By Eleni P. Austin
“Sometimes it’s a famine, sometimes it’s a feast, and sometimes we give out, but we don’t give up ‘til we’re released/Sometimes what we reap, isn’t always what we sow, but these times are all times, and we look out for rainbows.” That’s Those Pretty Wrongs looking for a little grace and salvation on “Always The Rainbow,” off their new record, Holiday Camp.
There’s a symbiotic musical chemistry that exists between Jody Stephens and Luther Russell that is simply undeniable. Although these guys first met in the early ‘90s, they didn’t play together until nearly 20 years later. But the spark was immediate, the songwriting collaboration felt equally effortless. So, they formed Those Pretty Wrongs, a moniker swiped from a Shakespeare sonnet.
Both of these guys have impressive musical pedigrees. Jody, of course, was the drummer for Big Star, the Memphis four-piece that included Alex Chilton and Chris Bell on vocals and guitar, along with bassist Andy Hummel. Between 1972 and 1978, they released three nearly perfect records that were hailed by critics and roundly ignored by radio and the public. (Mostly thanks to shoddy distribution and the usual music industry chicanery)
To a discerning segment of the population, Big Star is as magical as The Beatles, Bowie and The Stones. Even though commercial success eluded their grasp, by the ‘80s, bands like The Bangles, the Replacements and R.E.M. were covering their songs and singing their praises. There were periodic reunions (which included members of The Posies subbing for the late Chris Bell and the absent Andy Hummel), that kept their name alive. But their profile was raised exponentially when the television series That ‘70s Show used Cheap Trick’s cover of Big Star’s “Out In The Street,” as their theme song. It served as a gateway drug, an introduction for a whole new generation. Here was this brilliant American band, equal parts sunny and somber, piercing and accessible, that were simply abandoned by the music industry.
Luther’s storied genealogy is equally impressive. The scion of a successful musical family, his grandad, Bob Russell, co-wrote standards like “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and even the fraternal Hippie anthem, He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” His great uncle, Bud Green co-wrote “Alabamy Bound” and “Sentimental Journey.” Although he grew up on California’s central coast, at age 17, he relocated to Los Angeles, intent on a music career.
By the late ‘80s, he formed The Bootheels with Jakob Dylan, Tobi Miller and Aaron A. Brooks. Although they never officially recorded an album, or scored a record deal, they gained a reputation as one of L.A.’s best unsigned bands. Since then, he’s successfully toggled between fronting bands like The Freewheelers and Federale, cultivating a critically acclaimed solo career and producing music for artists like Noah And The Whale, Sarabeth Tucek and Weezer.
When he wasn’t participating in Big Star reunions, Jody enjoyed a stint with Golden Smog, the alt.country super group that included members of The Jayhawks and Wilco. He also maintained a 9-5 gig with Ardent recording studios in Memphis. By 2012, he was the only surviving member of Big Star. That year saw the release of a poignant documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. When the filmmakers asked him to perform a few songs at select screenings, he enlisted Luther to accompany him and they immediately clicked.
Subsequently, they began writing music together and retreated to Ardent studios to record an album. Their self-titled debut arrived in 2015. Four years later, they followed up with Zed For Zulu. Both albums were met with rapturous reviews and respectable sales. Now they’ve returned with their third long-player.
The record kicks into gear with a dazzling trio of tracks. “New September Song” begins tentatively with shivery ambient amphibian sounds and Jody’s ageless croon. Rather quickly, chiming acoustic guitars intertwine with see-saw bass and a chunky back-beat. A simple evocation of seasonal change, the metaphor is subtle, but implicit. Following the salad days of of summer, life drifts into autumnal grace; “The sultry summer heat’s a drug that idles our imaginings, stills us to remembering and when I feel a need to unplug, and a bit overdrawn, the colors of autumn’s leaves turn on.” The analogy is buoyed by Jody and Luther’s shimmering harmonies. Guitars jangle and slash on the extended instrumental outro, accented by a hi-hat kick.
“Ride Along” is powered by sun-dappled acoustic guitars and stacked, celestial harmonies. Lyrics like “Years had passed and feelings pending, the countless times I looked at you, was high time to stop pretending and make a new breakthrough, high and lonely, dreams will fall and become harder to recall, harder to recall,” offer a tender carpe diem. Lush harmonies and trilling “la-la-las” give the song some heavenly heft.
Conversely, “Paper Cup” conjures up the specter of Phil Spector. The rippling castanets, stompy martial cadence, brittle bass lines, organ wash, ascending piano notes, twinkly glockenspiel and slinky guitars all echo that irresistible Wall Of Sound (sans the homicidal aftertaste). Nevertheless, the aural cornucopia never overshadows sly lyrics that yearn for mercy from an imperious lover; “A gentle stroke and a telling tug on this leash around my neck, at least I’m not so lonely, being led like a little pet, I guess I’ve just been suckin’ up just to keep you pacified and kept myself close to heel, not to get jerked aside.”
On a record stacked with superlative tracks, four stand out from the pack, lining up back-to-back, smack in the middle of the record, beginning with the aforementioned “Always The Rainbow.” Sparkly acoustic guitars partner with chroma-colored keys, wily bass and a kick-drum beat. Philosophical lyrics search for an antidote to these troubled times; “Sometimes in the quiet, we anticipate the noise, grateful for the laughter and the pain that it destroys.” Jody and Luther’s honeyed harmonies are shadowed by moody Moog notes. If we’re lucky, amidst the din and chaos, peaceful coexistence can be achieved; “….When the clatter fades away and rainbows come into view, I look into the eyes of someone who believes, and there’s you.”
If AM Pop radio was still a thing, “Brother, My Brother” could sandwich nicely between Chicago’s “Wish You Were Here” and Led Zeppelin’s “Tangerine.” Cascading acoustic licks spark and spiral across a gorgeous melody. The arrangement expands to include fluttery flute, lowing cello, swooping violin and pastoral clarinet. It’s tempting to surmise that Jody is addressing his fallen, Big Star comrades, Chris, Andy and especially Alex, whose appetites were legendary; “Brother, my brother, this song is for you, and all those that loved you and helped to see you through, life, oh this life, you had a taste of it, but your invincibility got in the way of it/Arm in arm, if not eye to eye, we didn’t fit like a glove, but we found common ground between us and worked it out with love.”
“I Will Remember” is a mid-tempo groover that seems to celebrate the Big Star days and pay homage to Jody and Luther’s budding musical kinship. Guitars phase and flange atop crushed velvet keys. sinewy bass lines and a propulsive beat. The opening verse paints a vivid scene, time-traveling half a century; “I will remember a song dawned with you and me, it was just the two of us, in the 20th century, I will remember how we could rise and see, and let the music flow, our lives awakening.” Guitars ping between verses with a sonar pulse, accompanied by thick, shang-a-lang keys. At the bridge, a tick-tock beat signifies the passage of time; “Oh we hold on, how we hold on, oh we hold on in this 21st century, philosophically analyzed, supersonically atomized, and we come realize, we aren’t all that we need, we need a world in unity, in this 21st century, in this 21st century.” It’s a bittersweet reverie.
Finally, “Something Beautiful” is slightly more contemplative and introspective. Melancholy acoustic chords lattice painterly piano, barely-there bass and hushed percussion. Lyrics tackle the tough questions; “Are we who we were, or who we’re meant to be, stuck inside that frame, or have we broken free/Is the dream alive, or is it walking dead, can the hope to revive and mistrust be shed, by something beautiful, by something beautiful.” Sighing harmonies wrap around pointillist piano, lissome guitars and lapping percussion on the break. The final verse shares something of an epiphany; “From mountain views of expectations, to inner questions and revelations, a bigger world to comprehend, just past where the sidewalk ends, it’s beautiful.”
Other interesting tracks include “The Painted Sky” and “Scream.” On the former, lithe acoustic arpeggios are bookended by flinty bass and a clickity beat. Mac Davis once urged us to stop and smell the roses, this song builds off that blueprint insisting we live in the moment; “We’ll dance and sing on this windy night, our silhouettes by the spectral light, a lemonade moon amidst the sparkling of galaxies and celestial queens,” before picking up the gauntlet; “We’ll wake tomorrow and fight the fight in the revelations of broad daylight, we’ll fan the forces of changing winds that carry us to that carry us to grace again.” A lilting slack key-ish guitar solo on the break manages to double-down on the song’s inherent beauty.
The latter seems to tap into the psychic malaise that has gripped the world in these post-pandemic days. Chiming guitars, percolating bass and gossamer keys are tethered to a clip-clop beat, quietly cocooning the lyrics’ inherent paranoia; “The dark side of midnight tapping at my door, a chilling breath I can’t ignore, is it fear recycling, rattling at my door, a blind imagining shakes me to my core…and I scream, scream, scream, scream, scream, oh….scream, scream, scream, scream.”
The album closes with “The Way.” Once again, the instrumentation is pared down to a pair of acoustic guitars. Glassy arpeggios cascade across a winsome melody that shares some musical DNA with Big Star’s “Watch The Sunrise.” Jody and Luther’s feathery harmonies wrap around lyrics that advocate love over hate, consensus over conflict; “Hate is fear, leads us to divisiveness, but love is brave, and celebrates us everyone, so hold the flame illuminated by the sun, darkness on the run and share the light with everyone.” By the bridge, a stutter-step beat and plumy percussion are salted in the mix. It’s a grateful, graceful end to a beautiful record.
While Jody and Luther are credited with writing all songs and making all sounds, they received some a little help from their friends: Danny De La Matyr provided backing vocals, legendary producer Mitch Easter added glockenspiel. Wilco’s Pat Sansone chimed in on Mellotron, tambourine and Moog and Jason Miller played some acoustic bass. The string and woodwind section, arranged by (renowned solo artist, ex-db and forever Big Star acolyte) Chris Stamey, featured Laura Thomas on violin, Leah Webster on cello and Matt Douglas on flute and clarinet.
Holiday Camp is a marvel, front to back, and it’s destined to land on plenty of 2023 Top 10 lists. While the legend of Big Star will never completely recede, Jody and Luther have forged a new musical path that is moody, melodic and melancholy. Hopeful and spiritual without being pedantic or preachy. There’s something kind of beautiful about that.