by Kurt WildermuthFor decades, pessimists have been pronouncing the death of the classic pop-rock single, as an art form and a kind of songwriting. In the '80s, back when his band The Call still occasionally got played on FM radio, singer/songwriter Michael Been compared himself to a maker of horseshoes in a time when no one was riding horses. "They don't write 'em like that anymore," Greg Kihn put it in his own classic pop-rock single, "The Break Up Song" (1981).
Under the mainstream radar, though, and beyond the corporate stranglehold on commercial radio, independent musicians like singer/songwriter Bill McGarvey (www.billmcgarvey.com) bring new life to the old forms and keep reminding us of why we cared about those classics in the first place. "The rumors of the death of good songwriting have been greatly exaggerated," McGarvey tells me in a May 2003 email interview. "Melody and harmony are universal, and something about those elements is bred in the bone with human beings--I don't believe that will ever be out of date." For a little more than a decade, McGarvey has been part of the music scenes in New York and New Jersey. Raised in Philadelphia, he moved to Brooklyn in the mid-'80s and eventually wound up in Hoboken, N.J., where he started playing drums with now-legendary indie-rock bands such as Winter Hours, the Vipers, and Liquor Giants. "I learned a lot from playing with all those people," he notes, but "what I took away from those experiences was less about a particular sound or approach and more about the need to go deeper and stay in touch with what made you fall in love with music in the first place. That sense of possibility that you get that is very thrilling and primal."
Where did he see himself going then? "Nowhere...fast!!!...At the time I didn't play any guitar, and the songs I wrote were just melodies I came up with and sang into my answering machine, so I felt the main way I was going to participate in music would be as a drummer. After a while Winter Hours broke up and Ward Dotson (leader of the Liquor Giants, former member of the Gun Club and the Pontiac Brothers) moved back to L.A." In the mid-'90s, "fed up being disappointed," McGarvey formed the band Valentine Smith with guitarist Stephen Dima. During the band's frenetic live shows, McGarvey sang while doubling on stand-up drums. How smooth was his transition from drummer to frontman? "At that time in my life I was pretty low in general, so I had nothing left to lose-who cares if I get laughed at or booed or if I fail. If that was all that could happen...I'd been through worse in my life outside of music."
Over the course of five years, Valentine Smith released three CDs on its own label, Another Round. The Back on Earth EP (1994) presented largely acoustic, ringing-guitar folk-rock; the Putting in the Peacetime Hours full-length (1996) was harder-edged, more electric, even punky; and the Valentine Smith EP (1999) delivered softer, sometimes Beatle-esque pop. Whatever styles they were performed in, the band's songs were often so catchy and well-crafted that they seemed the product of long experience. "Early on Steve and I probably obsessed over the songs a lot more than we did toward the end of the band," McGarvey say, "but I guess that was understandable because we were both new to the partnership thing. At the start I was big on singing these song ideas I'd recorded on my answering machine to Steve, and he did his best not to look at me like I had a screw loose."
Following the band's break-up, McGarvey began a solo career based on the same passion, intelligence, and dedication to craft that he'd brought to Valentine Smith. Like that band, his new group, the Good Thieves, has a full-time violinist-in fact, Kim Nordling-Curtin, who played in the final incarnation of Valentine Smith. According to McGarvey, though, "it really hasn't been a conscious decision to always have a violin. I just think the two-guitars, bass, and drums format can get a bit limiting, and Kim plays not only violin but also flute, so it just seemed natural to play around with different kinds of sounds."
Nordling-Curtin and her fellow Good Thieves-guitarists Thomas Novembre and Eric dePicciotto, bassist William Paris-appear on most of McGarvey' solo debut, Tell Your Mother (2003, Thievery). "Recorded in the kitchen, mixed in the living room," this thirteen-and-one-bonus-track collection grew out of an initial, lo-fi, six-song recording, Palace Verde, on which McGarvey took a stripped-down Valentine Smith sound in a looser, more soulful, even swinging direction. "Very conscious of simplifying things," he played most of the instruments on Palace Verde himself, "and my ‘innocence' as a guitar player makes it impossible for me to sound too polished. I was just hoping that my liabilities as a player could become an asset to the record. Getting it perfect wasn't really an option, so I just tried to make it as intimate as possible."
Instead of releasing that first version widely, however, he chose to remix, recut, and add to those tracks. "I realized that there might be a way to maintain the personality of the Palace Verde demos but also to improve the sound quality of the tracks. I was very proud of the songs, but I didn't want the lo-fi production values to get in the way of people hearing the record-ultimately I wanted to present the songs in the best light possible. So I set up some digital recording gear at home and started messing around with the demos. Some of the basic tracks from Tell Your Mother are from the same 8-track or 4-track machines, but with the new gear I was able to get more out of them... There definitely was a lot of trial and error involved, but that's why I opted to record from home, so I could minimize the space between getting an idea and executing it."
The songs are all guitar-based, but they range stylistically from the Left Banke-meets-Lindsey Buckingham sweetness of "Tell Your Mother" to the Springsteen-does-quasi-country of "Jericho Smile" (a smile that's "crumbling but triumphant," McGarvey tells me) to the garage-rockabilly rawness of "Outside the Lines."
I ask him how he resisted the temptation to stretch out the rushing, horn-driven "Settle Down (Ballad of the Cornfed Beauty)," which clocks in at a refreshingly Ramones-like one minute and thirty-nine seconds, but he turns out never to have been tempted. "After I played the recording for some people they wanted to hear more verses, find out what happened to the girl and the guy in the song, etc. But I always thought of it as this obsessive, horny little song about desire. There was no more story to it, just this guy fixated on the girl a couple cubicles down at his office and she is barely aware of his existence."
McGarvey's songs don't tell stories in an old-fashioned, folk-ballad sense, but they often present narratives indirectly, with a speaker who suddenly reveals something or takes an unexpected turn in the last line. One word might change the whole picture--from "stay" to "stay away," for example. "I'd rather write a song that asks questions rather than gives answers. Maybe it has something to do with the difference between explaining and describing." Will his characters-who often stand alone, observing, longing for a connection with other people that's maybe just out of reach-ever get "outside the lines"? "Yes, that's the only way that connection can ever be made. They have faith in things they haven't seen or experienced yet."
It's impossible to hear the opening of "Five O'Clock Hero"-"I come home early / Little man, little feet"-and not see it as representing McGarvey's childhood. But a few lines later, when that small boy's mother has pointed to his father as a failure, I suspect this story isn't based on his own experience. He's an honest writer but not, after all, a confessionalist. When I ask McGarvey about the ratio of autobiography to fiction in his songs, he kids me. "We just did a study on this. Turns out it's 62% autobiography, 36.5% fiction, and 1.5% bullshit, which is just a slight step beyond fiction." But seriously: "A song can be emotionally autobiographical even if the situation isn't. My dad didn't sit at home, out-of-work and watching cartoons, but I definitely understand those characters' struggles and the attempt to find some redemption in that sort of broken-ness in everyday life."
In fact, that sort of quest, the struggle to work through the mess of things and end up with some ideal form, might be both the key to McGarvey's music and the link from it to the so-called golden age of pop-rock. From Valentine Smith's early masterpiece "Disappointing Mary," melodically and dynamically a distant cousin to Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman," with cryptically religious lyrics about how "We're all disappointing Mary / She's trying to save the world," to new songs such as "Hang On" and "You Do It All Yourself," McGarvey looks for hope in the midst of despair. And like all the bands he's played with, he strikes a good balance between the old and the new, making rooted music that isn't nostalgically chained to the past. "The music can't become like a museum piece," he insists. "I don't follow contemporary blues much, but my sense is that a lot of it feels much more studied and sterile than the music made by its earliest practitioners. I'm not interested in being Little Richard or Bob Dylan or Paul Westerberg, but I do hope that my music is animated by the same spirit that drove them. You take the stuff that works for you and leave the rest behind and move on. Ultimately I couldn't care less if my music reminds people of another artist, but it would be great if it could do for someone else what my heroes' records did for me."
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