Critics frequently compare Springfield, Missouri’s rootsy Americana bar band the Morells (aka the Skeletons) to that other legendary live band who mine the same vein of music, NRBQ. Both groups perform semi-obscure, edgy, good-time tunes from the post-Second World War era (and some self-penned items that sound as if they were written back then) and turn their shows into old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll dance hops. Can you dig it, daddy-o? Turn up the amp, gramps, and let those fingers fly on the strings. But don’t ever lose the beat. The beat, the beat, the beat is where the soul meets the feet. The Morells understand the importance of rhythm.
Though the Morells/ the Skeletons have been around for almost two dozen years, they haven’t released many albums: only two as the Morells (the debut disc in 1982) and four as the Skeletons. Such is the fate of a band known for its live prowess; people flock to the shows but don’t buy the group’s discs. So the band doesn’t bother making new ones. While the differences between the Morells and the Skeletons seem as specious as the differences between George Clinton’s Parliament and Funkadelic, the Morells seem to emphasize the more fifties style rock of the two incarnations. But there are many exceptions to this rule on the new disc, such as the Beach Boys’ Southern California style surf music of “Cool Summer”. In the past the members of The Morells also have been billed as The Hired Guns and have backed up a slew of talented artists, including Syd Straw, Dave Alvin, Jonathan Richman, Steve Forbert, Robbie Fulks, and Boxcar Willie.
Fun is where it’s at on Think About It. The band even makes a cheatin’ song like “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark” into a tall tale that evokes a wry smile more than a grimace at the cuckolded narrator’s fate. Still, this tune may be the weakest track because the tempo kinda drags. The Morells sound best when the pace gets hot. The band knows how to turn even the simplest tunes into party stompers. The group’s version of the fairly unknown and innocuous pop song “Let’s Dance On”, written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and originally recorded by The Monkees, serves as a great example. The Morells create a carnival-like atmosphere with pumping organ grunts, snappy drum rolls, and call and response vocals. What was lightweight fodder for the Monkees turns into something greasy and hoodlum-esque in the hands of the Morells.
The Missouri band honors the state’s greatest contributor to rock music with a chugging version of Chuck Berry’s “Nadine”. The narrator calmly intones his complaints against his girlfriend’s inattention to his pleas to a steady drum and guitar beat. “Oh Nadine/ Tell me tell me is that you.” He sings the repetition in a deadpan voice, which then gets followed by an instrumental mix that sounds like a chicken squawking. The contrast works to reveal just how cool Berry’s lyrics are and how talented the group is. As the Morells feature four different lead vocalists who each play different instruments (Dudley Brown, keyboards; Ron Gremp, drums; D. Clinton Thompson, guitar; Lou Whitney, bass) and the disc has minimal liner notes, it’s difficult to know who sings lead on each cut, but all of the vocals on the disc are crisply enunciated. No matter who sings, the words are always easily understood, even the back-up harmonies. On “Nadine,” the other band members provide doo wop-style backing vocals.
The album’s other tracks serve as touchstones for the band’s own compositions. The Morells cover Duane Eddy/Lee Hazelwood’s twangy “Guitar Man”, Paul Revere and the Raider’s garage rock hit “Ups and Downs”, and the Delmore Brothers’ hillbilly ballad “Girls Don’t Worry My Mind”. The Missouri group’s own material could be said to distill the Southwestern stylings of Eddy/Hazelwood, the Northwestern grunge of Mark Lindsay and company, and the Southern Appalachian resonances of the country harmonizing siblings to create a distinctly American sound.
The Morells make songs and styles from the past into something of value that moves us in the present. Sometimes this slips into the retro, where elegance takes precedence over substance. But stylishness has its own rewards. Who doesn’t want to drive a big red car with fins? The Morells may be more of a Buick or an Oldsmobile than a Cadillac, but they still have a classy chassis.
// Notes from the Road
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