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Country

Ghosts of forgotten style

Scarlet Oaks aims to reinvent the long-lost art of true alt-country

MT Photo: Doug Coombe
Something a little haunting: Scarlet Oaks at home.
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Published 1/21/2009

Singer-drummer Noelle Lothamer has no illusions about the popular perception of rock 'n' roll stalwarts bailing for country music's more pastoral pastures."Country is where rockers go to age gracefully," the 35-year-old muses, as she sips white wine at the kitchen table of her Ferndale home with Scarlet Oaks bandmate, singer-songwriter Steve McCauley. A vet of area rock acts like Outrageous Cherry and Troy Gregory & the Stepsisters, Lothamer's seen enough of the musical landscape to be a fairly good judge of the terrain. "We've gone from hard rock to punk rock and now we've graduated to country," she says of the pair's individual musical evolutions. She's joking, of course — but just a little.

More than "graduating," what she and McCauley have done with their fledgling, Detroit-area alt-country act is to bind the freewheeling forces of rock with the candor of country's storytelling legacy. The band's impressive debut EP, Innocence Isn't Easy, shows as much reverence for X as it does for Gram Parsons. But while those comparisons come easily, there's something about Scarlet Oaks' unusual song structures that reaches well beyond the Tweedy-aping of its contemporaries. There's an almost gothic quality to these creations. Like Nirvana, even the most glittering moments and euphoric arrangements carry with them a subtle shroud of uneasiness.

"No matter how upbeat their songs are, I always find something a little haunting in there," says Scotty Hagen of Ferndale's Bellyache Records. Hagen, who put out the EP along with the band, says that McCauley's songwriting is what lured him to the project. "His sound is so unique," he says. "It's a little ghostly, like the ghost of a forgotten style."

Sitting across the table from the earnest, sweet-faced McCauley, it's sometimes difficult to put into context the fact that he's the primary force behind the band's searching, slightly doleful homages to obsessive love, musket-toting heroines and urban sprawl. But like the songs themselves, one gets the feeling that there's a lot more going on in there than the surface is willing to allow.

"I try to be vague," the 31-year-old says. A multi-instrumentalist who broke into the scene with his twin brother, Patrick, in Fifth Period Fever, McCauley also plays guitar and harmonica in Scarlet Oaks. Though his pop sensibilities are keen, he has a bluesman's perspective when it comes to crafting a lyric. "The lyrics are just part of the song — the overall picture is what matters," he says. "You can make words mean whatever you want them to. I can't write an overt love song — the heartache and dysfunction are so much easier to define."

Although McCauley's songwriting career began years earlier in his hometown of Plymouth, in many ways, his collaboration with Lothamer seemed predestined. The two first met when Lothamer's aunt hired one of McCauley's early lineups to perform at a family party on her Eaton Rapids farm in 2001. Their paths would cross again a few years later when Lothamer auditioned as a drummer for Fifth Period Fever.

"Apparently I wasn't good enough, because he never called me back," she crabs good-naturedly. But when McCauley began to shift gears, stylistically, in 2006, he found a perfect partner in Lothamer who, at that time, had transitioned away from her primary instrument (bass) and was becoming a dominant force on the drums — "dominant" being the key word. Behind the kit, Lothamer looks like a Victorian rendering of a woman possessed. Focused and intense, with big eyes flashing, she knocks out rock solid shuffles and dramatic fills while McCauley works the stage — her voice mingling with his in strangely harmonious bedlam.

"Obviously, I'm not the most technically proficient drummer," Lothamer shrugs, "but my enthusiasm must be what people respond to. I think the singing adds to the performance aspect — and it's easier for me to play drums and sing than it was to play bass – my arms just kinda go on autopilot."

If Lothamer is the wild card, McCauley is Scarlet Oaks' anchor – the stabilizing force whose own exemplary showmanship was shaped by seeing punk legends the Bad Brains live when he was in the eighth grade. "Combining the songs with the passion is really important," says the singer, whose vocal chops have the rasp of early Kris Kristofferson and the gentility of Parsons. "I like the mentality of laying it on the line. I hate watching bands just stand there."

The band has played at all the usual Detroit area watering holes, as well as delivering a spirited on-air performance at WDET. And as is de rigueur in this town, they've also endured several member changes along the way.

The present lineup features James Anthony on guitar and Ian Williamson (formerly of Capitol Cities) on bass. But the foundation of the band lies in the bond that has grown between McCauley and Lothamer. "Bands are harder than marriage," says McCauley, who currently resides in Woodbridge with wife Sarah. "It's the most complicated relationship you'll ever have." Lothamer, who is also in a relationship, has her own take on it: "In this great, polyamorous business of being in a band, Steve and I are monogamous. We can count on each other. This is probably the first band I've been in where I feel 100 percent comfortable in my role. As a result, I've definitely gotten better — I'm taking it a lot more seriously."

For both of them, "seriously" means putting all of their focus on the music. There are no pie-in-the-sky career ambitions in this camp — they've been too close to the flame, historically, to put their faith in the beleaguered entertainment industry. Instead they keep their goals simple: make better songs, make better records, play your ass off and, in the tradition of their heroes, keep it close to the vest.

"The more you learn about somebody, the less you idolize them," says McCauley, who, for his part, prefers not to be too literal.

"It's like hotdogs and Twinkies. Do you really want to know what's in there?"

Friday, Jan. 23, at the Lager House, 1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-961-4668. With I Crime and the Displays.

Wendy Case is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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