Odds Against All
It was one of the most captivating and affecting songs released in 1991. It's so profound Greil Marcus felt the need to discuss it in his new book Dead Elvis. It could have been the cut to launch the career of a band called the Odds. But "Wendy Under the Stars" will never be played on commercial radio or video. It'll never be a hit.
The tune begins with the sound of crickets chirping. A soft acoustic guitar adds a layer of texture and Steven Drake sings softly about the 31-year-old woman who, in the spooky glow of the television picture, puts a finger in the ear of a seventeen-year-old boy-becoming-a-man. He pulls her finger out so he can hear. The man on TV is saying the king of rock and roll is dead. The woman is saying, "Don't ever forget this night." It's a quiet moment, a haunting moment, unforgettable. The male character's soul is torn between the fatal news and his lustful attraction. Soon she will lead him by the hand into a field to show him "what passion could mean." The juxtaposition is mesmerizing: death and sex, and many other things, banging against each other in this teen-ager's mind.
But everyone knows Elvis isn't dead. And the two characters in this song are not having sex. They're not making love, either. The chorus goes like this: "I was fucking Wendy/Under the stars/The night that Elvis died." This is the transformative power of music - a three-minute pop song that is like watching a movie, reading a novel, attending an opera, all at the same time. And that communicative and artistic power depends on the choice of the word "fucking." It is the poet exercising his license. And it's a stupid damn business decision. "I think it was obvious to the label [Zoo] that we'd change the word," Craig Northey, the group's other vocalist, says. "We countered by asking, `What would you come up with to give you the same feeling?' Everyone became resigned to the fact we were going to put it on the record. People still try to brainstorm. `We could just...' but you can't. `Fucking' is a word that gives you that creepy feeling, if you could call it `creepy.'" It is the right word.
And on the strength of their debut, Neapolitan, the Odds are a right band. The very idea of putting "feeling" - that is, the art - ahead of more practical considerations, especially for a band that has signed its first big deal and is making its first album, is a music-biz aberration. You can't write it off to petulance, either, the too-cool-for-school snot band causing trouble for the blue suits. One person who would never stand for petulance is Warren Zevon, and the Odds are opening for Mr. Z and backing him on his current tour. "We've been waiting to be asked how we got together," Northey says. "Either he saw us on Star Search or we were appearing as Four Jacks and a Jill in a Ramada Inn playing his songs. But neither happened. He saw us in a strip bar in New Orleans. We weren't playing, we were just there. No, we were backing the strippers." No, not that, either. "Essentially what happened is that he was given CDs by a bunch of bands. Ours was on the bottom of the pile, which is where he took it from. Steven [Drake] says Warren is a man who always deals from the bottom of the deck."
Zevon has enlisted extant bands to help him in the past (R.E.M. backed him on his masterful Sentimental Hygiene album, for example). He allows the Odds to flex when they support him after playing their own set. "He gives us the chance to put our own mark on what he's doing," Northey says. "He doesn't ever say, `Just play it like the record.' And he doesn't crack a whip, either."
The grizzled rocker has also helped the young band from Vancouver adjust to the spotlight, the new-band-hype aspect of their career. "We've gotten a lot of press," Northey says. "And Warren's been a mentor. He's been through this and he's already done it. So we sit around and talk about it. With reviews, you can get upset with a bad one and gleeful or boastful with a good one. We take them all lightly. We thought about with interviews not having a quip or a comeback, but whatever they ask or say, you can fight your way out of anything. It's the nature of the beast. If the spoon didn't have a name, everyone would fight over what to call it and what it should be used for. So no one would ever get around to using it."
The idea of a band opening and backing an established artist is not unique - remember Roger McGuinn and the Headlights? - and it's not cause for a Trend Alert, like the T.A. sent up when the Canadian Invasion made itself evident. Without pigeonholing the Odds (they're a spoon!), Canadian acts such as the Tragically Hip, Crash Test Dummies, and Blue Rodeo share a distinct lack of artificial embellishment. Stage attire and studio gimmickry take a back seat to good ol' guitar-drum rock with smart lyrics and a down-to-earth attitude. "It's just a matter of playing the music," offers Northey. "We're not looking at whatever people are wearing. We're not looking over our shoulders to make sure we're fresh." The Odds write great songs, record them well, and play them live. All the other trappings are irrelevant.
The first single, "Love Is the Subject," has enjoyed some college-radio play, but, despite its breathless infectiousness, a hook as big as all Canada, and driving rhythm, the song was not the smash hit it deserved to be. "King of the Heap," slow and moody, is the second lift from the LP, and its accompanying video should be out soon. The highly literate, gentle, and cinematic "Truth or Dare" is lovingly colored by violin, played by Gay Northey, Craig's mother. "We called in the big guns for that one," Northey quips. "I attempted the violin part. We all had sort of fiddled around with various instruments, or maybe never even touched it, but when it got to the point where we needed, say, a horn section, for just three notes, we'd all try to do it ourselves. I played violin as a kid, so I gave it a shot. It didn't really work out, so we got a pro. She teaches violin to little kids, which was about right for us. She gave us candies when she left the studio."
Neapolitan dishes out rich, varied, unforgettable tunes. "Wendy," "Truth or Dare," and "Love Is the Subject" are just the cream of a thirteen-song crop. Drake and Northey deploy their guitars the way an artist brushes paint - they don't splash the canvas in red, or fill in the numbers, they create a multidimensional, colorful, absorbing audio picture. Drummer Paul Brennan and bassist Doug Elliott are equally versatile and clever in their rhythm roles.
But even when it comes to the music itself, things always get tricky in this business. "King of the Heap," for example, was too long, the label said knowingly, to be a single. However, editing was a problem due to one of the things that give this sound its vitality and strength - overlapping instrumental parts, a seamless flow. "Mitchell Froom had gotten a hold of our demos," Northey says, "and he loved the demo version of the song. He said, `Just send me the masters.' He would then go in and remix it, which allows editing because it's on multitrack. We figured it might work, it might not. We got it back and loved it. He'd never tried anything like that before, and we'd never let our music out of our hands before. But the label heard it and said sure."
The Odds never make too much of themselves, so it's only fair to not gush, even though this is the sort of band critics drool over, mostly because the music is food for thought, feeling, transformation. Of course some of those critics remain hungry, doing dumb things like asking the Odds why they named their album after an ice cream. Yes, Northey says, some interviewers have actually posed that thoughtful question. Pass the spoon, please.
THE ODDS and Warren Zevon perform at 9:00 p.m. Saturday at Summers, 219 S Atlantic Blvd, Ft Lauderdale, 462-6262. Tickets cost $12 and $14.
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