Counterbalance: The Tough and Lovely's 'Born of the Stars'
This week’s Counterbalance looks at a 2004 release from a relatively obscure Columbus band, hoping to gain an understanding of acclaim and success from a somewhat different perspective.
Mendelsohn: A couple of weeks ago, when we were talking about the Japandroids, we briefly talked about the fickle nature of the music business and just how much luck it takes to break a band upon the public consciousness. This week, I present you with the Tough and Lovely and their 2004 record Born of the Stars. The Tough and Lovely were an outfit out of Columbus, Ohio, who released an EP and two albums before, I can only assume, moving on to other things. They popped up on the tail end of the garage rock revival, and, for my money, released some of the best music to come out of the movement in the mid-2000s. I saw the Tough and Lovely play in a dingy bar in my hometown nearly a decade ago — a dingy bar that I grew up in and where I witnessed some of the most memorable concerts of my young life — a dingy bar that no longer exists, wiped out in the name of urban renewal. The Tough and Lovely were one of the last concerts I saw in that bar and while this piece isn’t an ode to that rathole my friends and I used to hang out in, it does fit into the nostalgia I feel whenever I pull out Born of the Stars.
And whenever I pull out Born of the Stars, I always find myself wondering why this band didn’t find the same success as some of their peers? There could be a whole host of reasons, everything from market over saturation — the Midwest was awash with garage rock bands at the time — to a simple case of bad luck. Whatever it was, if you are out there, Tough and Lovely, I just wanted you all to know I love this record, thanks for making it.
So what do you think, Klinger? Am I way off base? Is there too much nostalgia clouding the air for me to see clearly? Or would you have liked to have seen the Tough and Lovely break upon the upon the public consciousness like a garage rock-powered wave wiping the banks of the music industry?
Klinger: Let me start by saying this is a fine record by a solid group. I particularly enjoyed the group's homages to early 1960s R&B, and singer Lara Yazvac is just great. And I listened to this record several times before I realized we were talking about a regional garage band that apparently disappeared off the face of the earth sometime during the George W. Bush administration. Why didn't the group find success? I don't know. Probably for the same reason that about 50-blue million other bands didn't find success. Just as every band on the Great List found their own unique way into the pantheon, every other band's path to obscurity is also a story all its own.
I have to say, before I did a little research and found out that the Tough and Lovely are long gone with barely an Internet trail left behind, I was pretty excited about this new discovery. But now I'm struggling with what to say here, and how it fits into what Counterbalance is trying to say overall. So you’re going to have to do a bit of heavy lifting and some fancy footwork here Mendelsohn (which does paint a picture).
Mendelsohn: What is Counterbalance but our ongoing, ever-evolving conversation about the various facets of music? Before we embarked on our journey through the Great List, we did Counterbalance for a print publication, and we did it in a much more relaxed manner, subjecting each other to our whims of fancy be it the fad of the moment (I made you listen to Santigold’s Santogold) or new releases by has-been groups (you made me listen to the Who’s Endless Wire). Then we took on a rather lofty challenge, trekking through the Great List, album by album, week by week. It’s been four years, Klinger, and for me, at least, it has been incredibly educational. Now, we’ve left the path of the Great List to strike back out on our own and once again subject each other to whatever we may pull off the shelf. Looking back, I don’t think I listen to music in the same way I did before we started. I now dissect each record in a much more analytical way. Whenever I find myself leaning in toward the speaker I feel almost self-conscious about it as it yet again presents the opportunity to delve further into what makes the music tick. I now pick apart the influences, actively listen for references, and take note of all touchstones. Through all of that, I can’t decide if it has ruined my love of music or taken it to a new level.
After spending so much time in the Canon, I was afraid to go back and listen to some of the records I had loved before going on such an intensive educational journey. Truth be told, some of those records didn’t hold up. I’m happy to report that I still found Born of the Stars to still be intriguing, and more so because I feel like I have a better understanding of all of its parts. I also have a better understanding of what it’s missing. Listening to the most critically acclaimed records of all time for such a long time makes it painfully clear when a record just doesn’t have “it”. What is “it”? I don’t know. Ask Bill Clinton. Or George Clinton. Or Boy George. Between the three of them, we should be able to get the answer.
Klinger: True, being able to see all the moving parts can strip away some of the wonder. That may be why I'm often so skeptical about more recent releases. But overall I'd say that a greater understanding is a positive thing, especially when you start to grasp how many layers are at work with a group like the Tough and Lovely, whose music seems to take in a wide swath of rock history.
Mendelsohn: In listening to Born of the Stars again after all these years, I am still amazed by the clarity of the re-appropriation of the 1960s rock and pop model. The Tough and Lovely’s update is exacting and maybe that’s where this albums falters — too much looking back and not enough looking forward.
I also feel bad for dropping this record on you, knowing full well you would probably enjoy it and then run straight into a brick wall when you went looking for more.
Klinger: Hey, don't worry about it. In fact, both albums by the Tough and Lovely — Born of the Stars and their 2007 follow-up Teardrops — are available on Spotify, so curious passers-by can dig their retro sounds and the band members can earn a few fractions of a cent at the same time. Win-win.
So when folks do head over there to give this group a listen (and I highly encourage them to do so), they're going to hear something that goes well beyond your basic Underground Garage recipe of three chords and a riff. Those elements are there, especially in lead-off track “Born of the Stars”, but it doesn’t take long for the album to reveal its true strength and diversity. "Hard to Love Me", for example, not only captures the progressions of an old Cameo-Parkway 45, but also the deep groove and swagger that suggest a band that's all pushing hard in the same direction. And again, what a powerhouse voice the group had in Lara Yazvac. I do hope that whatever she’s doing now she's getting a chance to belt it out now and again.
Mendelsohn: That’s what really set the Tough and Lovely apart from so many of the other bands I saw around that time — they had a vision and they executed it at a high level. A lot of that credit goes toward guitarist Andrew Robertson — it’s his work that sets the tone, whether it’s the loping melody of “One Man” or the hard-charging riffs of “Tough and Lovely”. Robertson came out of Them Wranch, a three-piece that straddled the line between punk and garage rock, and you can hear what will become the Tough and Lovely trying to break through the feedback. Add in a crack band to fill the bass back-end, the necessary organ strains, and a swinging drum beat, and you have a recipe for success. And then, of course, there was Yazvac. Her, in-your-face, and simultaneously sweet and aggressive vocals were a sight to behold and she comes through loud and clear on Born of the Stars — a mixture of the '60s pop diva sultriness with the self-assuredness of a true rock star. Thanks to the Internet, here’s hoping this record will get some of the attention it deserves.