There appears to be a time-shifted symmetry in effect within Birmingham's music scene. We've written about how the break up of Verbena, a band who were sadly forced towards major label grunge during the 90s, ultimately seeded that city's scene in the years that have followed their break up. History may be repeating with Wild Sweet Orange and its demise.
Like Verbena, Wild Sweet Orange came out of Birmingham and soon caught the eye of major labels. Things seemed hopeful for their success as Mike McCarthy, producer of Austin indie darlings Spoon, worked with the band on its major label debut. This echoed Verbena who were produced by Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) on their major label debut. Though both bands received hype and hope, neither found the kind of success their label partners expected.
Though it is often too easy to blame major labels for ruining promising bands, there are certain paradigms that can create problems. Majors like to hone sounds and direct bands towards a recognized sound. While this can help bands that are a little scattered, it tends to neuter bands with a singular voice making them sound like everyone else. In the cases of Verbena and Wild Sweet Orange, it can be argued that their respective majors' stylistic maneuvers stripped the heart and soul of each band.
Take heart, music fans. Just as Verbena's break up brought us the solo careers of AA Bondy and Duquette Johnston as well as Les Nuby's various projects including Vulture Whale, Wild Sweet Orange, via its former members Taylor Shaw and Chip Kirkpatrick, has born its first post-break up fruit with The Great Book Of John.
The Great Book Of John actually debuted in 2009 a few months before Wild Sweet Orange began falling apart. Their first album, Yves' Blues, largely an acoustic affair, showed guitarist Taylor Shaw's ability to step out as a front man and primary songwriter. In an interview months before this album's release, Shaw explained that he realized during the touring and promotion for Wild Sweet Orange's major label debut that the Great Book Of John was "where my heart was," and this led to the departure of Shaw and Kirkpatrick from Wild Sweet Orange a few months later.
Although Yves' Blues serves as a musical sketch of sorts, it's hard not to hear the promise in that embryonic record. With Jeffrey Cain now helping out on the production side, their self-titled second album quickly launches the band as a wholly-formed and impressive unit. Shaw explains:
A lot of things have changed, especially the sound. There’s a lot more sound.... Yves’ Blues is almost a skeleton of something. You could almost strip these songs down to that, but that’s not what we’ve done.
Cain, through his Communicating Vessels label, has taken an important role with this young band. Formerly of the another Birmingham major label casualty Remy Zero, Cain is “like [producer] George Martin was to the Beatles. He’s able to listen to what we say and get it to audio” according to Shaw.
(It is worth noting that not only is The Great Book Of John on Communicating Vessels, but Preston Lovinggood, Wild Sweet Orange's lead singer and primary songwriter, is on the roster as is Duquette Johnston. This is a label that bears watching.)
Cain has layered the band with sonic textures far beyond the stripped-down ways of their debut. This record would not sound out of place on radio, but it also makes no concessions towards radio either. Cain's own experience as a major label band has probably helped him know where to draw that always important line.
The record's production deserves praise, but the heart of it still lies with the songs. They don't disappoint. Like Verbena's AA Bondy, Taylor Shaw has a deep appreciation for Bob Dylan. While the description Dylanesque is often reserved for the glut of guitar/harmonica troubadours, Shaw would rather channel the spirit of Dylan the songwriter, the man who fundamentally changed the form through subject matter and intention as the best of his songs strip bare the human condition from the meaness to the sadness to the anger and to the self-disgust.
The album's lead track "Robin Hood" is as good as you'll find. Over churning guitars, Shaw sneers the words of a jaded man:
What's your problem?
I got her name and number
And I'll use her when I feel like I want her
She's just a cold shout away from pleasin herself
And pleasin me
But in the chorus, he goes deeper to see the pain inside this same man as he cries out:
I wanna burn down the building that steal from the poor
And give sight and riches to all those who mourn
Sweet angel give me the strength to deny
All the glory I have sought in another life
This song captures the essence of what made the "Like A Rolling Stone" one of the greatest songs ever written. Shaw alters it slightly by turning the lens inward during the chorus rather than remaining with solely the harsh light approach that Dylan used to shine on the protagonist in his song. Still, each shows the pain and consequence of people acting poorly and allows the listener to feel it in full.
Other strong songs include "Ashes Over Manhattan", a gospel-styled ballad capturing the loneliness of the big city. There's also the blues-edged anger of "Black Heart" with lines like "quit covering your white heart, with black suits and fine scars, I know who you are." "Cover My Eyes" channels a meditative spaciness that sounds like an old Big Star tune.
There is actually a lot of Big Star here, both Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, in the way the band melds together a keen songwriting eye through Beatles-like arrangements. The key difference is where Big Star headed sadly towards a drug-induced creative ditch that neither Bell nor Chilton could escape from, Shaw and company revel in a sense of sobriety, wokring hard to see things as they are through a sense of knowing spirituality.
The Great Book Of John shows a band making a leap. There is maturity and purpose not often found so early in a career. Perhaps it is the sense of humility that serve as an anchor to allow the grander sonic visions to flourish. As Shaw sings on the album's penultimate track:
Oh Lord, I know what you want from me
It's just these simple things
How I need these simple things
- Jim Markel