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|More from Brian Smith|
Sonically Speaking (9/29/2010)
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Eddie Baranek shouts suddenly from inside the house: "Did you read it?" He hops up from the couch, steps through the open door and points with his Miller beer to a pumpkin that's presiding over the front yard from its elevated perch on the porch. The singer is freshly shaved and Paul Weller dapper in a trouser-sweater combo; his neck-length blond hair is, strangely, tidy. "See what it says?"
A squint reveals orange rind with words carved out for eyes, nose and mouth. A candle supplies backlight.
"We're ripping on _____________," Baranek chirps. "But you can't write that. You can't write what it says. He'd kill me. C'mon." The facial statement hilariously lampoons another "local" rock 'n' roll star and his penchant for annoying self-promotion. It's a sneering gesture, but funny as all hell.
It's a few nights before Halloween and there's just enough autumnal color and holiday scare outside Baranek's Ferndale home to feel inviting to kids, and to feel homey. As he walks back inside the house, he says, one more time, "Don't write about the pumpkin."
Pumpkin heads, and Halloween in general, could easily be some kind of gaudy metaphor about how the Sights' main songwriter and mouthpiece doesn't really take this whole rock 'n' roll thing that seriously ... not anymore, anyway. Rock 'n' roll's a facade, a mockery of what it once was. Or so it appears.
The thing about Baranek is you can never know where he's coming from, really, and more tryingly, you never really know if he's mocking you. When he lets a barb fly, or hints at a verbal spar, he'll hastily backpedal to avoid truly ruffling feathers. Then he'll laugh and, if need be, apologize. A second later he'll be on to a subject entirely different, ADD-style. If he weren't so truthful or charming, he could look forward to a career in politics. But these days his musical career is, after a two-year spiral, central again, revitalized with uncharacteristically steady confidence. His band, the Sights, is back with a new lineup that's about to do its official live debut supported with a 12" EP and a soon-to-be released fourth album, Most of What Follows Is True.
And if the frontman appeared to never take rock 'n' roll seriously before, that was a facade too. In fact, he rose and fell on the success and failures of his band, and the music was a means to both survival and an end in itself. His was a pure belief in the form and its ability to elevate and change lives — for better or worse, as it did his from childhood onward.
But that was before, when the Sights had real momentum, playing major UK shows, such as the NME Music Awards, drawing SRO crowds at Austin's South by Southwest music festival, or supporting Robert Plant in 7,000-seat theaters and winning scads of fans in each city on the tour. That was before, when their Euro and stateside press (including a 6,500-word Metro Times Sights cover story) bloomed and their songs landed in films, TV and a 2005 big-label debut was tapped to lift them from dive bars to big rooms and onto the lips of pubescent girls. That was also before, when Baranek would mock label execs in their presence and not return their phone calls (he once told star-maker and now-Columbia Records head honcho Rick Rubin to get lost).
Baranek was the Sights' always-on center attraction; each day was his mini-coronation.
All of that was a half-decade ago, give or take, an eternity in pop. Baranek had everything going his way. Then it all fell apart.
Gone is Baranek's former running bud, Bobby Emmett, the wunderkind multi-instrumentalist integral to the Sights' sound. Baranek's last show with Emmett, after four years of living out of each other's pockets, was in December 2007.
"I didn't know it was going to be our last gig," Baranek says, back on the couch. "I had no idea." He pauses, not for dramatic effect but to swig from his Miller bottle, and adds, "Our van died that night too."
Baranek chooses words carefully to explain that some of the problems with Emmett involved a misunderstanding that became a squabble over band money and royalties, or, rather, the lack of them. Baranek insists there was no money. Besides, Emmett was tired of the van tours and wanted to do his own record.
"We were friends," Baranek says, emphatically, shaking his head. "He put up with my shit. ... He's a saint for that." It's hard to tell if Baranek's earnest or politicking when talking of his ex-bandmate, but either way it's difficult for him not to be friends with a guy he lived in a van with for months and played triumphant shows together in certain parts of the world.
(Emmett just released an inspired power-pop solo record, Learning Love, recorded in Detroit and in Los Angeles. He's also touring, playing organ with Shooter Jennings and his Booze Review.)
But the band wasn't exactly done by Christmas '07. No, it still had another album due for Scratchy/New Line records — the last one sold well enough to warrant another, and the label claimed it was committed. The trio (with its sixth drummer, Cincinnati's Keith Fox, in tow) had been sweating and demoing a slew of new songs (35 all told) using Emmett's home studio. New Line had also flown Baranek and Emmett to Los Angeles and New York to record and write. Ultimately, the label and the band's publisher listened, didn't like what they heard and said, "We don't hear it."
"That can kill your confidence," Baranek says, in a rare pensive moment. "That all these people who believe in you — who are source of your money, career, everything — can just say, 'We don't hear anything.'"
It truth, the demos weren't that bad, just misguided; tones of a band unsure sure of its next step.
It didn't help that New Line, which had mishandled the Sights' record, had zero clue how to break a band (remember buzz bands the Sounds and Robbers on High Street?), or that the music industry had just begun to tank.
Enter the band's fizzle. Baranek's gradual ascension from a teen songster to rock 'n' roll star had sputtered to a stop. He began playing bluegrass. He went back to school. He fell in love, mowed lawns and got a job. Fuck the music business.
Nearly two years had slipped by and Baranek hadn't talked to his manager Brendan Bourke (whose history includes working with Billy Idol in his platinum-selling years, Jane's Addiction, Big Audio Dynamite, Garbage and others), nor his publisher, much less the guys in his band. In the meantime, he drummed in an "old-guy" band, Spitting Nickels; played bluegrass in Shotgun Wedding and guitar in Battling Siki; finished co-writing and recording an album with scene-star Sterling Silver; continued the Drinking Problem with Korin Louise Visocchi from the Hard Lessons and his singer-songwriter pal Dave Lawson. He also did acoustic gigs and guested on albums, including the recent one (with Lawson) by Rants singer Ian Saylor. Baranek was the proverbial boy about town, playing anywhere with anyone at anytime. It was a good way to forget the sour stuff.
In his mind, the Sights were done – he was the only one left standing — and his rather hidden depression had grown in direct proportion to his drinking. He all but drowned in it. "I looked up and I'm playing bluegrass for six people at the Cadieux Café. I was done. I had no songs. Nothing. And I didn't even care."
But Baranek, who'd begun taking baby steps toward an alternate career — student teaching in a Wayne State lit class and shaping prepubescent minds at the School of Rock — had met the girl he calls the love of his life, Maria Labellarte — a lovely ballet dancer-teacher who really does look like what would result if you crossed an angel with a ballerina. So he cleaned up. He had to — for her, for himself — and it helped ease his transition into a "normal life." And he was at least "happy," despite gnawing musical self-doubt.
But timing is everything in this life, and the idea of adjusting to one filled with the mundane suddenly "scared" the hell out of Baranek. He woke up one day in early '09 determined to prevent debilitating self-doubt from holding him hostage. He wasn't about to be a coulda-shoulda with a gigantic record collection.
Dave Lawson and Baranek became pals back in 1998. "I met Lawson at Old Miami," Baranek says. "He was 16 years old, at a bar, reading a book. I thought that was great — you know, that teenage outsider thing ..."
Baranek, who's six months younger than Lawson and already had the Sights up and running then, sat in on bass with Lawson's band, the Metros. Baranek cackles at the memory: "Lawson played drums. I was the Monday bass player because Zach Curd's mom wouldn't let him play a Magic Stick gig on a school night!"
Lawson remembers: "After that, we regularly hung out at parties and drunkenly sang Beatles songs and stuff like that," he says. "We did a song for some Motown compilation together in 1999. We've been musical cohorts in some sort of informal way for a long time."
The idea of Lawson and Baranek actually playing together in any form vaguely hatched on a 2005 Sights tour with the Donnas, on which Lawson sold the Sights' merch. "We were talking about starting a Donnas cover band and having Korin from the Hard Lessons be the lead singer," Lawson laughs. "In a roundabout way, that became the Drinking Problem."
"Me and Lawson would be in the van on that Donnas tour with acoustics and do sing-alongs — the Stones, Beatles, Who, the Band, Flying Burritos," Baranek says. "That's when I knew."
The Drinking Problem, a half-serious, half-chuckle project, gigged and recorded using "mine and Lawson's leftover songs."
It was now obvious to anyone in Baranek's circle that he wasn't doing anything musically that had any real substance, only drunkenly rehashing songs with friends for shits and giggles.
Some offered difficult-to-heed advice, suggesting that he pick himself up as rock 'n' roll frontman, write new songs, create a serious band and record an album. John Bissa from the Spitting Nickels insisted that Baranek get his shit together, as did Lawson, his girlfriend and a few "Sights super-fans." Baranek climbed out of the emotional gutter and turned to Lawson.
"When Eddie pitched the band idea to me," Lawson says, "I think it was originally going to be a me-and-him kind of thing, like the Drinking Problem had been, only taking it more seriously. But it was just the two of us and we started recruiting other guys."
The plan: Baranek would write most of the songs, sing and play guitar. Lawson would man the bass, guitar, banjo and whatever else, and contribute songs and vocals.
In a matter of days, or kismet, both Baranek's manager and his publishing contact, Lionel Conway (he signed Tom Waits and U2 and worked with Madonna, among others), called out of the blue from Los Angeles wondering what the hell was up "with little Eddie."
"These two old English guys, meanwhile, who have seen everything, called and said, 'We still believe in you,' Baranek says. "You don't know how fortunate you are when you have believers."
Because the Sights were finished, Baranek was set on a new band name. But Lawson insisted on keeping the original. "I said to Eddie that 'you need to call this the Sights.' ... In my opinion it would've been really foolish of him to throw away all that work he did."
Lawson's a lot like McCartney to Baranek's Lennon; his bass lines truly hit the Macca mark — these precise melodic runs that mostly find the right notes, not just the acceptable ones. Lawson's also more reserved then Baranek, more of an observer, less a ruckus-causing dervish, with a seemingly more intellectual approach to songwriting — or maybe that's his specs and professor's hairline talking — and his streak of outwardly nice-guy innocence stretches a mile wide.
There's big mutual respect too. Lawson says that if he "wasn't in the Sights, I'd be a huge fan of the Sights."
Baranek doesn't blink when he calls Lawson "a genius."
As a singer and a songwriter, Lawson's known mainly for his other band, the Pop Project — which is just now demoing songs for a new album — and for the work he's done with the Suburban Sprawl indie label.
The 28-year-old Lawson grew up "nerding out" on the Beatles (it shows) and that paved the way for the other styles he embraced, including country, soul, power pop and, lately, mid-20th-century vocal groups. His first rock show without his parents chaperoning was Pavement in 1994, and it blew his mind.
"Pavement and Sebadoh and all that stuff meant a lot to me as a youth, but since then I've just kept going backwards; now I'm listening to the Mills Brothers, or I'm interested in '40s vocal groups — the Andrews Sisters and stuff like that. It seems like the further back you go, the rawer it gets. And it's funny because they're actually such better musicians."
The bass player's a workaday "corporate whore" at a temp job "that's lasted five years." With that, and another serious band in tow, Lawson says he's still able to dedicate time to a band that could very easily take center stage on more than a regional level.
"It's my priority to make sure the Sights get done everything we need to get done," he says. "That this record gets out and people hear it. I'm really happy to be a part of it. I'm really happy about that record. As far as musical priorities, I have a lot of projects I want to be doing, but I also don't have the time.
"The Sights story is Eddie's story, and I chose to be a part of that. I have to mold everything I do into this whole Sights/rock 'n' roll thing. I have to fit into his story. So, that said, I think the band will grow, over time, into something that I have a more natural place in."
A relatively quick recruitment for the two other "new" Sights ensued. Gordon Smith is another multi-instrumentalist like Bobby Emmett. The 22-year-old music major — a recent Wayne State grad — is a gifted musician skilled on cello, trumpet, trombone, guitar, piano and organ, and he can sing lead and backup vocals, both of which he does on the forthcoming Sights album. Smith also sings one song he wrote.
"I saw him in Mick Bassett and the Marthas," Baranek says. "Gordon was their guitarist-trombonist. At that point, the Sights were done and I'm going, 'Who is that guy!' So I went up to him and said, 'Hi, my name's Eddie.' And he said, 'Yeah, I know, I met you three times!'" (Baranek mumbles something about drinking too much and constantly having to "re-meet" people.)
"And then I stole him."
The new Sights drummer, Jim "Skip" Denomme, hoisted sticks in the Hotness until he tired of it. Baranek calls Denomme "a great intuitive drummer, like playing with Levon Helm and Ringo."
Baranek and Denomme met at the "Ugly Duckling bar on the east side, back in '06. We'd get hammered and discuss what we listen to. We are total east-siders. And holy shit is he's the most humble guy I've ever met."
If Baranek's ecstatic with the new Sights lineup, it's for good reason — they are, as Jagger would say, "first-class."
"Gordon brings the scholarly musicianship, Lawson's the harmony, and Skip's the guy who shows up and plays great," Baranek says, and adds, in the third-person, as if to crown the comment, "Eddie's the mouth."
One of Eddie Baranek's career problems (or greatest assets) could be that he's an ambling anachronism; his is a musical language that's perpetually unfashionable with the kids, and his passions reach much further back than, say, the second Radiohead album.
He spreads the gospel of early Neil Young to prepubescent students at his School of Rock teaching gig. ("The kids have that purity and an energy," he says, "but they need to learn the history.") He'll listen in mouth-agape wonder to Abdul "Duke" Fakir of the Four Tops guest-speaking in an M.L. Liebler Wayne State English class — where Baranek's a paid peer mentor and teacher's assistant — about smoking weed with the Beatles. To him that is life-affirming.
He doesn't download music because he's "still in the old world" and he listens mostly to vinyl. You won't find him on Facebook ("I keep my friends in real time!") or navel-gazing away on Twitter. But such self-promotion shortcomings could spell career ruin for a rock 'n' roll band these days.
Lawson says he pushes Baranek to sometimes get into the moment, at least musically. "I'm not like a fuddy-duddy who hates new music, and I don't want Eddie to be that way," he says. "If you say that no new music is good, that's like being a painter and saying you hate the color green and won't use it. It's not all good, but there are ideas there. ...
"I know Eddie's a fan of Nellie McKay, who I turned him onto," Lawson adds, laughing. "It's funny, when I start to think of new stuff that I like, the majority of it is kind of backward-leaning, like the Jamie Lidell and the new Raphael Saadiq album. ... I mean, that's so retro, you can almost pick out every song he's ripping off, but it's somehow so good. But it's the same with the Sights. You go, 'Oh, that sounds like [the Small Faces'] 'Tin Soldier,' but at the same time it's not 'Tin Soldier.' It's awesome."
Lawson has observed Baranek for years, watched him rumble, tumble and then embrace real adult stuff. "He's living on his own now and he's found some sense of accomplishment without having to rely completely on the Sights income, which I think is a relief for him," Lawson says. "But at the same time, I think the Sights are still where a lot of his identity lies. But I don't think it's as much like, 'This is my life, I have nothing else' as it used to be."
It wasn't so long ago when Baranek lived with his parents. Now he shares his rented house — which belongs to pedal-steel player Pete Ballard — with his girlfriend Maria, Gordon Smith and friend Eric Allen, with whom Baranek shares a Who tribute band called the Two. It's cozy, clean and well-lit over wood floors, a few Victorian curves and higher-end thrift-store furniture. The Sights rehearse in the basement. It's hardly a debauched rock 'n' roll den/Beggars Banquet setup. There's nary a whiff of weed.
A Faces poster, signed by Baranek hero Ian McLagan, enlivens dead space above a computer, and his floor-to-ceiling wall of vinyl and collectible singles (some displayed; rare Small Faces picture sleeves, etc.) feed the stereo, all of which nearly dominate the living room.
Baranek lifts the needle from Nicky Hopkins' The Tin Man Was a Dreamer and drops in a CD-R of the forthcoming Sights record, Most of What Follows is True. He cranks the stereo's volume, steps back and, with a scarcely concealed note of pride, announces, "I'm moving into 1972 from 1966."
What Follows does sound as if it could've been recorded between 1972 and 1974 — the hints of Badfinger, Ronnie Lane and the Who ("It's not a rock 'n' roll record without at least three Who riffs," Baranek says) are there. But it's a Sights album, top to bottom. It's the kind of rock 'n' roll that kids could latch on to and dig — it's got youth, spirit, hooks, big guitars and folk and pop — classic power peppered with gentle persuasion and sing-along subtlety. It's anything but Fall Out Boy.
Recording for What Follows was unlike the storied and bacchanalian Sights sessions of days past. This time, the band had a plan based around a tight budget cobbled together with loose change, luck, debt, some goodwill from longtime Sights producer Jim Diamond.
Not only is this one of the best sounding records Diamond has ever done (his belief in the Sights sounds obvious), but it's the Sights best, hands down, to date; the songs are focused, take far fewer head-scratching left turns, and it's incredibly well-arranged and musical. There isn't a sour song aboard. Its pop is realized. Its rock 'n' roll is realized. The aptly titled "Hello Everybody" jump-starts the album, signaling loudly the band's (triumphant) return. It's followed with real sadness ("Back to You"), real joy ("Honey"), country ("Muse"), soul ("Guilty" — complete with horns). It makes the last Sights album sound like an overreach — even on first listen it's clear that Baranek wasn't yet ready to do something this evolved in 2005.
Life experience is essential, particularly for anyone whose longing is to be a songwriter. That's not to say that Baranek's band experiences have left him a jaded man; no, the album's rife with romantic images of rock 'n' roll and self-discovery — at one point Baranek tips his hat to his parents and sisters. Later he talks of "Listening to 45s in your room ... honey, you just got to believe."
Lawson's country-pop stunner "Muse" — the pedal-steel and acoustic guitar just ache — is as unpredictable on a Sights album as its seamless transitions — it's an arrangement that'd do Bob Ezrin proud. "Tick Tock Lies" is the kind of baroque, backward-futuristic pop that Jellyfish would've stung to have written.
"Miracle Maria" is probably the album's best chance for wide attention, and it features a banjo, a violin, an organ and a piano. It's a straight-up folk-rock epistle to Baranek's girlfriend, Maria, and it could be the best song he has ever recorded; it's self-effacing but confessional pop, a near sugar overload with a chorus that'll absolutely take residence in the head long after its two minutes and 52 seconds have passed. ("I love that the lyrics are so direct," Lawson says of "Miracle Maria." "It's brave, almost silly to some extent.")
If all goes as planned, the Sights won't have much time to relax in 2010. The band's (re)launch looks like this: In late November, the band releases a limited-edition four-song 12-inch vinyl EP (with a CD-R version inside) that features two songs from the forthcoming album, and two exclusive. The 12-song full-length is set to drop early next year, but the hunt for a record label is on, and Baranek's looking up his old Sights contacts.
In all, the album grooves like a band album, and it wouldn't work as such without each member's contribution — it's hard to believe that they hadn't worked the songs out live before recording them.
One reason it works is Baranek's savage commitment, that decision to sacrifice personal humanity for rock 'n' roll aspiration, or some shit. He has learned a certain balance in life, insight from experience, and he knows he probably isn't what others consider "normal." It's that thing that fucks you up for a normalized life but makes you great in rock 'n' roll, and a frontman. What's it called? It's intangible. Charisma's part of it, but it's more than that and it draws others to you, makes others want to know more about you. Call it what you like, but Baranek's got that, and it's so much bigger than his diminutive physique. His band members see it, and know it.
As the night wears on, as Carl Perkins' "Only You (and You Alone)" drifts from the speakers, the singer considers the very idea of rock 'n' roll in 2010. "The whole thing is a joke," he says. "It's all an act." But you never know if this guy's serious.
Check out some of the new Sights' songs at myspace.com/thesights.
Brian Smith is managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.