Unamerican Music

It's no longer news to hear the British are coming. It should, however, give pause to American acts to learn that once again those dastardly redcoats have found a way to hand us our lunch on an old-time rock and roll commemorative platter. We may not think much of our musical heritage, so someone has to.

The Who has been invading our shores for decades, and no matter how many times the band retires or runs the annual farewell tour, it comes back somewhere between fair to middling. The 1978 death of rock's most idiosyncratic drummer, Keith Moon, ensured diminished returns. But you can never completely shortchange Roger Daltrey's commanding stage presence or the sincere guitar windmilling of the withering and increasingly deaf Pete Townshend. These guys are lifers at the teenage wasteland over which they lord. Keep in mind, a back catalogue that includes “My Generation,” “Pictures of Lily,” “Baba O'Riley,” “Won't Get Fooled Again,” and “The Real Me” is always ripe for picking. Like a lifetime .300 hitter, they have the experience to draw on should they find their backs up against the wall.

Now auxiliary players are the death knell to all satisfying rock and roll shows. Back-up singers, keyboard players, and horn sections are strictly Las Vegas and completely anti-rock and roll, but some variation thereof always manages to pad out a veteran rock act. (I suppose to spell them while they ingest their vitamins midset.) So, while transcendence on the order of the days of old clearly is out of the question, there's no reason these aging Who-sters can't rally up a decent facsimile of their primal, metaphysical power. Muddy Waters died with dignity. These old farts will do it rolling and tumbling all the way down the hill. They should perhaps amend their parting salvo to read: Hope I die before I get horribly, horribly old.

Energizing them, however, is an opening act with future promise. Unamerican is not, as the name implies, some British techno group looking to tax our patience without sufficient musical representation. If anything it is the legitimate throwback to a time when guitar rock along the lines of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers reigned supreme. (Once upon a time, as perfect proof of the provincial thinking of radio programmers, such groups were considered New Wave.) Its two-guitar attack, provided by Steve McEwan (who previously spent time as a touring guitarist for World Party) and lead guitarist Matthew Crozer, at times resembles the rambling spirit of Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

“We were all big fans of Dylan and Neil Young and that kind of sound,” says McEwan. “We knew that we wanted to record in America because we grew up listening to American music; that's what we're into. So we all kind of knew what kind of sound we wanted.” The band recorded its self-titled debut album in Memphis at House of Blues studio on the oldest -- ahem, vintage -- equipment they could find. “We go for old gear,” McEwan offers. “If we're going to buy it, it's got to be at least twenty years old.”

They even sing in what could be construed as “American” accents. “The only bands that sing with British accents are really daft, like Small Faces, the Jam, Blur. They did the whole lovey-dovey up-your-bum kind of thing,” says McEwan. “Normally everyone kind of sings in an American accent.”

When pressed, McEwan espouses great admiration for Bruce Springsteen, a man not usually associated with trend-happy Brits. “The thing is, British culture hates anything that takes itself too seriously,” McEwan explains. “But I think he's fantastic. I met him once. I just went up to him and he was just really open. I didn't know what to say of course, and I was like, “Oh hi, are you Bruce Springsteen?' and he said, “Yeah, man' and shook my hand and it was like brother to brother. Then I saw him live, and when you see Springsteen live, it just makes sense.”

From a land that's mostly been exporting Brit-pop along the lines of Pulp, Oasis, and the ever-changing Blur, Unamerican is an anomaly. McEwan always understood that World Party was Karl Wallinger's baby; therefore he set about putting together his own group. The switch from smoky bars to stadium tours actually was a bit quicker than most groups are accustomed to. McEwan had met guitarist Crozer in a club, and within seven gigs had procured a major-label contract.

“Luck, really,” McEwan says. “It just as likely could've been 70.” Now luck steps aside and the bizarre workings of the major-label package tour kick in, and suddenly this group with one album under its belt goes to work for one of the oldest and most prestigious acts in the biz. Anyone familiar with the typical backlash attitude of the British press can only imagine the kind of reception awaiting them back home in the United Kingdom.

“We'll be crucified, most likely,” McEwan declares matter-of-factly. “That's what they did with Bush. They did so well [in America] and then they came over here and they were considered a fourth-rate Nirvana, copyists. If you have a lot of success in America and you sound American, I don't know how the British press are going to react to it.”

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Rob O'Connor