As I write this review in late December, year-end best-of lists are popping up online and in print, full of cutting-edge artists (Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart, Kanye West) who are (justifiably) hailed for their musical adventurism. But where’s the love for bands that play solid music without trying to re-invent the wheel? I’m here to offer an appreciation of one of those of those solid, dependable rock ‘n’ roll bands that gets overlooked come the end of the year—Boston’s the Gentlemen.
That the band—Mike Gent (vocals, guitars and keyboards), Lucky Jackson (vocals and guitar), Ed Valauskas (vocals and bass), and Pete Caldes (drums)—opened for the Rolling Stones this past year on their mega-tour tells you a lot of what you need to know about the Gentlemen’s sound (never mind that everyone from Queens of the Stone Age to Beck to the Neville Brothers have opened for the Stones at one point or another). It’s also helpful to note that Gent’s other band, the Figgs, backed Graham Parker on Parker’s best album in ages, 2005’s Songs of No Consequence. Basically, the Gentlemen fall somewhere between the Stones’ crunching blues riffs and Parker’s smart-ass attitude and roots rock leanings, and the band’s most recent end result, Brass City Band, is some of the finest AOR of the year.
Admittedly, it’s not a sound that often raises critical eyebrows, but it’s a sound the band executes well and creates with a real sense of unity and fun. Gent, Jackson, and Valauskas all write and sing their own songs, and no singer/songwriter outshines the other two. These guys are a darn good band, with heavy accent on the word “band”.
The Gentlemen do a lot of the little things right. They’ve mastered braggadocio—“Do yourself a favor and don’t fuck with the Brass City Band!” warns Jackson on the snarling title track, the album’s closer (bonus points for closing the album with a bang, not a whimper)—but they can also convey insecurity. On the bouncy “Three-Minute Marriage Proposal”, Valauskas pens some of the album’s sharpest lyrics: “Let’s get married in Memphis / how’s next Halloween? / Cuz I’m just as scared as you / probably more / believe it’s true”. When’s the last time a rock band sung a tune about facing up to a fear of commitment, especially a tune as high-octane as this?
They’ve also got a bit of a political bent, and Jackson could be a dead ringer, both vocally and lyrically, for the Waco Bros’ Dean Schlabowske. “Velvet Rope” describes the line between the haves and the have-nots, while on the dark “Watchdogs”, he worries about, “The eyes of the watchdogs / surveying every quotation”. Like the Wacos, the Gentlemen position themselves as the voice of the common man… who likes to rock out.
Of course, the common man likes to goof off, too. On the, um, lighter side, there’s “100 Stone”, a barroom stomper during which Gent paints a picture of a serious overeater: “You eat the waitress / You eat the maitre d’ / ... Here comes the crane to crane you away.” At the risk of sounding flip, it’s the best song about a morbidly obese person since Rockpile’s “Knife and Fork”. Meanwhile, Valauskas knocks some sense into a buddy who thinks he’s got a chance with a woman who’s way out of his league on “Hit That”. Like any well-rounded gentleman, these Gentlemen can hold court on a wide variety of topics.
I’m all for recognizing and rewarding adventurous musical artists for their innovations, but let’s be sure to give a year-end tip o’ the cap to the Gentlemen, for reminding listeners that solid, fun, well-crafted rock and roll will never go out of style.