LOS ANGELES — The grin on Glenn Frey’s face was clearly a satisfied one, but there was something else there too, something tugging at the corners of his mouth — it was a trickster smile of a man hatching a plot or enjoying the subversive tang of a still-private punch line.
“I feel so empowered,” Frey said as he jabbed a “play” button on the control board at his Santa Monica recording studio. It’s here he put together the just-released “After Hours,” his first solo album in 20 years and a whole new flight path for the Eagles member. The record is a collection of standards as well as burnished classics that take him away from “guitar singing,” as he calls his day job.
The room filled with the jazzy saunter of a stand-up bass, a nightclub piano played spare and sharp, and the brassy curlicues of a nightclub sax. Then came Frey’s voice with lyrics that were familiar but slow and rounded by retro — like those smoke rings they blow on “Mad Men.”
The shadows high on the darker side
behind those doors, it’s a wilder ride
You can make a break, you can win or lose
that’s a chance you take
When the heat’s on you
The 63-year-old Detroit native chuckled at the fading final notes of the “Route 66” redux of “The Heat Is On” (a No. 2 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 off of the 1984 soundtrack to “Beverly Hills Cop”), which in this new form sounds a bit like a stripped-down Steely Dan working off of Mel Torme arrangements.
The idea to run the song through the way-back machine came during a pre-tour rehearsal at which Frey bemoaned the fact that some audiences on tour would expect his familiar hits — like “Heartache Tonight” or “Smuggler’s Blues” — even if they created a tonal whiplash on the heels of “After Hours” tracks such as “Sentimental Reasons” and “My Buddy.”
“I looked at the guys,” Frey recalled, “and said, ‘God, how can I sing a ... song like ‘The Heat Is On’ after playing ‘Shadow of Your Smile’? That’s when (Eagles touring band member) Michael Thompson suggested a way we could find some new take on it, and it works pretty well.”
Don Henley, the co-leader of the Eagles with Frey, once said that some nights his signature ballad “Desperado” feels timeless or new, but, well, that’s rare. “Most nights,” he told the Los Angeles Times a few years ago, “it’s like sticking long needles in your eyes.”
Frey said that’s the same reason the tweaked version of “The Heat Is On” creates a new energy, which is essential for a musician this far down the road. He says the reconstituted hit could be the centerpiece single for an “After Hours” sequel release, suggesting it won’t be two decades before his next album.
He and his wife, Cindy, married in 1990, three children followed, and the rock star found that birthday cakes became a bigger priority than album release dates.
Then there’s that band he’s in. It was 40 years ago this month that the Eagles released “Take It Easy,” their first single and, in short order, their first Top 20 hit. (Frey co-wrote the song with a friend and neighbor named Jackson Browne.)
Their sound was ideal for California canyon sunsets: The appeal was a juxtaposition of rural boots on city sidewalks and lyrics that were written in ranch-rugged denim but arrived at FM radio with harmonies with the high polish of a rodeo champ’s belt buckle.
Times flies when you’re an Eagle, and the desert heat has a way of distorting depth perception — could it really be true that the Eagles have been reunited twice as long (18 years) as their original decade-defining run (1971-1980)?
Hell didn’t just freeze over, it opened a ski resort: The flying-again Eagles have released five compilations, a live album and “Long Road Out of Eden,” the first Eagles album of new material since “The Long Run” in 1979.
The Eagles have the bestselling album ever with “Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975),” but they took heat for their commercial success too — and, of course, “The Big Lebowski” made it fashionable for whole new generations to slag on the band. Many artists who followed them sing a different tune.
“They were country and rock, everything I loved about music,” Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne said Friday. “The first 45 I bought with my very own money was ‘New Kid in Town,’ and ‘Addicted to Love’ was on the flip side. ... If I were a band today I would head toward the integrity the Eagles provided us as America’s best all-around rock band.”
The story of the Eagles is getting an intense examination in a new documentary that will be directed by Oscar winner Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Taxi to the Dark Side”), who was hired by the band for in-depth interviews and a sprawling two-film project that has Frey both excited and a bit anxious.
“I told Alex this is now ‘Flat Bed Ford to Dark Side,’” Frey said with a wink. “I told him, ‘We’re not really the cheery sort, Alex, you know? You think you know dark? We’ll show you dark. But, you know, there’s a lot there already, it’s about 80 percent done and there’s going to be two DVDs, 1971 to 1980 and 1994 to the present. We’ll see where it all leads next year.”
Frey started this tour on May 8 at the Town Hall in New York, the venue where Billie Holiday made her solo debut just before Valentine’s Day 1946, but clearly Frey is approaching this endeavor with relaxed posture. How relaxed? At the Wiltern in Los Angeles, he was joined by members of the Santa Monica High School Chamber Orchestra for a few numbers.
Frey has scored two dozen Top 40 singles either as a member of the Eagles or as a solo artist with records like “You Belong to the City.” Right now, though, he’s far more intrigued about singing the “After Hours” songs “Caroline No” by the Beach Boys or “Same Girl” by Randy Newman.
Frey knows that the marketplace has seen quite a few albums like his — Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow are just a few of the veteran artists who took a standards approach — but he said his desire to explore pre-Elvis music has been with him for years and he purposely avoided listening to others so he could keep the clarity of his instincts.
Suggest he’s “Just a Gigolo” when it comes to a make-a-few-bucks dinner party CD and he laughs and reaches for the phone: “‘Clive Davis, Line 2, calling for Mr. Frey ...’ Nah, that’s not what this is. This has been a journey for me. And it’s not done yet. And it’s going to influence, I’m sure, all the music I make after this. I have a lot of good things in my ear.”
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