtains, produced by Gang Of 4 visionary, Andy Gill. The album expanded their already expansive sound to include the Free Jazz stylings of “Fishing In Your Eye” and a trenchant cover of Parliament’s “Can You Get To That.” (25 years later, Jeff Tweedy “borrowed” the same arrangement when he produced Mavis Staples’ version).
In 1989, the band split up, worn out from relentless touring and very little label support. The guys sort of scattered. By the dawn of the new millennium Robert Blackmon had become a successful photographic artist too and Steve Wagner founded the craft beer business, Stone Brewing Company. Willie Aron was still a working musician in Los Angeles and Jeff Davis had relocated to London.
While in London, Jeff began busking, basically performing music in the streets for gratuities. He came upon Fergus Griffin, in the London Underground doing the exact same thing. The two formed a fast friendship, bonding over a shared love of Roxy Music, Nick Drake T. Rex.
By 2005, the duo had relocated to the Bay Area, writing their own songs. After connecting with bassist Aldo Silver, the trio began woodshedding in earnest. When they started performing around San Francisco they had evolved into a seven piece band.
Settling on the name L’Avventura seemed apropos, since their sound is as revolutionary as the Antonioni film it references. Finally they have released their debut, Your Star Was Shining.
The first three tracks offer a smorgasbord of styles, displaying L’Avventura’s taut versatility. The album kicks into gear with “Swandive.” Phased guitar riffs slur and shimmer atop a loose-limbed, swaggering, T.Rex-tastic groove.
Davis summons his powers of seduction and moves in for the kill. “With your skin like that, like some nectarine, and your lips sweetened with nicotine/ And the way you read your magazine, Baby take a swandive with me.” Underscoring this louche lothario’s rap is a stuttery guitar solo that pivots between droning and morse code riff-age along with “haa-ooop” ing backing vocals.
The super crunchy Power Pop of “Pretend You Don’t See Me” is accented by thwomping guitar licks and a loping backbeat that nearly gets fractured in the echo and sway. Davis charts the course of a doomed relationship with hipster chick, from first blush…“I saw you there at the record rack, ain’t you hip with that Bacharach in your hand…” to the bitter denouement, “…pretend you don’t see me.”
Anyone who came of age in the ‘60s and 70s understands the magical power of radio. It offered a musical respite from everyday troubles. More importantly, a powerful connection was made with the DJs that seemed to craft a perfect playlist to accompany the adolescent angst everyone felt they experienced alone. “Rocket Sue” pays homage to that wistful rite of passage.
Propelled by a sugar rush of acoustic guitars, the lyrics paint a vivid portrait the alienated teenage disconnect. “I listened late at night, to hear her voice come flowing down my lonely average street/To find its way to me.”
The best track here is also the most ambitious. “Black Venus” opens with fuzzed-out riffs that are sun-kissed cousins to the Standells’ seminal Garage Rock nugget, “Dirty Water.” Anchored by a sinewy conga rhythm, the song’s arrangement expands sonically, adding chunky, ‘60s flavored organ and electric piano to a kick-ass horn section.
The lyrics are as bold as the instrumentation, spinning a yarn that’s equal parts foreign intrigue, forbidden assignations and deadpan humor. The narrator, dealing in stolen clocks, meets a temptress on the docks in old Marseilles. They rendezvous, “She brought along an accordion, I never even knew that she could play/’Well you remind me of Thalassa, the goddess of lonely shores,’ she said ‘You would believe how many times I’ve heard that said before’/And I would not, and I did not.”
The recurring theme here is girl trouble. Three tracks, “Ms. Yugoslavia,” “Olivia” and “The Queen Of The Forrest” illustrate scenarios that are heartbreakingly droll. The melody of “Ms. Yugoslavia” is a sideways homage to the Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman,” (there’s also a sly shot-out to the Beatles’ “Drive My Car”). The arrangement blends jangly guitars and whimsy. The story feels like a Baltic version of the Audrey Hepburn classic “Roman Holiday.” “The two of us riding on a scooter built for one/Laughing in the sun, rolling past the lovesick.”
“Olivia” is a Sunshine Pop confection. The infectious melody nearly camouflages the acrid recollection of a seaside summer romance. “And there beneath my bed sheets, your caramel skin your sandy feet/It meant so much to me, to you it was trivial…Olivia.”
Tethered to a galloping beat, and guitars that gently weep, “The Queen Of The Forest” offers a snapshot of a couple in flux. “The Queen of the Forest she came down through the trees into this town, ‘well, I’ve seen you before’/The King of the Jungle he was me, or at least he used to be, ‘till it became a chore.”
Other interesting tracks include the feather-light tenderness of “Angela Priest.” On “Nightmare Blues,” shared phobias are dissected over a tick-tock beat and guitars that boomerang through the tensile melody.
The album closes with the shimmering farewell, “Here’s To Absent Friends.” Tentative instrumentation frames this plaintive goodbye to a fallen comrade, as Davis intones “I’ll see you in the ethers, baby/I’ll meet you in the vapors sometime.”
There are a surfeit of players that brought this album to life. Drum duties were shared by Michael Urbano and Micah McClain; Violin was split between Batya MacAdam-Somer and Steve May; Hans Christian on cello and sitar; David Medine on viola; Ed Goldfarb on piano. The horn section is comprised of Gavin Distasi on trumpet, Joshi Marshall on alto sax, Marty Wehner on trombone and Erin Matas on French horn. David Dieni plays timpani and Matt Henry Cunitz deserves MVP status for tackling Wurlitzer electric piano, Rhodes electric piano, Mellotron, octave cat, acetone organ, pump organ, mini-moog, Hohner claviola, celeste, melodica, clavinet, orchestron, Hammond organ and bul-bul. (phew).
Your Star Was Shining is lush and wonderful, sharp and literate: A baroque masterpiece along the lines of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Love’s Forever Changes. Like those ‘60s touchstones, this is a “headphone” record, not an earbud download. Instead of “hearing” this record, take some time and really listen. Your effort will be richly rewarded with an aural banquet.
The good news is L’Avventura is hard at work on their second album. The better news is The Balancing Act are reuniting in 2015. The best news is you get to listen to it all.