One might be tempted to refer to Ken Stanley as Detroit's version of Robert Pollard. Of course, there are probably versions of the Guided by Voices leader in every major city in the country. That isn't to say that Stanley (and others like him) sound much, if anything, like Pollard. But what we have are like-minded, talented guys who write and record dozens, if not hundreds, of eccentric but great pop-rock-punk songs that reach almost nobody's ears — Pollard was one of the lucky few — as the creators toil in relative obscurity at day jobs, (Stanley himself has worked for the postal system in Detroit for the past 32 years.) And all the various developments in home recording technology have made these characters all the more possible, as they continue to record terrific tracks in their bedroom or basement studios that hardly anyone will ever hear.
That "cheating" recording technology isn't the case with Stanley and his Loud Band, however. No ProTools here. Nope. When any of the songs on his excellent new CD, Good for the Bones, require horns (as several do) or even a timpani drum, Stanley and his mates — including drummer Doug Gourlay, bassist Sean Whittaker and lead guitarist-keyboardist (and album producer-engineer) Glenn Calley (the latter two's credits here also include brass instruments) — strive to provide the actual thing. As result, what may immediately strike the listener about the disc is how organic and real the music sounds.
Stanley has reportedly written and recorded several hundred songs over the years but has only included 10 of what he considers his best on his first "official" release (another solo effort, Stretching, Bending, Pouting & Bouncing, has yet to be offered). While he lists his songwriting influences as Dylan, Ray Davies and the Sex Pistols, among others, the trained ear will hear other additional influences. For instance, "Magnesium," the opening track (which appears to be an ode to dietary mineral supplements), features a New Wave-ish groove a la Joe Jackson circa Get Sharp! preceding a chorus that sounds positively Robyn Hitchcock-ish at his best ... before concluding with some Eastern-sounding, backward guitar loops that predominated numerous psychedelic masterpieces from the late '60s. Thus, you have classic rock elements from the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s all blended together in a 2010 sonic stew.
Likewise, the catchy "Strawman," with its fluctuating tempos, and "Our Stupid Love," one of the weirdest recent love songs captured on tape, may recall the sloppy brilliance of the Replacements more so than the Pistols. And like the best eccentric tunesmiths, Stanley can write strong songs about virtually any subject, which "Ginger Lynn" — a tribute to his favorite porn star (which may be dating him a tad; shouldn't we be singing odes to Sasha Grey in 2010?) — demonstrates.
It's on "Pretentious" — about a major pain-in-the-ass who suffers from that "affliction" — that the Loud Band really hits classic status, though; its intro features brass and percussion, sounding like a lush outtake from Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom. The song itself then features an archetypal and lovely Merseybeat-like melodic riff that will immediately slide into any pop lover's consciousness, before concluding with a brass outro that sounds like something from the Beatles' psychedelic heyday (which, after all, was a lot of the inspiration for Imperial Bedroom in the first damn place). And the pop-rock glory of "What's the Matter with Kansas" takes its title from Thomas Frank's brilliant recent political diatribe but is more about the slavery abolitionist movement that was a strong part of that state's history (and may lead the listener to wonder how such an anti-slavery state could later turn into such a hotbed of political neo-conservatism, as offered in Frank's book ... whether that was the songwriter's intent or not; such is the result of great songwriting). Local songstress Carolyn Striho provides harmony vocals on the track.
Perhaps best of all is the wonderful "Your Pity Party," a Caribbean/Calypso-influenced song ("None of us had anything better to do/So we thought we'd stop by and feel sorry for you") that either Jimmy Buffett or the Brian Wilson-less Beach Boys (think "Kokomo") would've probably killed to have written. And the killer lyrics are absolutely clever throughout, including such great lines as "The band plays nothing but dirges/ No one feels any real human urges" and "Nobody else should be able to play the blues/ until they've walked a mile in your shoes." The song — which also quotes Lesley Gore (how could a pop fan not love that?) — features a sloppy guitar solo, again reminiscent of Mr. Westerberg and crew, for its break, with Stanley then observing: "Omigod, what was that? What can you do? Even the guitarist won't play anything but a lousy solo for you!" Witty stuff.
In lesser hands, "Your Pity Party" could've been a silly novelty song. Ditto the closing track, "Avalanche Gehry," a song about architecture and art lover and collector Stanley's trip to Ohio to see (I think!) a traveling exhibition of Gehry's Guggenheim Museum. The song is a haunting and heavy minor-cord-based blues-rock romp, with an instrumental middle part that might bring to mind the loud grandeur of the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." Stanley sings: "Man, that's one crazy Guggenheim/ I still prefer Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright/ But Gehry is ... way sublime." That latter word might also apply to this album. It may not reach the exact same level or heights of some of its musical touchstones — but just the very effort itself is greatly appreciated at this late date in pop history.
CD release party is Saturday, May 15, at Small's, 10339 Conant, Hamtramck; 313-873-1117. With Devilfish and "surprise guests."
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to [email protected].