Saturday, November 27, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #105

[All throughout the month of November, all NW4NW entries are based on requests made by you, dear readers. Because of the amount of requests received, there will often be more than one entry per week during this month - I recommend signing up for email alerts on the left-hand side of the screen so that you don't miss any of the fun! I cannot take anymore requests for this month, but please always feel free to suggest bands you might like to see featured in future NW4NW posts. You may do so either in the comments section of this post, on Twitter, or on the Facebook Fanpage.]

The ConnellsCover of The ConnellsEric Link was among those who listed among his requests a band or two that I am not very familiar with at all, but one name on his list jumped out at me, being as familiar as an old schoolmate. It's a band that, to me, completely epitomized the prevailing college radio sound of the era when Eric and I each spun records at the University of Richmond's radio station; a band I don't listen to often enough, but whenever I do I am brought right back to the cramped DJ booth at WDCE, and a smile is brought to my face.

If you put The Smiths and The Byrds into a sonic blender with a mild sprinkling of Celtic flair, the result would undoubtedly sound very much like Raleigh, NC's The Connells.  Lead by brothers Mike and David Connell, the group has been making likable, moody Southern jangle-pop since first appearing on a local indy-label compilation album in 1984.  While comparisons to R.E.M. have been unavoidable, they have also been misguided; The Connells hew closer to a psychedlicized Guadalcanal Diary or The DB's in a blue funk then they do to the Athens giants. 

Their debut, 1984's Darker Days, showed the early Connells to be band with more ideas than ability.  Songs like the title track and "Hats Off" showed such promise, and it was easy to see where the band was aiming, but their playing was a bit clunky and unfocused at times.  Thankfully, they forged ahead without losing sight of their target, and they nailed a bullseye with their second effort.  By the time Boylan Heights was released in 1987, The Connells' musicianship had caught up to their potential.   The album is fantastic.  Vocalist Doug MacMillan no longer strains to project the emotion behind Mike Connell's songs; rather, he almost delivers the excellent "Scotty's Lament" as an aside, tossing out lines like "I delight in my despair" knowing that they are potent enough on their own without any additional oomph needed.  Tracks like "Elegance" and "Try" helped to make Boylan Heights a college radio smash.

Fun & Games followed in 1989, keeping the pace of Boylan Heights but not really taking any steps forward.  Nothing here is objectionable, but nothing is highly memorable, either.  The Connells were back in gear, however, when they released One Simple Word the following year.  With guitars ringing as brightly as ever and a bit more pep in their stride, the band were finding the pop side of their personality.  The single "Stone Cold Yesterday" generated quite a bit of interest, but The Connells were beginning to feel the grind of near-constant touring.  They retreated for a few years before re-emerging ready to reveal their masterpiece.

That masterpiece was found on the album Ring"Slackjawed" crystallized everything that made The Connells so enjoyable into one four-minute song: the off-handed emotion, the catchy chorus hook, and those guitars.  It would be their most successful album and single to date, but certainly not their last. 

Weird Food and Devastation followed in 1996.  Again, The Connells seemed to be stuck in neutral; it continued where Ring left off, but didn't move forward.  Two years later, Still Life found the band sounding softer, almost tired.  It seemed that perhaps the end was near, but The Connells were not out of ammunition yet!  In 2000, they bounced back with the self-released Old School Dropouts, the first album on their own Black Park Records since their debut.  It was as if the two previous records never happened.  Getting back to their DIY roots, the band sounds revived on tracks like "Bust," "Hello Walter" and "Back In Blighty."

Ten years later, the world still awaits the next volley from The Connells.  While band members have tried their hands at side projects, they insist that The Connells are not done.  They do tour intermittently, but whether or not we'll hear anything new any time soon remains to be seen.

In the meantime, please enjoy the clips for two of my favorites, "Scotty's Lament" from the excellent Boylan Heights LP, and "Slackjawed" from Ring.  My thanks to Eric Link for his request!

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  1. I wouldn't call The Connells New Wave but I do love them. I think of them more as Indie, but hailing from well before that label was a genre. They write the sort of smart, hooky-y songs that really capture you. I saw them live twenty years ago, when my friends and I were playing One Simple Word to shreds. Get a Gun is still my favorite Connells song.

  2. Point taken re: categorization of The Connells. Call it what you will - New Wave, Alternative, Indy, Modern Rock, yadda yadda yadda - we've all been trying for decades now to find the right term that fits bands as widely varied yet as undeniably connected as those you'll find in this series of posts. None really works, but "Indy for the New Week" doesn't flow as lyrically!

    (Plus, I am willing to push boundaries during All Request Month for what people ask for.)

    You're dead-on, though - when The Connells are at their best, their songs pull you right in. Catchy as hell!

    Thanks for the comment!