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Vol. LXI, No. 33
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
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After a Visit to “Recording Heaven,” Rackett Is Celebrating a New Album

Stuart Mitchner

Rackett is playing like a band with a mission these days. Their new record, Resistance, whose release is being celebrated Saturday at 8 p.m. with a free concert at the Community Park Amphitheater off Route 206 North on Mountain Avenue, makes the “three-car-garage-band” label they’ve been going by look a bit disingenuous. The same line-up has been playing together for 18 months now and have scored successes in Manhattan at Joe’s Pub and the Bitter End, as well as wowing the crowd at an MTV event at the Bowery Poetry Club (“People were standing on the tables”). A week from Friday they start a seven-day tour of Ireland that will take them from Cork up to Belfast and conclude September 2 with a concert at Dublin’s Project Arts Center.

Resistance was made in “recording heaven” according to Nigel Smith, who plays bass and wrote half of the songs on the new album. We were talking at Chez Alice in the Princeton Public Library, and his eyes were shining like those of a pilgrim freshly returned from sacred ground (the studio is in a former church, in fact) as he expanded on the joy of actually using “the famous Telefunken U-47, the holy grail of microphones!” A magical combination: “Digital computer recording with German pre-amps!”

Rackett’s previous CD, Standing Room Only, was recorded at WPRB. This time the band had the luxury of one of the best recording studios in the New York area; it may have an unlikely name (Barber Shop) and be situated in an unlikely place (Hopatcong), but there’s nothing unlikely about a producer, Michael Gregory, who has worked with everyone from Mick Jagger to Carlos Santana, not to mention an engineer, Jason Corsaro, who has worked with Fleetwood Mac and Steve Winwood, winning a Grammy for his contribution to Winwood’s Back in the Highlife album. The mastering was done by Gene Paul at DB Plus on 57th Street in Manhattan.

While Standing Room Only sounded fine, the sound on Resistance lives up to Smith’s claim. Never mind recording heaven, the riff that opens the record and begins “Good As It Gets” sounds like garage band heaven, and by the time the most ungarage-like playing in “11 O’clock” fades away, the celestial hyperbole has been justified. No longer can Rackett be patronized (“professors playing rock — how quaint!”) or merely hooked to poet Paul Muldoon’s star. This is a strong, self-contained, furiously rocking band that happens to have a phenomenal lyricist.

Some Highlights

That visceral opening riff says it all. You have to remember that these two Princeton professors, Muldoon and Smith, were rock besotted long before they went into academia. The lead singer and lead guitarist Lee Matthew, a student of Medieval polyphony adept at a variety of instruments (sax, flute and recorder may soon be part of the Rackett arsenal) lives and breathes rock and roll, as does James scholar (Henry, nor Skip or Elmore)and sometime Rackett member Paul Grimstad. Keyboardist Stephen Allen is a Princeton lawyer who graduated from Berklee College of Music, and drummer Bobby Lewis majored in music at Trenton State (Smith: “he majored in marimba” — sounds like a line Muldoon might use).

Now about that riff that kicks off the album. There are mere riffs and then there are Riffs that are the rock equivalent of God’s fist pounding four times on the door to begin Beethoven’s Fifth. This is one of those and maybe you were expecting the singer to sing yet another variation on “Sunshine of Your Love.” Instead, “Good As It Gets” begins with Lee Matthews singing “Like Holden Caulfield in spotting phonies.” In the space of a few seconds you’ve entered the realm of Muldoon, where you will meet in this one song alone, Davy Crockett, Salome, Frank Sinatra, Al Capone, Marilyn Monroe, Piggy from The Lord of the Flies, Hans Christian Andersen, Errol Flynn, Robin Hood, and Ira Gershwin. Even Desolation Row may not be big enough to hold that bunch.

After the second number, “Don’t Think,” which doesn’t give you time to with its breakneck pace and demonic guitar lines, the title song shows you Muldoon unpeeling the onion of one seemingly simple word. A boy-girl song about thwarted love is in there somewhere, except that the mother works in the Resistance, the Gestapo’s at the door, and the middle eight, which carries the day, takes you through the “17 miles of corridors under the Pentagon.” The great thing about rock is that it’s open to all these possibilities, that, at its best, it can take you from the mundane to the monolithic and still keep rocking.

You get a sense of what makes Rackett special when you hear a Renaissance scholar at Princeton University talk about the realities of juggling academia and rock and roll. Nigel Smith has just been given a Guggenheim for what he describes as “a big project about the relationship between the different kinds of political states in Europe in the time of Shakespeare” and the kinds of literature that were produced in them. “Fed up” with people in English literature not being able to talk to people in French lit or German lit, he wants to write “a true, comparative book” that he knows is going to “take some years.” Asked if the music had begun to conflict with teaching and scholarship, he admitted: “Rackett has slowed me down a bit but it’s also true that I was going pretty fast.” He’d just finished publishing an edition of Andrew Marvell that had been a long time in the making and felt he needed to “answer something else in myself.” Apparently the timing was as good as it gets.

Talking about the genesis of “Mad for You,” a song that contains an especially tasty turn by Muldoon (“I wasn’t the cabin boy/On the Golden Vanity/Or the Naval Viceroy/ Who voiced that inanity/And as for my misdeeds/With the mermaid (or manatee)/I’m still tempted to plead/Temporary insanity”), he said, “I’d had the lyric for some time and there was a rehearsal. I’d probably been reading graduate school applications all day and had about 10 minutes to go, so I just put something together. Bob, the drummer, said ‘Let’s have a time signature that alternates between 4/4 and 7/8,’ “ and it worked. “And it’s a mad song.”

Lee Matthew’s singing is strong throughout, but especially on “Shocks and Struts,” which Smith wrote the music for about an hour after having a tooth extracted: “I wasn’t fit to do anything. I was basically quivering in an armchair.” But music heals all wounds: “It was just very simple chords and a fairly well-known sequence that worked with an excellent set of Muldoon lyrics. And it took my mind off my teeth.”

Even better, the finished product has reminded some listeners of The Band, which Smith considers a special compliment. What makes the comparison all but inevitable is the sound of Stephen Allen’s organ at the end, like a tribute to The Band’s Garth Hudson. Allen also wrote the music and sings lead on “Perfect Match,” which Smith pointed to as one of Muldoon’s best lyrics — because of its “great narrative integrity.” Even better, I think, is what Muldoon does with that wellworn piece of slang, “Got It Made.” Besides being one of the rare songs he himself began writing the music for (Lee Matthew fleshed it out), it’s a work I think even Dylan or Springsteen would admire. Here the words, the arrangement, the musicianship, and the passion and feeling Matthew sings it with come together, and the moment when the music stops and you have only the voice speaking the brilliant last stanza, was the high point of the album for me. Muldoon ferrets out every nuance in that hackneyed phrase while taking it to the terminal possibility. What gets made? A child, a cabin, a reputation, a house, a tumor, and a coffin. Here’s how it ends: “

The coffin-maker’s plug-ugly/There’s beauty in his blade/The coffin lid fits so snugly/Looks like he’s got it made.”

Future Games

According to Smith, “We’ve begun to produce instrumental passages that are musically more complex and various — and we’re looking for a much broader range in the future.” He mentioned “11 O’clock” as a song “where we’re begining to do something different, with some obvious genuflections to Steely Dan and Santana at the end.” Now that they’ve experienced recording heaven, Rackett looks forward to going back to Barber Shop, perhaps this fall, and laying down some new material as well as giving some of their best, previously recorded songs the benefit of superior production and engineering that is so clearly in evident on Resistance. As if that isn’t enough, they want to put together a Rackett songbook. “And a song-cycle, And a musical, yes, a rock opera.”

Sounds like they’ve got it made.

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