Sunday, October 17, 2004

Chatterton's Prescription #1

This is my favorite record right now, and it's not even a record yet.

See, last weekend, Kevin Aldridge and his new band Chatterton were at First Street Audio over on Bluebonnet Circle in Fort Worth with Jordan Richardson behind the controls, cutting three songs -- "Decisions," "Loving You Is Giving Up" (a song that destroys me every time I hear Kevin singing "There's a touch of love in everyone, where is yours"), and "A Good Place To Start" -- for major label shoppage. Next week, they'll be up at the Echo Lab in Denton with Matt Barnhart (the dude who did the duty on Brasco's swan song EP Sings Tunes the Young People Will Enjoy) recording three more, with the same idea in mind. To these feedback-scorched ears, the results of the First Street sessions sound like finished work, and Kevin himself allows that they're "the best thing I've ever done." And remember: These guys have only been a band since August.

When I paid a visit to the studio, Kevin was crashed out on the couch while his dog, Trapper, who had just arrived from California, was checking things out. (And don't worry, Bart -- Trap was a perfect gentleman.) Chris Edmiston -- the only guitarist on Earth whom you have to tell to turn up -- was adding his part to "Decisions," which includes a hook that's key to the song. Things were going incredibly smoothly so far; the rhythm section of Joshua Loewen (formerly, apologies to his ex-bandmates, the Talent in Voigt) on bass and Kenny Smith on drums had recorded rhythm beds for three songs on Thursday, then utility musician extraordinaire Scott Davis laid down his lap steel and piano parts before taking off for the hill country with his wife. "You guys finish it," he said. (In this context, he and his Woodeye bandmate Kenny are merely applying the ample experience they've acquired in making Carey Wolff's songs sound good to a new situation where they have more creative input.) Kevin was expecting his guitar parts to go slowly, but he managed to squeeze out good takes in just a couple of hours.

Chris was having trouble with some volume pedal swells that lead into the song's intense outro, but he got a lot of help from his bandmates (and make no mistake, Chatterton is a band in the best sense of the word, most definitely more than just "Kevin Aldridge with backing musicians"). In the live Chatterton shows I've seen, something -- maybe the "self-service" sound systems at the Black Dog Tavern and the Moon, more likely his own self-effacing nature -- has always made it hard to hear Chris, but at First Street, Jordan made sure that wasn't a problem. The sound filtering from Chris' hollowbody instrument through the speakers into the control booth was full and harmonic-rich, always teetering on the brink of a feedback abyss. And Kenny's drums sounded HUGE. His playing on the track is spare but powerful, much more so than it'd be if he played a busier part. Finally Chris nailed the effect -- he said he'd been holding back because his guitar was so loud in the headphone mix, but he finally understood what was needed after Jordan went into the studio to confer with him. Later, he confided, "I love doing this -- seeing something develop in the studio. If I could, I'd do this all the time and never play live. After you're done, though, you always have to learn how to play the song live again, based on all the things you learned."

Next, Kenny added some percussion overdubs -- a tambourine part to "Good Place," some dramatic cymbal washes to "Giving Up" -- before it was time for Kevin's vocals. On "Decisions," the band spent the first half of the tune building an ever-increasing sense of dread and menace (with Joshua's tremelo-swathed bass sounding almost like a person breathing) as Kevin sang "Someone makes decisions, someone makes decisions for me." They paused in the middle, like the calm before a storm, before reaching a climax that sounded more like the world (or the singer's tenuous grip on sanity) flying apart than any mere release of tension -- a precisely controlled apocalypse, which gave it that much more impact than your stereotypical tuneless shrieking and thrashing would've had. Kevin's voice is supernaturally high and clear, like a less-operatic Roy Orbison or a more beaten-down Raul Malo, and on the outro, he pushed it way over the top, practically screaming the repeated refrain "I'll never learn" as Chris' feedback approximated the sound of an EKG monitor flatlining: hair-raising, goosebump-on-arm stuff. Listening to Kevin nail his vocal, Jordan grinned from ear to ear and enthused, "I love good singers." When the take was over, Kenny the drummer looked up from his magazine and deadpanned, "Well, I guess he'll never learn."

The players in Chatterton are all sympathetic accompanists, skilled at focusing on the needs of the song rather than their own egos, and the result is music with a lot more dynamic variation than Kevin ever enjoyed in Brasco, a band which employed a revolving cast of rhythm section players and tended to start shows at one (high) level and stay there. On "Giving Up," Kevin takes a song that's already at a peak of emotional intensity to a whole other level with a soaring vocal crescendo, leading into a smoldering Aldridge guitar break that's like the distilled essence of all that's best in Neil Young's style. "A Good Way to Start" finds Chatterton in more conventional indie-rock territory (Counting Crows fans will dig it), propelled by Kenny's crashing cymbals and Scott Davis' swirling organ, highlighted by a succinct solo statement from Chris. "I'm just an old script everyone wants to rewrite," sings Kevin, echoing a sentiment he's expressed in song before. At this point, though, perhaps he's ready to take control of his own destiny.

Contrary to his predictions at the band's inception, Chatterton is developing into, well, a rock band, albeit one of unusual emotional depth and expressive range. They have the potential to take the local, national, hell, planetary scene by storm. And again, they're only just beginning.


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