Written by: Dave Cantrell
In the amber-hued, halcyon days of the early-to-mid 70’s, pre-punk, post-psychedelia, pre-Thatcher/Reagan, post-Summer of Love, there existed a pocket. In it were some of the most easy-going, melody-kissed, quintessentially goodtime bands to ever saunter across a rock ‘n’ roll stage. Graced with the stubby, ungainly, near-pejorative label “pub rock,” these bands – and for the purposes of this review we’ll limit it to the Route 66-obsessed Ducks Deluxe and pleasingly low-wattage torchbearers Brinsley Schwarz – ached for an America that swirled gauzily in their imaginations, one where the joyously road-weary americana of the Band merged out of the slow lane into the center lane and collided with the adolescent, tube-socked charge of power-pop that had just drifted over from the fast lane. The result was a sweet, plucky, humbly shimmering sound – often swinging, sometimes rocking, often both – that not only presented a place for punters to plant their flag that involved neither walls of mellotrons nor sensitive sorts carrying the hippie dream forward with an acoustic and a sunny So Cal gleam in their eyes, but also happened to seed the yet-nascent British wing of the equally misnomered New Wave. Brinsley Schwarz would supply their namesake guitarist and keyboard wiz Bob Andrews to Graham Parker’s Rumour as well as unleashing a certain lanky bassist by the name of Nick Lowe, while matriculating from Ducks Deluxe was Martin Belmont (he of the muscular ax gymnastics, also to the Rumour), Sean Tyla of early Stiff signing the Tyla Gang, and Motors men Nick Garvey and Andy Mcmasters.
As it turns out, that scene would also, nearly 40 years later, feed the aesthetic hunger of one Bradley Skaught, who, in 2013 via his band Bye Bye Blackbirds, would channel the many charms of that period into one of the year’s finest pop rock records.
The album is We Need The Rain, self-released on their own label, and it refracts a lavish, unabashed, mash-note love for the concisely exuberant rock ‘n’ roll song, the type nearly no one seems willing nor capable of putting together anymore (the latter is strongly suspected). The record is also testament to the power of absorbed influence, since we have it on direct authority that none of the precursors thus far mentioned figured actively in the writing or recording of this record. In other words, no ‘s’ need be tacked to beginning of the word ‘lavish’ up there. Regardless, We Need The Rain may rightfully be heard as the arrival of the Jesus of Cool’s long-lost spiritual brother.
One of the earmarks of pub rock is its ’eminent listenability’ and in this regard WNTR is its peerless doppelgänger. Jump in anywhere and be awash in an embarrassment of hooks. Opener “All In Light,” built on a ‘Rainy Day Women’ drum whomp, pulls Badfinger (another touchstone) through a twanged midwestern prism, “Butterfly Drinks” plugs a Thorogood groove into a Chiltonesque romp, while “Waiting For The Drums” could sneak with the smoothest imposter’s confidence on to the tail end of Silver Pistol and not provoke a second look. As much as the loose-limbed panache of the songwriting, it’s the production – mostly by Paul Tyler, a couple tracks by KC Bowman – that guarantees the Bye Bye Blackbirds a seat at the Kentish Town’s poptimist round table (it’s down at the pub, of course). Clear as a fresh-poured lager, it cossets its clutch of essential elements – the exacting froth of rhythm guitar; nimbly drawn, filigreed solos; brightly punctuated drums and bass; the assured vocals, only as boisterously pitched as called for – in a flowing liquid glass clarity that again reminds of the earliest golden days of FM radio. Taken as a whole, this is music designed to listen to while dancing delirious circles about your flat, slightly tipsy, massively happy, thrilling to the buoyancy, hoping with all your might that the Bye Bye Blackbirds come play your neighborhood dive on a Friday night like never used to happen in the good ol’ days but seems like it did. We Need The Rain has the delicious flavor of an album that doesn’t take you back but rather brings the ‘back then’ back into the now.
Songs like “Waiting For The Drums,” with its instantly whistleable guitar melody and Dion and the Belmonts-ready ensemble flourishes, the moody but chime-a-rific “Secret Ride,” the ridiculously catchy – and winkingly lascivious – “Shook Down Softly” that every jukebox in the land is hungry for, or the yearning “Don’t Come Back Now” with its refrain of “I’m alone but I’m not lonely” and whose title is actually a plea to the heart to remain AWOL so as not to threaten a fragile post-breakup peace, all brim with a pop-rock classicism such as to rival the recent Bongos ‘lost album‘ release. In terms of where-have-you-been-all-my-life craftworthiness, though, nothing trumps “Like A Thief,” a near five minute blustery ride through a virtual museum of hooks and if any one song on here supports the pub rock thesis it’s this one, punching forward on Lenny Gil’s Rumour-driven drum thump, Aaron Rubin’s spry, gangly bass, Ian Robertson’s trippingly agile guitar fills – he even unspools an impeccable Edmunds run over the middle eight – the song is pure solid rollicking magic from beginning to end, a natural cousin twice removed to “Radio Free Europe” and every inch its match. It’s also a shoo-in candidate for song of the year.
Stepping past the merely pleasing “Brand New Sitting Still” – generally speaking only Ray Davies could slow it down like that in this form and even his success rate was hit and miss – and the equally earnest plod of Free’s “Broad Daylight” (both of which are more than compensated for by the Kursaal Flyers-cover-Neil Young charm and churn of album ender “Spin Your Stars”), what we have here is an unclaimed gem that Stereo Embers, with all its editorial might, suggests you claim and pronto.