by Ryan Settee
Dwight Twilley has made a career out of well crafted pop songs--smart, excellently written and classic. Though a band like Big Star is the more traditional band to point to in terms of the prototypical power pop band, Twilley, I think, deserves to be up there as well. Twilley's name is held up in reverence in certain power pop circles, but oddly enough, the name really doesn't transfer much outside of that well informed and well researched group of people. Dwight has been good friends with Tom Petty since their early days on Shelter Records together, but somehow, even that connection didn't parlay into the mass record sales that Twilley and anglophile via Memphis partner in Phil Seymour had hoped for. While Twilley still continues to put out albums and has had some great moments since the early days and while there's some overall career perspective, the main focus of this tribute is ultimately on the first four records.
Although Twilley had a few glass half-empty styled lyrics here and there, Twilley's songs and lyrical approach generally takes a more optimistic and sometimes detached role from the proceedings than Big Star's did; Twilley's got the girl and he's cruising around with her, or dreaming up the ideal scenario. Even when he's lost her, he's still trying to get her back, there's still that hope and perhaps blind naivety. When you look at a Big Star lyric sheet, there's alot of regret, sadness and pessimism. I suppose that--although he had fans in such well respected underground luminaries as Bomp!'s Greg Shaw-- perhaps the optimistic approach didn't have the pre-requisite "damaged goods" thing that endeared the band to enough of an inherent cult audience that could identify with the themes of loss and hard luck. While Alex Chilton became a god/iconic figure for the alternative/slacker culture (arguments abound on 3rd/Sister Lovers as to whether that was "applying oneself", but there's no doubt that Bach's Bottom became the template for intentionally not applying oneself), Twilley himself slipped out of the commercial eye whilst never being really embraced by the hard luck crowd that could identify with his songs. Either he was so good at writing songs that they weren't "ironic" enough for those looking for a small act with big intentions (Dwight and Phil self produced the early material under the production title "Oister"... which was the original band name), or he wasn't good enough at writing songs that were perceived as a legitimate commercial entities (hence "Shark (In The Dark)" being branded a novelty, but I'll get into this later in the article).
But even to write a "simple" pop song, it's much more difficult than it seems. Even to get considered as a legitimate failure, I think that there's some sort of attempt needed at real emotional damage. If you're going to attempt it, people have to feel it. The Blues never would have existed if it didn't have merit in the foundations of loss and frustration; feelings brought on by ultimately feeling like an outsider. Maybe some of Twilley's lyrics are perceived as naive or contrived (a complaint leveled pretty much at the whole power pop genre by detractors), but hey, if that's what he feels, there's no use saying something else. Songwriters, musicians and bands have been mining the exact same topics, anyways, for as long as history has documented it.
Twilley's early career again echoes Big Star's--even the well intentioned smaller record labels that have reissued his records have drifted in and out of existence and bankrupcy through the years. Plagued by distribution problems, people originally couldn't buy his albums in stores and they ultimately couldn't buy something that was intended to be buried in the shuffle of what is basically a child in the middle of an acrimonious divorce; its parents more concerned with teaching the other a lesson than worrying about what's best for their offspring. Shelter Records was in the middle of changing their distributor from MCA to ABC, and as it stood, both founders of the Shelter Records label imprint, Denny Cordell and Leon Russell, were having a dispute in which Cordell ended up being the sole owner of Shelter. As Shelter ended up turning essentially into Backstreet Records and switching distribution to Arista just for Twilley's second album, Twilley Don't Mind, things were a bit chaotic to say the least. Though Twilley's first single, "I'm On Fire", topped out at an impressive #16 on the charts, the fact that his first album Sincerelydidn't arrive until the following year could be considered a classic case of the record company screwing up royally when you don't strike while the iron is hot.
Compounding problems, the intended followup to "I'm On Fire" in the form of "Shark (In The Dark)" was perceived by the label as a novelty cash-in on the back of the popularity of the movie Jaws. While it's a great song, no doubt, it remains to be seen whether or not it would have followed up "I'm On Fire" with the momentum that connects a one-hit wonder with enough of the same audience that is still interested, when musical trends and bands always come and go. One thing is certain, though--Twilley and Phil Seymour were the real deal. After bouncing around the industry for a few years, they'd clearly honed their writing skills and their musical execution. The fact that they self produced Sincerely and Twilley Don't Mind (with Twilley often self producing after that) says a lot, since both the first and second albums differ in their approach, but in a complementary way.
The understated pop simplicity of Sincerely is just total magnificence. There's a reason why it's heralded as a classic. Seeing as that Dwight and Phil play a lot of the instruments, it's probably attributable more so to a vision between those two rather than full band input (though guitarist Bill Pitcock IV and others undoubtedly had some sort of input). It's got the big hit singles in "I'm On Fire", and others that could have been, like the excellent "You Were So Warm" (which actually was a single, but failed) and "Could Be Love" and others. There's also the gorgeous ballad "I'm Losing You", opening off with a delayed staccato guitar pattern, which at 2:11 feels a bit unfinished, but also has the advantage in sheer replay value. There's also the 50's doo-wop of "Release Me," and the rockabilly of the boredom/marvel of pixilated glory in "TV" ("I know that sometimes baby it's pretty good company"). Leon Russell plays bass and piano on "Feeling In The Dark" (the boogie feel is unmistakably Leon), and the mere fact that excellent singles-type songs like "England" and "Just Like The Sun" (with a deceptive sunny feeling to the start of the song that ends up cascading both a darker minor key feel in with a major key feel) are buried at the end of the record really speak of its quality. Dwight and Phil are just a total lock on vocal harmonies. As I listen to this album for inspiration while writing this, I'm still hearing nuances and small things that I can't believe that I haven't heard in the countless other times that I've listened to the record.
The followup in Twilley Don't Mind may ultimately be one of the greatest rock n' roll albums to put the needle to groove. What it lacks in the layered and nuanced pop approach of the first album, it more than makes up for it in Telecaster through cranked amp power. The goal with this record was obviously to strip away some of the stuff that they couldn't reproduce live for the first record, in favour of a go-for-the-throat approach. And it totally succeeds. "Here She Come" sounds almost exactly like AC/DC's "Rock n' Roll Damnation," but Twilley has the advantage here of writing the same song, but a year earlier (and coincidentally enough, the title track's main riff sounds a lot like "Gone Shootin'" but a year earlier, also). But with its more muscular attack, it also never loses sight of the hooks and songwriting that the first album has. Some bands lose their melodic sense when they get more aggressive, but not Dwight and Phil. "Looking For The Magic" is probably as definitive a song that you could start with in the Twilley back catalogue; up-tempo speed and ringing guitars and a killer vocal line in the chorus. "That I Remember" slows it down a bit for a more reflective and pretty vibe--it's one of my favorite songs on this record, because the guitar parts in the chorus totally define "chiming," as they climb and ascend into the fadeout at the end of the song. It uses acoustic guitar effectively--it's surprisingly not morose or sappy despite the overall introspective feel of the song. And that's this album's strength: even this album's slower songs still have an urgency to them. "Rock n' Roll '47" is another corker; arguably, it almost sounds like something off of the Stooges' Funhouse, especially with the saxophone in the middle part of the song. "Trying To Find My Baby" sees Phil on lead vocals on yet another fine pop song with plenty of progression and song structure change in its 3 and a half minutes. Arguably though, the highlight of the album for me is "Sleeping"--a ballad with strings and of epic proportions at over 6 minutes long. It never feels long though, as the song's multi part progressions keep the song fresh and flowing along despite the longer length. It's epic with a capital "E." Oh, and Tom Petty plays some guitar on this record too.
The third album, Twilley, was the first to not feature Phil (full time, anyways--he guests on "Darlin"), and though Dwight still manages to create a fine album, Phil's harmony vocals and overall contributions are missed on this one to temper things out a bit. However, the fact that Dwight manages to create an album this good without someone like Phil is saying a lot. It starts off with "Out Of My Hands", which ranks, to me, as one of the all time best pop songs, you know, in the history of pop music. It's not a particularly feel good song, as its slow tempo and cascading major/minor chord shifts and string sections are both simultaneously beautiful and tragic, but it sounds like it could be played for someone's birth just as much as it could be played at someone's funeral. It sounds like a tribute to something that was, just as much as it sounds like a salute to something that is yet to be. And that's pretty hard to manage as a songwriter (coincidentally, nothing on this album quite reaches the same majestic heartstring heights as this one... but then again, what can?). There's several highlights on here; "Standin' In The Shadow Of Love" has no drums but manages a somewhat frenetic pace--and an almost country vibe--and a majestic feel with the strings and overall execution. "Alone In My Room" sports both an excellent verse and chorus. Phil sings on "Darlin", and the album closes off on "It Takes Alot of Love" (it pop smarts intact). I'm not sure if this album is overall as strong or complete as the first two, but there's also really not a throwaway track on it, either.
The record label struggles continued, though. Twilley worked on and recorded a followup album called Blueprint in 1980 with Jack Nietzche producing, and neither Twilley nor Nietzche were happy with it. Twilley couldn't tour nor could he release any new material until his contract was up, and it wasn't until a new deal with new record company (EMI) that an entirely new album came out in 1982, entitled Scuba Divers. While noticeably slicker and polished than previous efforts (Sincerely utilizing a bombastic approach, but that was more organic and less sterile than Scuba Divers), it suggests Twilley's future 80's output--his 80's work unfortunately not being his strongest material--but still has alot in common with the first three Twilley albums. "Somebody To Love" is an obvious standout, as is the country tinged "Touchin' The Wind." "I Think It's That Girl" should have been a massive mega hit. "I Found The Magic" is a followup and response to earlier song "Looking For The Magic" (and worthy successor), and "Falling In Love Again" has a 50's prom dance feel to it.
He'd eventually have another big hit single in 1984 with "Girls," but the over the top video screamed out 'novelty act' more than anything, which was unfortunate, since Twilley had earned his way back to the major leagues the hard way. But after the album Wild Dogs in 1986, even that album fell unfortunate victim to bad luck; its label owner being involved in payola scandals. Twilley was again without distribution, but this time without a record deal and no other prospects. Phil Seymour had released a couple of solo albums in the early 80's (the first self titled release has some excellent songs, most notably "Baby It's You") and had unfortunately died of lymphoma in 1993, right when he and Dwight were planning a reunion.
Sometimes you're not given the best roll (or role), but considering that Twilley is still making music and doing what he loves, I'd say that he has the last laugh over all the record company turmoil and everything else that conspired to keep the music from reaching people. And ultimately, you can't beat that.
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