The reconstituted smarty-pants rock band, in the studio, still wonderful, still weird and tuneful and a delight.
At this point in its almost 50-year history, NRBQ is less a band than it is a brand. Not Coca-cola, not McDonalds, but something more like In-and-Out Burger or... something more like Orange Julius. A quirky brand, maybe a little local, a favorite of that cool friend of yours, but not ever quite for the masses, though it isn’t clear why.
In 2004 the band essentially disbanded, exploded, seemed to have run its course, with the sturdiest version of its shifting line-up having disintegrated amicably. Turns out that founding member and keyboard wizard Terry Adams had stage four throat cancer. But within a few years Adams was patched up and had put together an alternate band featuring Scott Ligon on guitar and Conrad Choucroun on drums, and soon the Terry Adams Rock & Roll Quartet took on the ‘Q name and the hunt was back on. The repertoire for the band kept growing, but darn if they didn’t sound amazing playing killer NRBQ tunes like “Me and the Boys”. Why not?
In 2011 and 2012, the band released a new studio recording (We Travel the SpacewaysKeep This Love Goin’) and then a tasty and eclectic live disc (We Travel the Spaceways, containing the title cover of the Sun Ra jazz song). This month brings a fresh studio recording, this time with new bassist Casey McDonough, Brass Tacks.
While Adams is clearly the leader of the band when you see them in a small club these days — he’s the circus master and the mad old man, the magician and the trickster — the music on all these records is decidedly cooperative, which was always the 'Q way. McDonough has three song credits here, Ligon gets four, Adams is credited with six. All of the music might have appeared on an old NRBQ collection: it is tuneful, rootsy, rockabilly, sentimental, about cars or love or both, weird, interesting. There’s hardly a tune here that isn’t built with a sturdy set of chords or a fun metaphor at the center — but it’s equally true that the recordings themselves are almost willfully casual. And that’s just as nearly every 'Q fan likes it, sales be darned.
“This Flat Tire” is vintage 'Q in this mode. The tune mainly features a roots-drenched country-blues lope and a tale of a broken-down car, but the chorus moves into a hiply harmonized section that could come from only one band. There’s a harmonica solo and wry sense of humor. Adams plays piano (rather than his usual Hohner Clavinet) and takes on the lead vocal in his wry style, narrating a tale in which the various parts of the vehicle can talk to each other. Rather than admit that there’s a flat, the car agrees: keep driving. A good metaphor for the 'Q itself these days, huh?
Adams also penned “Sit In My Lap”, which has a different kind of 'Q classic sound — a mid-tempo melody that might have graced an early Beatles record, but with a bridge that is so sunny and harmonically charming that your heart smiles at the frequencies alone. Adams lets the younger guys sing this one, sweet-toned voices that describe “my love for you”. And it’s just the first of many love songs here. McDonough’s “Can’t Wait to Kiss You” is in this mode too, a bouncy tune that shoots a ton of sunshine into your ears. Guitar and Clavinet fling surging chords, one-a-bar, and the tune ends on a joyful round of singing. And the closer, “Love This Love We Got”, is charmingly set on top of a stride/barrelhouse two-piano groove underpinned by bass but no drums. All the boys take a piece of the vocal. It’s a pure charmer that sounds like it was tossed off after hours in a back room.
There are a good number of nostalgic rockers here too. “Waitin’ on My Sweetie Pie” sounds as dated as its title, set-off with Everly harmonies and clanging streetcar bells. The chorus is just “Oh-way-oh-oh!” a few times, followed by a ‘50s instrumental lick. Fun, but a strange way to start off your “new” album. “Fightin’ Back” is a country-rocker about a relationship gone bad, with a lead vocal that sounds purposefully from another era. “I’d Like to Know” is the kind of keenly harmonized melody that might be a Fountains of Wayne song — smart, a story song, something the radio lost decades ago.
Listening to Brass Tacks reminds you of how gloriously NRBQ flows from the music that preceded it, the early rock that lit the world up way back when, and it reminds you how influential the ‘Q has been on the hippest power pop of more recent eras. NRBQ may have never had a big hit, but they taught others how to link melody, harmony, and magic.
And they still love a little weirdness. “Places Far Away” is a brooding lope that imagines a somewhat Steely Dan-ish journey into some bizarrely imagined future. “There’s a world we can live in / Where the wind blows away the dust that’s gathered all around us”. Yikes. But then the boys play an entirely un-ironic version of Rogers and Hammerstein's “Getting to Know You” from The King and I but as if it were part of the early
60s pop world, including a big instrumental break for bells that leads to a big harmonized finish.
It its core, this band isn’t trying to wink at you, though. Using lots of different modes, it just wants to make music and to get to the core while having fun. My favorite thing here is the simplest: Ligon’s "It’ll Be Alright”, a not-quite love song, not-quite folk song that says simply, “You can do what you want to / It’ll be alright”.
And it’s that attitude that lets NRBQ play on, despite the years, despite the changes in players, despite the sense that maybe this stuff sounds kind of the same as the older stuff.
Baby, that’s alright. The old stuff was great. This stuff ain’t bad either.