Boston might not seem like the most promising origins for a band that could fall within the rubric of alt-country, but then, not so long ago, Illinois and Minnesota probably didn’t seem like regions primed for challenging Nashville either. However, one of the key features of the bands that have emerged under the “No Depression” rubric, following in the wake of Uncle Tupelo, is that country twang is seen as a universally American sound, especially when married to its rock cousin. So when Boston’s Lemonpeeler asks you to take their music seriously, let no preconceptions about geography get in your way.
Their debut album, The First Time, was released in early 2001 and has been making waves ever since, building slowly in recognition the way every good indie act should. Put out on the band’s own Sissybar label, The First Time is a brilliant amalgamation of pop, country, and roots rock. The obligatory comparisons to Wilco and the Jayhawks have been made, and there are certain shades of Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown. But Lemonpeeler is a band that doesn’t sit still while you try to pin it down as “yet another alt-country act”. Other critics have already uncovered traces of Girlfriend-era Matthew Sweet, Counting Crows, and Toad the Wet Sprocket. You could easily add the Gin Blossoms and the Replacements to that list, and not skip a beat.
While all these nods can be made with assurance, and have been readily admitted by the band itself, Lemonpeeler is a band that manages to steer its own course and develop its own unique identity. Songwriter and lead-singer Michael Hayes brings an excellent touch to the music, both in the form of his simple but compellingly obtuse lyrics and in his sweet and tangy voice. Moving between shimmering power-pop and thoughtful acoustic melancholy with ease, Hayes is doubtlessly gifted. The sum of its parts, however, Lemonpeeler is equally blessed with the talents of Booth Hardy on drums, Rob Pevitts on bass, and especially the masterful work of Jim Eddy on lead guitar. Eddy, who plays a Colin Moulding-ish role in the band by contributing the occasional perfect song (“Annabelle’s Design” here), is perhaps more crucial for his guitar chops, lending powerful solos and flourishes as finishing touches to Hayes’ tracks.
The First Time begins with a jumpstart kick-off in the form of “Automatic”, a pristine piece of jangle-pop that indicates Lemonpeeler will be heading in the direction of sheer, sugary power-pop. It’s a misleading signpost, however, as the following song, the title track “The First Time”, finds the band going into full-blown country territory, buttressed by the lap steel of guest musician Tim Kelly. “Around” heads back into pop territory, but doesn’t shake off the air of twang, as the bouncy music and melodic choruses belie the lamented lyrical content focusing on heroin abuse.
It would be easy to run through each track on the disc and speak about the wonderful highlights to be mined from every song. Eddy’s “Annabelle’s Design” moves from airy to wistful in the space of a few choice notes, while “The Limit on You” rides its traveling theme on a lovely melody and ambling bass line, as well as featuring an excellent power solo by Eddy, and “Northbound Plane” shows off the band’s affinity for Paul Westerberg’s rough-edged pop flavorings so much that it could have been an outtake from Don’t Tell a Soul or All Shook Down. “Take Me Back” hearkens back to the high-pitched harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, while “Caroline’s Gone” shows that even within the simple acoustic realm, Hayes can paint a beautiful picture in words and melody.
But it’s the boisterous, whiskey-soaked country-blues of “Two Sisters” that stands out the most here. An incredibly obscure cover of a song by the Immortals (the only reference to the song I could find is as a track on the compilation disc North by Northeast: Roots, Rock & Country), Lemonpeeler takes the tune and runs with it. In contrast to the rest of the album, which is tight and clean, the band cuts loose on “Two Sisters” to rousing effect. Tim Kelly lends his lap steel once more, while the rest of the band sets out to rock, with the result being a perfect roadhouse rabble-rouser. Although it’s a cover, it’s not the songwriting that overshadows the rest of the disc, but the incredible burst of energy it provides (and as obscure as the song is, it’s doubtful anyone would know it wasn’t an original).
On the fist listen, The First Time seems like a misleading disc that grows steadily quieter. Beginning with the peppy “Automatic”, it takes a while to understand that the remaining songs aren’t a downhill ride. After giving it another go round, you start to understand that Lemonpeeler is as much about power-pop as it is about country as it is about folksy roots music. Each style is incorporated in different ways for different reasons within each of the songs. Lemonpeeler is notable for its economy of sound, yes, but the sudden flares of vigor are not accidental. While the band keeps the instrumentation to a minimum, allowing Hayes’ vocals to dominate most of the songs, there is a pervasive sense of control and skill. For a debut album, it’s almost eerie how clean and polished the band sounds. By the end of the second listen, these songs will be as warm and familiar as old friends.
If there’s anything wrong with The First Time, it’s that it’s so short. At a mere nine songs, you’re left wanting more. Although just over 37 minutes in length, a portion of that time is taken up by a solo acoustic rendition of “Automatic” by Hayes included as a hidden bonus track. Although interesting and lovely, a couple more songs would have made this much more fulfilling. But don’t despair! Just as The First Time is suddenly coming to the attention of wider audiences, Lemonpeeler is heading back to the studio this April, with ex-Letters to Cleo bassist filling in for the departed Pevitts. Catch Lemonpeeler and The First Time now so you can say you were there first and have only a brief time to wait to satisfy the craving they’ll instill.