Mr. Airplane Man
by Wes Freeman
In a rational world, things line up for you. In such a world, life is a chain of causes and effects that starts when you're born and ends when you die. Things are clear and clean and easy to explain. Stable elements mix to form stable compounds. Then something like Mr. Airplane Man comes along and you remember that life ain't chemistry. And that's a good thing. This world is only rational by the skin of its teeth.
The temptation with Mr. Airplane Man is put them in an easily soundbyte-able context. It just won't work. The tendency with this band – a drummer and guitarist based in Cambridge, Mass., who crank the blues and swing the punk with equal aplomb – is to look at the wrong things.
First of all, they're women – unambiguously so – and overworked writers want them to be a girl group. Also, they're a duo, so they're constantly dodging comparisons to former label-mates the White Stripes, even though their first self-distributed release actually predates Jack & Meg's first album. Also, their sound combines (among other things) garage rock and punk with elements of the blues, and, thanks to the hard work of bands they don't necessarily like or count as influences, that's often worked against them. But, mercifully, they aren't the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. They're not even close.
Still, add this list of quirks and contradictions together and you wind up with an appeal that many lazy critics could term, well, "novel." It's a tribute to this band's genuine talent and inspiration, not to mention their undeniable flair, that they have largely avoided this tag. These guys are just fucking good.
Cambridge, MA, is a lot of things to a lot of people. Home to the secret bands of Mark Sandman, wandering hordes of jazz-based experimentalists, and amp-blowing garage-rockers, it's also played host to some of the more interesting blues-based rock groups of the last twenty years. Besides Mr. Airplane Man, Cambridge was also the incubator for Treat Her Right, an unorthodox blues-rock band that paid allegiance to the roots of rock in a way that seems prescient following the rise of the Strokes and New York rock. This band is probably best known for including the charismatic Mark Sandman and ace drummer Billy Conway – who played "low guitar" (a '59 Fender Esquire played through an octave shifter to make it sound like a bass) and cocktail drum, respectively, on each of the band's three albums. Sandman and Conway would later break big with the more widely-known Morphine.
The women of Mr. Airplane Man were influenced early on by another of Mark Sandman's bands, the Hypnosonics, and got to know the man of Sand personally in his later years, but they have not counted Treat Her Right as one of their influences. They are, in fact, the other side of the THR coin. While THR at times cast themselves as the inheritors and torchbearers for the dying world of "real Rock 'n' Roll," Margaret Garrett (vocals/guitar) and Tara McManus (drums/organ/vocals) tend to look forward, where THR look back. Garrett and McManus draw on new possibilities. THR celebrated missed chances; Mr. Airplane Man are heirs to a different legacy. "We see no difference between Howlin' Wolf and Iggy Pop," Garrett told one reporter in the late '90s. In their early work, there was none.
Garrett and McManus were high school friends from the suburbs of Boston. Both felt out of place in their respective towns and McManus has said in interviews that they lived to catch the bus to the city and hear music on the weekends.
"When we first started playing we were influenced by the Stooges and Nuggets stuff," Garrett said, in September. Another prominent influence was Howlin' Wolf, whose song "Mr. Airplane Man" gave the band its name. Garrett recalls a time in the mid-‘90s when she and McManus were first discovering the gritty sound of that 6'6" blues powerhouse. The pair lived in San Francisco at the time, and Garrett recalls driving around the city blaring Wolf on a portable radio and hanging out in Golden Gate Park with their dog, listening to the blues.
Eventually the pair made it back to Cambridge and started the band. Garrett and McManus played their first gigs on the streets of Boston for rent money. One of their admirers, the aforementioned Mark Sandman, recorded the band in his studio, Hi-N-Dry. The band combined Sandman's tracks with others they'd recorded for their first release, a self-distributed, eponymous EP they put out in 1998.
Featuring eight tough, reverb-laden songs, Mr. Airplane Man stands as a unique and towering achievement, even after the glaring overexposure of "the blues duo" in the wake of the White Stripes' success. Margaret Garrett's vocals and lyrics betrayed a sense of yearning – at times they were almost haunted. Her guitar sounded as big as a house and she had the goods: Vintage-sounding fuzz, slashing slide riffs, and all this over an unfailing sense of rhythm. Tara McManus presided over the proceedings with her huge attack, pushing Garrett and the listener to new and ecstatic levels of booty-shaking.
What was most impressive about the EP was not Garrett and McManus' infectious attitude, nor their classic songs (the band has since redone most of the songs on subsequent albums, although they've never reprised "Baby" or the mighty "You Left Me Cold"), but the seemingly effortless way that they brought blues and garage rock together in such an appealing and unaffected package. If punk is the lingua franca of modern rock, blues was the same for most pre-punk rock music. Fusing the two together sounds good on paper (and even on records; a few of them anyway), but no one ever made it sound as convincing or spoke both tongues as fluently as Mr. Airplane Man did on its first EP. "Moanin'" is a barn-burning Howlin' Wolf cover (later reprised in a slightly more subdued version on the 2002 album of the same name), that takes the surging adrenaline of garage rock and combines it with a neck-popping Delta blues riff. "You Left Me Cold" is spare and funky, "My Hand" (revived on their first official release, Red Lite) is all witchy voodoo; Mr. Airplane Man's sweaty momentum doesn't stop until the last fuzzy notes of the final track, the traditional gospel tune "Jesus on the Mainline," fade into the shadows.
The EP under their belt, Mr. Airplane Man started to make a splash in Cambridge. They toured with Morphine and laid down vocals on "Like a Mirror," which appears on Morphine's posthumous album The Night. In 1999, Mr. Airplane Man won Best New Act in the Boston Phoenix's Best Music Poll. In 2000, they recorded another EP, the aptly-named Primitive, which took the lo-fi aesthetic to giddy new heights, or frustrating new lows, depending on your perspective. Recorded in the band's rehearsal space on a four-track recorder, the rudimentary recording served many of the slower, darker, blues-ier songs on the EP well ("Blue As I Can Be", "All Alone"), giving them an edge that would have been hard to replicate in a studio. Hinting at the first in many shifts in the band's recorded output, Primitive also featured some up-tempo rockers ("Johnny, Johnny" and "Pretty Baby I'm In Love with You") that added to the delirious mood. Though the sound was glaringly uneven, the band sounded like they were having the time of their lives.
Aside from marking a change in production values, Primitive was significant because it suggested the band was changing its musical direction. While the change was probably scant degrees away from Airplane Man's live show (which included covers of both Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Sun Sinkin' Low" and The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog"), it was a fish of a different feather compared to its first EP. Despite the presence of a couple of bumping, bluesy originals, Primitive was by no means a blues record. Blues would always be a base for Mr. Airplane Man's sound, but in the balance between blues and garage rock the band had achieved on its first EP, the scales had started to tip.
In the three years between Mr. Airplane Man and Red Lite, the duo's first release on Sympathy for the Record Industry, the band had refined and expanded their musical vocabulary. By 2000, the women of Mr. Airplane Man were beginning to chafe under the blues band tag. In an interview with Carly Caroli from the Boston Phoenix, Margaret Garrett was unequivocal: "We're not doing the straight-ahead blues stuff. Not that we were ever really playing straight-ahead blues. I've been influenced by Triple Thick and the Lyres lately, it's spun me in a different direction, and I wanna do more full-sounding stuff. I kind of reached a point last fall where I just couldn't play the same songs the same way over and over again anymore. It's not like I'm planning anything, but I'm not the same person as I was, and I don't think the band sounds the same."
"We don't play the blues," Garrett said in an interview with Perfect Sound Forever in September 2004. "We're a couple of white kids from the suburbs, we're not a part of that culture. We play the blues like the Rolling Stones played the blues. We play it from a distance." Although Garrett is still an avid fan of the blues, she readily admits that she doesn't feel comfortable being tied down to a single, perhaps artificially-defined kind of music.
"When we first started, we got this huge buzz going about how we had this feel for the blues that was really different and special or something," Tara McManus told Mike Baldino of Boston's The Noise. "Then we started doing all these shows at The House of Blues with, like, Koko Taylor, who is great and everything, but it's this real contemporary feel-good showbiz thing…we went through this period where we were getting approached by labels, but it was this really icky thing. No way are we doing the Newport Folk Festival – fuck that shit. We opened for Susan Tedeschi, and that was it. That was it! I was like, ‘That's it – I'm not doing this anymore.' And then we stopped for a year and took a break and we wouldn't take any shows. We kept getting calls from House of Blues." (read the full article here).
In the meantime, Garrett and McManus met Monsieur Jeffrey Evans. Evans, frontman for '68 Comeback, was allegedly the man who introduced the White Stripes to Sympathy for the Record Industry and he now did the same for Mr. Airplane Man. In the summer of 2000, Garrett and McManus found themselves in Memphis with Evans, guitarist Nick Diablo (also of '68 Comeback), and Shawn Cripps of The Limes, laying down tracks for what would become Red Lite.
In 2000, Garrett recalled that Red Lite was very much influenced by Memphis "and the pace of life down there." The band certainly sounds relaxed, perhaps reflecting the slow heat and torpor of a Memphis summer. Tracks that sounded dark and swampy in Cambridge sounded like they were coming from the bottom of a gator pond once the band hit the south. But the Memphis that shows up on Red Lite is not the Memphis of Staxx, Sun Studios, Howlin' Wolf, and Elvis. This Memphis belonged to Jeffrey Evans.
"I truly love Memphis," Garrett, who spoke to us from Memphis, told PSF in September. "It's a strange, beautiful, haunted place.
"Everybody's in a couple of bands," she said. "And there's no industry here so there's not as much pressure. Music's not as much of a business proposition. It's a truly creative atmosphere. But there's the highest standard of music here. The highest standard I've seen anywhere. These guys just sit down all day and play music so you've got to know what you're doing."
A huge figure in Memphis' nascent garage and roots music scene, it has been Evans' stated goal to make his studio recordings sound as close as possible to his live shows. This aesthetic seems to be at work on Red Lite. Primitive was scratchy and joyfully shabby in its production values, but Red Lite lowers the fidelity even further, taking the raunchiest, rustiest, and most banging elements of garage rock and moving them into the parlor for all to see. (In fact, they were recorded in Jeffrey Evans' parlor – Tillman Audio Research, his living room studio.) The result is that Evans' booming, bleeding production is as much on display as Airplane's songs and playing. While the production often enhances the tunes, it just as often obscures the band's performance. McManus' drums are pounding and her cymbal work is sizzling, propelling the songs forward, but sometimes this is lost in the wash of sound. Garrett's voice is in terrific form and her guitar work is slicing, but sometimes these elements cancel each other out in the mix. The band rocks, but it's hard to say how much.
What is apparent on Red Lite is that the band has hit a new stride. As always, the blues tunes are on fire: "Black Cat Bone," a Jessie Mae Hemphill cover is like a percussive fever dream, "Hangin' Round My Door" has a pummeling groove, and "All Alone" is now a droning rocker, having tightened up since its appearance on Primitive. The band's ever expanding catalogue of rockers helps bolster the album; the title track, the White Light/White Heat-ish "A Small Child Fell into a Well," and "Candy Apple Red" all wear Evans' noisy production like a mink coat. Perhaps the sleeper track from this album is "What a Number," a head jerking pop tune that recalls the Velvet Underground at their duck-walking, drag-queen best. This hooky track pointed out yet another direction this blues-band-that-wasn't would soon be taking. But nothing on Red Lite necessarily pointed toward the next year's Moanin'.
"We were just trying to make a record where you could hear things better than Red Lite, but still sound worn and dirty," McManus told Chad Cheatham, in an interview with Chicago's The Crutch (reprinted by Let Them Eat Lead). Moanin', recorded in Detroit, is definitely higher fidelity and boasts another clutch of terrific tunes. As Garrett's statement implied, the sound on Moanin' is in direct opposition to the production on Red Lite. Garrett is in full focus, her voice and guitar sport a clarity they never knew on the tracks recorded in Sandman's Hi ‘n' Dry studio, Evans' Tillman Audio Research, or the band's own rehearsal space. At times, however, Tara McManus is underserved by the production, her kick drum and cymbals are often frustratingly drowned out.
Garrett's voice is alternately luminous and rugged, cooing when she needs to coo and yawping when she needs to yawp. She sounds world-weary, but seems to be brimming with new ideas. Although five of the twelve tracks are covers, the originals shine. The kickoff tune, "Like That," benefits from booming guitar and a tricky shuffling break, but the best thing about Moanin' is its third track, "Not Living At All."
Reportedly written under the influence of "Help You Ann" by the Lyres, "Not Living at All" is a hooky mid-tempo tune and a masterpiece of pop construction. Riding atop a choppy, jangling riff, Garrett's melody and lyrics sound almost melancholic without ever losing the edge, attitude, or bump of their best work. "Feel like a question," she begins, "looking for an answer," and with nothing but her chops and McManus' exhilarating drum attack, she begins her search. At just the perfect moment – Airplane Man's great at this kind of thing – the fuzzbox kicks in and McManus starts giving her drums something to worry about. There's a break that seems to recall the Sonic Youth of yore, and the band finishes out the whole business with some harmonies. No other band could have made such a lush, diverse, full-sounding, and infectious bit of confection with just two instruments.
"Not Living At All" also pointed the way toward yet another direction the band was exploring on the album: Pop. "Very Bad Feeling," a garage ballad in the best tradition of songs like the Kingsmen's "Death of An Angel," and the dreamy "W*nderin'" added a surprising but welcome new dimension to Mr. Airplane Man's sound. As they had with blues and garage, MAM showed a ready mastery of this new form almost immediately.
With Moanin' and Red Lite under their belts, the band's garage influences were more prominently on their sleeves. With the new influences came new labels.
"It wasn't like the first record was a blues record and the next one was a garage record," Garrett told PSF. "I mean when we first started out, Tara was turning me on to Cuban music. And I was listening to African music. That stuff's in there, too. It's not a conscious thing. I think people tend to pick up on what they want to see and then they make your music fit that.
"I mean, what is ‘garage'?" she said. "What does that even mean? ‘Garage' is just some marketing label I can't get down with."
In the wake of Moanin', the band began to tour. Following Red Lite, Garret and McManus had opened shows for the White Stripes and the Strokes. This tour would take them to England and their first Peel Session. McManus told Free Williamsburg writer Alexander Laurence that Peel was a fan of Red Lite and recorded the band for a session. "We did ‘Red Light,'" McManus told Laurence in January of 2004. "We did an early version of ‘C'mon DJ' and (The Outsiders') ‘Sun Going Down.' Those were like the first time we played those songs."
All these songs would be featured on C'mon DJ, the first of the band's two 2004 releases. Recorded in Memphis in 2003, C'mon DJ has helped – along with the Shakin' Around EP released in April – to make this year one of the band's biggest.
From its first few seconds you can tell C'mon DJ is something huge. On the title track, McManus pounds out a Stooges-go-to-Africa beat below a feedback drone from Garrett's guitar. "That song wasn't even planned," Garrett told PSF. "Greg just kind of said, ‘Do you have anything else?' And I said, ‘Well, I have this song, it's kind of half-done, I don't even know if it'll work.' We hadn't even played the song at that point. And it became the name of the album."
"Travelin'," which features Cartwright on banjo, is unlike any other song in the band's recorded catalogue. Garrett's bottleneck guitar floats over Cartwright's driving banjo and McManus' doggedly simple drum figures to create a kind of Appalachian Delta tune that suggests a rural ramble from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the mouth of the Mississippi. McManus and Garrett sing the song's traditional lyrics in a road-worn harmony.
"We'd been playing that song for years in our live shows," Garrett told us in September. "We had kind of gotten sick of it." They revived the tune when Cartwright made his call for other material toward the end of the sessions. "Tara just said, ‘Well, let's just try it.'"
While Garrett's lyrics often suggest she and the characters in her songs are looking for love, her most honest state of mind is with her amp at 11, as Iggy Pop and Howlin' Wolf duet in her third ear. Another ace string of rockers support this view. The band reprises "Red Light" in a more frenetic (and audible) arrangement; "Make You Mine" is an exhilarating spatter of punk bravado and "Fallen" is a sparkling bit of riff sludge. There's a requisite brace of covers, although only one of them, Howlin' Wolf's "Asked for Water," comes from the land of the blues. The others, the introspective "Sun Going Down" from the Outsiders and the full-bore "Hang Up" from the Wailers, reflect the band's garage leanings and, of course, their excellent choice in material. "Lonesome Road" finishes the album on an appropriately moody note.
Mr. Airplane Man followed C'mon DJ with Shakin' Around, an EP they recorded in Boston prior to going on tour. The band recorded three tracks at a free ADAT session in Boston then, nonplussed with the sound quality, mixed it and did overdubs at Hi ‘n' Dry, the site of some of their first recordings.
"The vibe was still there," Garrett said of the studio in the wake of Sandman's death. "Dana Colley (Morphine's saxophonist) sat in and Billy Conway (one of Morphine's drummers) was there. There was the whole Morphine family. So the vibe was still there. I'd recommend [Hi ‘n' Dry] to anyone."
Shakin' Around combines three tracks recorded in Boston with "Hang Up," from C'mon DJ and "Round and Round," an outtake from the DJ sessions. Despite a general buzz about the band's daring reworking of this oft-covered Chuck Berry tune, Garrett was blunt about the arrangement's origins. "Shawn Cripps had wanted us to do that song for a long time. We basically just took Moe Tucker's version and did it," Garrett said. "It's a terrific version, so if you like it, check it out. Playin' Possum."
Garrett said the band has plans to tour in the fall and until then she'll be in Memphis, where she has spent more and more time in recent years. Many of her current influences come from Memphis' AM stations. "A lot of the stuff I've been doing [recently] is more gospel-oriented," she said. "I've also been listening to a lot of Dillard & Clark, Flying Burrito Bros, International Submarine Band – those bands all did gospel songs as well."
She mentioned that audiences are always curious about "Jesus on the Mainline" when the band plays it at shows. "Almost every time after a show I get two or three people coming up to me afterwards asking, ‘What was that song you did about Jesus?' And this is a rock club, you know?" But in the end, gospel could wind up being just another label for the band to contend with.
"It's all I, IV, V," Garrett said, invoking the keystone chord progression of American folk and popular music. "It's the blues, gospel, country, and then the big car crash, which is Rock ‘n' Roll.
"Music is music. It's all connected."
That seems rational enough.