Sugar Water: Soft, Smooth, and Silver

Written by Concert Reviews, Music, Sugar Water

Did everyone have a rockin’ Fourth of July? (Please answer with an affirmative “Woooooo!”) And are you still rockin’ at the tail end of this three-day weekend? (Please answer with an affirmative “I am, but it becomes more difficult with each passing year to rock as hard as I used to, especially once kids entered the picture, and I can’t even remember the last time my wife and I got a little drunk and rocked twice in one—” Whoa whoa whoa, don’t put words in my mouth as I’m putting them in yours! Just say “Woooooo!” again and let’s leave it at that.) Well, stop that rockin’ for a second, or at least be more flaccid about it, because I want to tell you about a patriotic soft-rock event I attended last week in Chicago.

On Friday, June 27, Schubas hosted “Stay Smooth VIII.5: The Search for Smoothlantis,” the north-side tavern’s latest celebration of “smooth” music, featuring a special performance by Nashville’s Silver Seas. Local DJs Bald Eagle and STV SLV were dressed in their finest sailing duds as they spun ’70s and ’80s soft rock, a genre that’s been rechristened “yacht rock” in the past few years to describe the no-pain, no-gain sound of artists like Christopher Cross, whose 1980 smash hit “Sailing” is an obvious touchstone, and whose doppelganger was collecting money at the door, or at least there was a similarity if you stared at him long enough, which he didn’t seem to appreciate on any level.

Three of the genre’s heaviest hitters are Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, and Steely Dan. They created all-time pop classics like the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” (1978), written by McDonald and Loggins, and Steely Dan’s “Peg” (1977), featuring backing vocals by McDonald, who is without a doubt the white-bearded Poseidon of Smoothlantis.

When I arrived at Schubas last Friday, Bald Eagle and STV SLV (pronounced “Steve Sleeve,” I do believe) were playing America’s 1972 hit “Ventura Highway,” and after a quick detour to that mystical land of glitter, cocaine, and roller skates known as “Xanadu,” they steered right back to America for 1982’s “You Can Do Magic.” U-S-A!

Thank you, silly-hat-wearing DJs, for bringing the pride back. No, not the gay pride, which was already in town last weekend and which also wears silly hats at times — I’m talking about plain ol’ American pride, the kind that’s been scarce recently thanks to the fact that everybody in the world hates our guts. And don’t we kind of hate ourselves too? Self-esteem is low all around, so there was no need to wait until July 4 to give our great nation a boost before we indulged in fireworks and overeating. As long as the one-week-early injection in America’s gluteus maximus remained low in testosterone, a condition that comes natural to soft rock, it would be smooth sailing indeed.

After “You Can Do Magic” came Loggins’s “This Is It” (guest-starring McDonald), a song that’s more lyrically aggressive than most soft rockers, though in the end it’s about as intimidating as Stephen Hawking in a knife fight.

I was about to head to the men’s room when Bread’s “Baby I’m-a Want You” came on; I’m powerless to resist that song, and so is my bladder. With “Baby,” Bread singer-songwriter David Gates achieves sentimental pop perfection in only two and a half minutes, and when he sings “It took so long to find you” right before the fade-out, he might as well be quoting my reaction when I heard “Baby” last year for probably the hundredth time, yet for the very first time I realized just how perfect it is. They say you can’t miss what you never knew, but “Baby I’m-a Want You” makes me miss 1971.

As “Baby” ended, so did my AM Gold-dusted daydream, and my kidneys reminded me that we had some business to take care of. But then Bald Eagle and STV SLV followed Bread with George Benson’s 1976 cover of Bobby Womack’s “Breezin’,” so I reminded my kidneys that I technically only needed one of them — if they wanted to stay alive, they’d have to stop bothering me.

“Breezin'” segued into Phoenix’s “Holdin’ On Together,” from the group’s 2004 album Alphabetical. If you’ve never heard Phoenix, you may wonder how a song from only four years ago wound up on a playlist of ’70s and ’80s soft rock. Plus they’re French, so you’re probably getting angry just thinking about them crashing a party that celebrated American pride, not to mention that time five years ago when their country wouldn’t help our country invade that other country and fight a war that’s led us to where we are today, wondering what pride used to feel like in the first place. Screw you, France, the land of even-keeled, forward-thinking cheese eaters! America isn’t about to start apologizing for living in the now, even if living in the now leads to regretting things forever.

However, the part of me that enjoys rational thought and tolerance of other Caucasians can’t get enough of Phoenix or their French comrades Tahiti 80, who’ve created some wonderful pop music in the past decade that’s heavily influenced by the golden age of American soft rock. In fact, I would say France is kicking America’s ass in soft rock if it weren’t for the efforts of homegrown artists like Josh Rouse, David Mead, Curt Perkins, and the Silver Seas, all of whom have spent time living and working in Nashville since the ’90s, giving new direction to mellow pop in a city that prides itself on being the capital of country music.

So it was entirely appropriate that the Silver Seas walked into Schubas during “Holdin’ On Together,” bridging the ocean between two countries that both speak the romantic language of smooth (making you, the soft-rock listener, a smoothie). If only both bands were on Atlantic Records …

From 1999 to 2006 the Silver Seas were known as the Bees. But another band called the Bees formed in England in 2001 and released their first album a year later, before our Bees, forcing our Bees to put “U.S.” in parentheses after their name on their debut album, 2004’s Starry Gazey Pie, and its follow-up, 2006’s High Society. Here in the States those other Bees’ albums are sold under the name A Band of Bees, but that’s all in the past now since our Bees have renamed themselves the Silver Seas. Personally, I like the new name better, and without it they may not have gotten the call to travel north to “Smoothlantis.”

High Society is a must-have for any fans of Josh Rouse, who has the biggest following of the Nashville artists I named, though he moved to Spain in ’04. Silver Seas frontman Daniel Tashian cowrote Rouse gems like “It’s the Nighttime” (from 2005’s Nashville) and “Quiet Town” (from 2006’s Subtí­tulo) and is a powerhouse songwriter all on his own in addition to having stronger pipes than Rouse. A dreamy concoction like “She Is Gone” reminds me of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” albeit with a more insistent rhythm, while the Beach Boys-like harmonies of “Ms. November” help put the heart-swelling song over the top as an instant classic.

Then there’s the peculiar case of “The Country Life,” “Imaginary Girl,” and “Hard Luck Tom.” Tashian has said that he’d love for one of his songs to be picked up as a theme song for a TV show, “so I got into that mode of writing for a while. There is something about that music — songs from The Odd Couple, Laverne and Shirley, the Pink Panther cartoons — that got ingrained in my brain. The Odd Couple theme is the perfect form of music for me because it’s minor chords, but it’s not sad.” After reading that quote on the Silver Seas’ website late last year, the aforementioned songs made perfect sense as imaginary sitcom themes — catchy, brief (at two minutes and 39 seconds, “The Country Life” is the longest), and easy to sing along with.

The band started their hour-long set at Schubas at midnight, playing “Destiny on the Lawn” and “It’s Only Gravity” from Starry Gazey Pie, five tracks from High Society, and at least two new songs, maybe three, that were as catchy as what’s come before, though no mention was made of titles or an upcoming album. The band sounded good in Schubas’ small concert space, with Tashian on acoustic guitar, David Gehrke on drums, Jason Lehning on keyboards (he also produced both albums), and James Haggerty filling in on bass for John Deaderick. (Or at least that’s what the guy who was standing a few feet away from me was yelling in the ear of the girl he was with. Thanks for the helpful write-up information, guy who looked a lot like Pat Sansone of Wilco!)

Without Deaderick, the Silver Seas had only three-part harmony on songs like “Ms. November” and “The Country Life.” For the full effect, buy their albums. Like the best soft-rock craftsmen, the Silver Seas conjure up some impressive magic in the studio, and you’re never going to experience the emotional impact of full-on softness in a noisy rock club, especially one filled with people who’ve never heard of the Silver Seas before. Of the 11 tracks on High Society, only “Tativille” is less than essential, and Starry Gazey Pie gets better with each listen.

One album of Daniel Tashian songs that you can’t buy is his unreleased solo album, “The Lovetest”; he posted the ten album tracks, three bonus tracks, and one hidden track on his blog in May of 2005, the same month High Society was recorded, though the download link is no longer active. I heard two monumentally good albums last year, both of which were already a few years old by that point: one was Wheat’s Per Second, Per Second, Per Second … Every Second, from 2003, and the other was “The Lovetest.”

Tashian said in an interview last year with Frank Goodman of Puremusic.com that the inspiration for the album came from one major source: New Radicals’ 1998 song “You Get What You Give.” The joyous energy and anthemic sound of that band’s only hit, which Tashian thinks is the best song of the ’90s, inspired him to create his own album overflowing with hooks and sing-along melodies. From the first track to the final bonus track, there isn’t a single clunker, which made me suspicious that the songs weren’t actually written and recorded at one time for one album, but rather were stockpiled over the years and thrown together so listeners could get the most for their money — if the album ever becomes available in stores or online, that is. But that interview made it sound like Tashian really did summon all his creative powers at one time to create “The Lovetest,” which, like Wheat’s album, never makes a wrong move and, like Michael Jackson’s Thriller or Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything?, has something for every pop fan without ever pandering.

Phoenix and New Radicals seem fond of Hall & Oates’s “big ’80s” period, as does Tashian, who does well by them on tracks like “How Can You Be So Sure” and “Famous.” He also tries on ’80s synth-pop for size with the title track, melts your heart on “I Met a Girl,” and scores a direct hit on the Top 40 of Songs You’ll Never Hear on the Radio with “Nothing Is Free.” He even has the chutzpah to rip off James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” and Carole King’s “So Far Away” on a bonus track called “It Happens All the Time,” coming up with a song that’s equally good in the process.

“The Lovetest” is a minor miracle, but Tashian can’t even secure a record deal for it. Shame on us for letting this tragedy happen, America! But we mustn’t focus on the past. We need to pick ourselves up, elect a new president, drug the war on terror and terrorize the war on drugs, and maybe somewhere in between we can find a way to put a copy of Daniel Tashian’s “The Lovetest” in the hands of every American pop fan who’s starving for good music. When that day arrives, we’ll all have a reason to be proud of where we live.

The Silver Seas, “It’s Only Gravity” (from 2004’s Starry Gazey Pie, available here and at iTunes)
The Silver Seas, “Hard Luck Tom” (from 2006’s High Society, available here and at iTunes)
The Silver Seas, “She Is Gone” (from 2006’s High Society, available here and at iTunes)
Daniel Tashian, “How Can You Be So Sure” (from 2005’s “The Lovetest”)
Daniel Tashian, “Nothing Is Free” (from 2005’s “The Lovetest”)
Daniel Tashian, “It Happens All the Time” (from 2005’s “The Lovetest”)