Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Damn, But Oh Well: An Epic Record, Post-Epic Records
It started with a bathrobe. Sorting through the mail, robe-clad, I found a flat first-class envelope addressed to me but otherwise unmarked. The CD within, moreover, was burned, with no writing. Owing to the bathrobe (and proximity of the neighbors), I didn’t venture outside to sling the disc towards the trash. So, into iTunes it went.
Two years later, that disc, “Air Stereo” by The Damnwells, is the single most-played album in my collection. Literally—iTunes says so. Inquiries with PR folk, label staff, and friends remain fruitless, and no one has any idea whence the record arrived. Like a lacuna in a manuscript, this mysterious manna begged a maddeningly simple question.
Who, or what, are The Damnwells?
With a name that reads more like an exhortation than bravado—the latter evident in appellations like Metallica, The Arcade Fire, and Return to Forever—The Damnwells might be the most aptly titled group in music. The alt-rock-country-pop foursome (myspace.com/thedamnwells) was initially the brainchild of singer/frontman Alex Dezen and then-bassist Ted Hudson. To make a very long and dispiriting story short—a story chronicled by the award-winning documentary, "Golden Days"—The Damnwells (questionably) enjoyed their incipient days in Brooklyn, where they self-recorded their first album, “Bastards of the Beat.” They secured a record deal with Epic Records in 2003, and subsequently began recording “Air Stereo” (the full-length which subsequently landed on my doorstep).
Midway through recording, however, Epic dropped the band. Suddenly without a deal, they scurried through the album's final stages, and eventually released “Air Stereo” on Zoe/Rounder Records, a veritable non-entity in relation to Epic. Still, with minimal distribution and heavy touring, the band managed to scrape together a modest following.
The ordeal was awash in corporate imprudence and bad timing. It was also—and remains—a shame. Dezen is one of music’s dulcet winners, an old soul who, in a more antiquated time, might have eloped with a lyre, some papyrus, and a quill. “Air Stereo” brims with cheeky pain, and the lyric self-effacement in songs like “Shiny Bruise” and “I’ve Got You” is coupled with perfect production and relentlessly appropriate instrumentation: sparse piano here; strings there; a spoonful of homophony.
The tunes experience genesis in Dezen’s chordal guitar, and the heartrending pop layered above echoes, eerily, the trauma surrounding the record.
With equal doses winsomeness and earnestness, the turmoil-laden group indeed chose a perfect moniker: their legacy is something between “we play damn well” and “we damn well make some money before we starve.” Making contact with Dezen was (surprise!) rather easy, and through email correspondence, MySpace blog stalking, and Wikipedia, the following facts came to light:
1) At one point, Dezen—who will soon begin an MFA program in fiction writing in Iowa City—had just $100 to his name.
2) Hudson, a slinky-haired scholar, broke away from The Damnwells to compose a book on Freemasonry and sundry Oddfellow-related topics.
3) Dezen aside, all the members from the band’s most recent tour had left the group, and were replaced by Adrian Dickey (bass), Andrew Ratcliffe (drums), and Freddy Hall (piano/guitar).
4) In March, The Damnwells completed a new, as-yet-untitled album, which will be available some time this summer.
5) Some of the new tracks are on YouTube, mainly as acoustic performances. Notable selections include acoustic versions of "Like It Is" (see the video below) and “It’s Okay (Hey Now),” both featuring Dezen and his wife Angela.
It continued with a bathrobe. Sorting through my e-mail, robe-clad, I found that The Damnwells will play at Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge on July 25.
They damn well come 'round here again.
Stay Suspicious, Media Mail