After seeming to disappear, Dada is happily back together again. Following an “extended vacation” that stretched from June 1999 until March 2003 and included intriguing side projects, the trio has reunited again collectively as Dada and are currently touring in support of the release of their fifth studio album, How to Be Found, a collection of previously unreleased tracks that’s a must-have for true fans.
In the intervening four years, Michael Gurley and Phil Leavitt, along with bassist Aaron Schwoerer, formed the band Butterfly Jones (whose album Napalm Springs topped my best of 2002 list). That band continues to exist (and word has it that Gurley has written a second album’s worth of material, to be recorded and released later this year), as does the jazz trio Michael Gurley and the Nightcaps (Gurley, Leavitt, and keyboardist John Gilmore), who have put out two independent CDs of their own.
Drummer Leavitt has also performed regularly with the Blue Man Group, and still frequently performs with Uberschall (a collection of Blue Man Group drummers) in Las Vegas. He did some work with the Gin Blossoms in 2002, and has kept busy doing lots of voiceover work.
Joie Calio has been busy as well. He moved his family from Los Angeles to Seattle and began working as an A&R rep for MCA Records, scouting new musical talent. He has also been writing new music. A promotional single garnered enough acclaim to get approval for more songs to be recorded under the band name Candy Apple Black. Calio continued to perform solo around the Seattle area, wrote a soon-to-be-published book, and recorded a solo album (The Complications of Glitter).
So, after all that time and musical stretching, these three are back with thirteen songs that for one reason or another never made the cut on previous albums. As these tracks were written at different times (and mixed by either Bob Clearmountain, Scott Gordon, or Tom Lord-Alge), this collection understandably seems less unified as a whole than previous albums. These songs, for the most part, seem softer and more moody, wearing blues and jazz accents more openly. Yet repeated listens reveal their quality and distinctive charms.
While some past Dada songs were more instantly accessible, true fans know the band’s best efforts have always been those that grow on you gradually, wending their way into your subconscious as if time-released and making their mark forever after.
As such, don’t be too hasty to judge the songs of How to Be Found after a first, second, or even third listen. I’d recommend a minimum of ten listens or more to truly start sorting through this material. What you’ll likely find is that songs you previously dismissed come back strong to haunt you, and that you’ll likely change your choice of favorite song time and again.
That’s the fun of this collection. On the initial listen, you might say no big deal, that’s probably why these songs never made the cut in the first place. Then keep listening more, perhaps over the course of several days. All of a sudden these songs come to life as strong, unique entities, their individual musical charms suddenly apparent.
First off, understand the dynamics of Dada. Harmony remains an integral part of the music—and the dual lead vocals of Gurley and Calio (plus Leavitt’s backing vox) are as expressive and pleasant as ever. However, the fourth voice is the strongest and most expressive—that of Gurley’s guitar. Here is a true old-school rock guitarist, whose jazz and blues influences come out in leads and fills that add depth and flavor throughout.
Another Dada constant are smart lyrics, harnessing adolescent urges into very emotional, occasionally witty, cavalier, and oft-obscure tangents.
The CD opens with “The Next Train Out of Mind”, an ode to the restlessness of being stuck in a small town. While the invitation is to leave on the next train out of his mind, disappointed inertia seems to triumph: “Somebody already climbed every mountain / somebody already walked on the moon / Ain’t nothing left to discover / Ain’t no reason to leave this room / And when I get up in the morning and I stand there paralyzed / ‘Cause you know I look at my own reflection / You know I’m seeing my old man’s eyes”. Ultimately, the ticket out is to “get a Mel Bay book” to learn how to play guitar—and there’s some fine low-key noodling at song’s end to back up that lyrical point.
“It’s All Mine” is a rhythm-driven ditty, simple and repetitive, about the adolescent desire to own the night: “There’s nothing better than a car / A hundred miles per hour in the dark / I close my eyes and take my hands off the wheel / No better way to find out who you are”. Another fairly straightforward, catchy, beat-driven love song is “Nothing Like You”.
If you want a love song of a different stripe, try the breezy “Any Day the Wind Blows”. Here’s the story of a free spirit who is anything but loyal to her man: “You might find her kissing someone who is a loser / Who is a bruiser / Who will abuse her ‘til she’s had her fill / Who is a user / She likes a cruiser / When she gets an extra afternoon to fill”.
The title track is a sweet little Dada number that seems to teeter delicately on minor chords that find short, pleasing major resolutions. This is a plea for all of us to enjoy ourselves during our short lifetimes, to find salvation in music (“Even Warhol needed songs”), and other sound advice: “Walk through the door / You’re leaving the crowd / Open your mind / To hear the sound / A voice from above / And one from the ground / Leading you on / How to be found”. The dual vocals work well here, and the solo is another jazzy Gurley gem.
Fans of the harder-edged side of Dada will favor the song “Crumble”. The harmonies work in tandem with the guitar parts, and the middle bridge is a melodic window that opens up the way to a great solo. This tale of falling apart is radio ready at just over the 3-minute mark.
As a fan of the more melodic, bluesy numbers here, I’m currently favoring “Guitar Girl”, which sounds to these ears very much like it could be a Butterfly Jones number. It’s a “story song”, telling of a German girl who sings American blues on the street to soothe the pains of all who listen: “On the streets of Munich / Tonight you can hear the ghosts of delta kings and Harlem queens / And cool jazz from the coast / A million minor chords can really take its toll / On a young fraulein searching for her soul / With an angel’s voice that smokes too many cigarettes / And if you help her out / She’s gonna help you to forget”.
Another great “story song” is the somber, melodic, and infectious “What’s Happening to Steven”. This is concern for a friend who’s losing it, rife with harmonies and displaying the tight backbeat held together by Calio and Leavitt.
Another great song here is “Blue Girl”, long a staple at live Dada performances. I like the soft, bluesy guitar opening, love the aching harmonies, and enjoy the song’s message: urging said blue girl to open up, cry, and let it all out. The singer notes that he “just might be the one, the one who will understand” and wants to “be there when the rain starts to fall”. All told, it’s a beautiful piece, and typically Dada—emotional and melodic and über-catchy.
There are softer ballads here as well. “My Life Could Be Different” is a quiet plea for someone to talk to, a place to go to that won’t weigh him down so much, a dream of change. Dada puts on a funk groove with “Reason”, a balladic plea asking for a second chance, making promises for a hopeful next time.
“I Wish You Were Here Now” is at first so laid back it’s almost trance inducing, then builds into something more upbeat (and has fine lead vocals). Lyrically, it’s all simple thoughts—hopes and dreams—the kind you might have written in high school: “I wish you were here now / I’m feeling low / I wonder how you are / I miss you so”.
Another song that builds from quiet to loud is the philosophical closer “Love Is a Weird Thing”. This jazz-infused poser makes the title observation about love, as well as that “life is a strange bird, flying upside down against the wind”.
Dada have come a long way from their roots in the early ‘90s, when Michael Gurley tempted fate. His sister’s husband owned a Los Angeles car dealership, and when Gurley delivered a car to Miles Copeland, the manager of the Police, he took the liberty of leaving a demo tape in the cassette player. The rest, as they say, is history.
I’m sure many people are glad to hear that the talents comprising Dada are again back in action. Over these past few weeks, I’ve grown even more fond of How to Be Found and its crisp, clean sound (the production is never overdone). While it might not be the best album ever created by the trio, it’s certainly chock full of intelligent rock songs that stand above most of what’s currently being foisted upon us on commercial radio.
How to Be Found probably won’t garner millions in sales or provide Dada with widespread popularity. But with Dada, it’s all about the craft of the music—smart, melodic, well-executed guitar-and-harmony-based songs. Give this new one many a spin and let the songs reveal themselves to you—you won’t be disappointed.
// Notes from the Road
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