A Sideman Steps Forward

Labor of love. Labor of love. Labor of love. If I had a nickel -- wooden or otherwise -- for every time I've read (or overheard) someone recycle that soggy cliche, I could quit this writing nonsense tomorrow and pursue my dream of climbing Pamela Lee's breasts unaided by Sherpas.

But now seriously, folks, there has got to be a fresher way to describe the vicissitudes of the creative process. We have got to start establishing some standards. The preparation of Jell-O products, for instance, should not be characterized as a labor of love. Nor should winning the Super Bowl (which involves not love, after all, but shrewdly deployed violence). The production of your average Hollywood film is not -- for the benefit of Peter Travers I will repeat: not -- a labor of love. It is a labor of determined capitalistic intent, perhaps, and sustained stupidity certainly, but not love.

How then, to describe, Where the Hell Am I?, the long-awaited debut album by Matthew Sabatella. Having listened to the record over and over, and having discussed with Sabatella its unbelievably protracted recording process, I'm tempted to call it a you-know-what. But that's not even enough any more. It's been devalued by hyperbole. Thus, I am left grasping for phrases. "Creative jihad"? "Crusade of blessed anguish"? "Glorious testament to perfectionism"?

Nope. Nope. Nope. Rock-crit pith just isn't going to cut it on this one. No, to understand just how much of himself Sabatella put into this startling twelve-song collection, you need a brief history at least.

So let's pick it up a bit more than two years ago. Sabatella had already parted ways with his brilliant Fort Lauderdale troupe the Broken Spectacles and had begun playing his own material with a quintet called, confusingly enough, Sabatella. He was now determined to record an album. "I was basically sick of making excuses," the 29-year-old songwriter explains. "Everything I would give out -- a demo, or a tape of a live show -- was accompanied by excuses. I wanted something that I couldn't make excuses for. Besides, I realized that making a CD, which used to be considered this big deal, has become, like, the starting point for a band."

Sabatella had an armful of songs, a solid band, a loyal local following, and -- thanks to his peerless bass playing on numerous side projects -- the admiration of virtually everyone in the South Florida music scene. All fine and well. But there was still the matter of recording. And that proved more trying than Sabatella could have ever imagined.

The first stop was South Miami's Pink House studio, where Sabatella laid down preliminary tracks for a couple of songs. The ball was rolling. But the next recording session didn't take place for weeks. Sabatella's schedule was hectic, as were those of his bandmates. "We kept booking sessions and having to cancel the night before," Sabatella says. The band finally tromped into the studio on a Sunday morning, determined to lay down drum tracks. Which is precisely what they were doing when the police showed up. It seems the neighbors were less than thrilled with the group's percussive efforts.

"Everyone was like, 'Okay, that's it,'" Sabatella recalls. "But I knew how long it was going to take to set this up again and I wasn't going to wait. I said, 'No way are we going to stop. Let's keep going.' The room we were in wasn't soundproof, so we starting duct-taping sleeping bags and blankets over the windows, anything to pad the sound."

By this time, however, Sabatella (the band) was beginning to drift. Sabatella himself realized that he was going to have to simplify the recording process. Lead guitarist Brian Franklin, a former member of Mr. Tasty and the Breadhealers, suggested that they record the songs at his house, which was outfitted with a new eight-track. Over the next eight months, the duo laid down the framework for all twelve songs, with assistance from various studio hands, including recording engineer Frank "Rat Bastard" Falestra. Equipped with a demo he felt was ready to mix, Sabatella approached engineer George Feldner, a friend whose work with local bands such as Suzy Creamcheese and Trophy Wife Sabatella had always admired.

"I figured it would take two weeks to mix," Sabatella says. "That was a year and a few months ago."

Indeed, what happened next was a tangle of delays so convoluted you would need a stenographer to keep track of them. The first interruption was a call from the manager of the band Muse. The former Miamians, now based in Atlanta, were recording their major-label debut for Atlantic and wanted Sabatella to play bass. "At first I told them, 'No way. I just started mixing my album.' But then I started talking to some people and I realized that it was a good opportunity," Sabatella says. "Plus, the guys in Muse are my friends, and I love what they do."

Off to Atlanta went Sabatella. He returned to Miami a changed man. "I had been recording in someone's house, in a situation where we weren't even allowed to turn the amps up too loud. All of sudden, I was involved in the recording of this major-label record. I started holding myself to a slightly higher standard."

The demos that he and Franklin had toiled over were revamped in a variety of studios, with Sabatella creating new instrumental and vocal tracks, various guest artists sitting in, and Feldner overseeing the mixing. While attempting to devote himself full-time to the project, however, Sabatella again found his talents as a musician in demand.

Time has always been a limited resource for Sabatella, thanks to his work backing local artists such as Muse, Diane Ward, Sixo, and Jolynn Daniel. This time the request came from pianist Amanda Green, who is not only a brilliant songwriter and emerging talent, but Sabatella's significant other.

"When Amanda started recording Junk and Stuff [her debut on Y&T records], it was just a natural thing that I went with her to play bass and help out in the studio," Sabatella notes. "We never planned to be in a band together." As if he needed any additional responsibilities, Sabatella has also been heading out on tour with Green.

Sabatella insists that this extra work hasn't held back the progress of his album. "I gained experience from all those other projects. And the end result is that I made a much better album. I could have released this record a year and a half ago and ..." Sabatella pauses, then breaks into a quiet giggle. "And it would have been pretty damn good anyhow," he says, abandoning his usual mask of self-effacement.

True enough. The dozen songs on Where the Hell Am I? are striking for not only their melodic purity but for their insistent rhythms and shifting moods. A twangy guitar riff and Sabatella's cocky drawl drive the bluesy "Julian," while the haunting notes of "Ain't It Hard" drip loneliness. "Reverend Maddog" is a joyous, galloping hootenanny of a song that relates the tale of a down-on-his-luck traveler with enough moxie to "drop Mike Tyson to the floor." Sabatella does Frampton better than Frampton ever did himself on the crunching ballad "I'm Not Listening," and he waxes surprisingly trippy on "The Light," a delicious nugget of Sixties pop. "Memory Coast" is an intimate, sweeping rock song that makes you want to drive down to the Keys, hop on a boat, pull anchor, and forget the world for a while (although the chorus, "I'm rolling up," makes you wonder what Sabatella's really talking about).

While Sabatella produced the album and played most of the instruments himself (fellow singer/songwriter Brian Franklin contributed backing vocals and guitars and Jordan Steele Lash handled drum duties), he gets plenty of help from the artists he's lent a hand to in the past. Amanda Green plays a deft piano on "Wash Me Away," Diane Ward offers dazzling backing vocals on "Memory Coast," and coveted ax man Joel Schantz lends his incendiary touch to "Uniform" and "Sad Woman." Sabatella's voice proves equally capable of soaring over a lush weave of guitars and keyboards or delivering raspy, poetic whispers.

Though Sabatella (the band) staged an informal reunion at September's CD-release party, Sabatella (the Matthew) says he has no plans to attempt to reprise the band. For the moment, he's happy to play shows with a rotating cast. After all, he has no shortage of admirers in these parts, and he continues to receive offers -- daily, it seems -- from musicians who want him to play on various projects.

Reactions to the album have ranged from effusive praise to dropped jaws. Sabatella's own mother, a long-time employee of the Archdiocese of West Palm Beach, has become an unexpected groupie.

"I got a call from her and she said, 'We love your CD. It's beautiful. I've already listened to it five times.' It was really emotional because when I sent the CD off, it didn't really occur to me that I was showing her my life, basically, what I'd been working on for more than two years. My parents had heard some of my stuff, but not too much, because I haven't really encouraged them to come to the clubs where I play. That's not their scene."

If Where the Hell Am I? proves anything, though, it's that Sabatella would be wise to make sure he devotes enough time to his own music. Having returned last month from a stint on the road with Green, Sabatella will spend some of the fall in the studio, playing on her second album. He'll also be putting together a live band, on a more informal basis, to play local shows in support of the new record.

"Ever since the Muse thing, I've been trying to keep myself limited to my stuff and Amanda's. But Diane [Ward] has mentioned going into the studio, and I might help her out on a track or two. Not necessarily the whole album." Sabatella laughs again. "It's not that I don't know how to say no," he insists. "I just love to be a part of music that I respect."

Though he has no intention of heading back into the studio to record his own songs, Sabatella has a backlog of material, the byproduct of Where's lengthy gestation. "I could record another two albums right now," he says. Next time out, though, there will be no more duct-taping sleeping bags to windows, or playing musical chairs with engineers or studios. "I learned so much recording this record that my next project will feel like my third or fourth," Sabatella says. "I could do the whole album in a week."

Maybe so. But could such an album ever be called a labor of love?

Georgina Cardenas contributed to this story.

Matthew Sabatella plays Thursday, November 6, at 10:00 p.m. at Tobacco Road, 626 S Miami Ave, 374-1198, with 18 Wheelers and Tether's End. Cover charge is $5.

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