Music

The Deathray Davies: Midnight at the Black Nail Polish Factory

Stephen Haag

The Deathray Davies

Midnight at the Black Nail Polish Factory

Label: Glurp
US Release Date: 2003-05-06
UK Release Date: Available as import
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For every band that has found salvation in noise and good old fashioned rock 'n' roll stomp, there's another act for whom precision and focus are the keys to creating music. In the case of John Dufilho, frontman for Dallas rockers the Deathray Davies, he's mastered the former (2000's The Return of the Drunken Ventriloquist and 2001's The Day of the Ray); it's time to embrace the latter philosophy. Sure enough, he does on Midnight at the Black Nail Polish Factory, his band's first LP for Austin-based record label, Glurp.

Dufilho and his bandmates -- multi-instrumentalists Jason Garner and Michael Crow together with contributors Chad Ferman, Jeff Johnston, Kevin Ingle, Mike Middleton -- cultivate two musical paths on Midnight at the Black Nail Polish Factory: One is the "Broken Orchestra" (also referred to in some quarters as the "Bedroom Orchestra", a name that provides a better sense of musical scope, sound and intimacy), which performs a four-part suite about a girl named Maggie who is blessed/cursed with an expressionless face; the other incarnation of the band is that of charming, fuzzy, psychedelic indie rockers.

The "Bedroom Orchestra" consists of three brief instrumental passages -- one a minor-key piano and snare passage ("The Staring Contest"), one a demented yet delicate music box ditty ("You Can Keep a Straight Poker Face or Play Dead in the Movies") and one a combination of the two ("Just What Is Maggie Thinking"). These interludes are partnered with a non-orchestral tune, the guitar-driven "Maggie Doesn't Blink" which explains the titular character's quirks (viz., a "stuck" face). It sounds like the musical adaptation of a short story Aimee Bender never wrote; it's really quite charming.

The "straight-up" indie rock part of the album is equally as winning. Songs about love lost and found are swathed in horns, violins, keyboards, guitars and Dufilho's reedy voice. "Gone against the Tide", with its fuzzy guitar and surf/garage leanings prove that the band hasn't forgotten its roots, while "I Was That Masked Man" finds Garner's drums way up in the mix with Dufilho's monster guitar riff and Michael Crow's trumpet turns the whole thing into a long-lost (well, not that long-lost) Beulah b-side.

Proof (in this reviewer's mind) that the Deathray Davies are operating at their peak: Their love songs don't wallow in treacle. The narrator of "The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower" promises love to a "freaky girl" with "purple hair" -- provided she doesn't hear him sing. Heck, the song earned the band a spot on the "Nine Most Remarkable Things in Culture this Month" in the June issue of Esquire, if that sort of thing impresses you. Meanwhile, "Dominique", which the liner notes tell was written for Garner to use to woo his future wife, infuses a lap steel pedal guitar with lyrics that suggest Dufilho has been hanging out with the guys in Fountains of Wayne: "When there's nothing new / She's been known to find another view / Dominique / You make me weak". It's an out-and-out charmer, and the last rhyme alone is enough to make me want to marry a woman named Dominique. And even though it's not a love song, I'd be remiss if I failed to mention the brilliant throwaway/album color and layout explanation, "How to Win at Roulette", which alternates between dreamlike and pulsing while Dufilho sings "Red / Black / How much do I have? / How much do we need?". Funny stuff and having the song slow down and ultimately stop like a roulette wheel is just a gas.

"Low and Silent" and the organ-driven "I Regret the Day I Tried to Steal Daniel's Ego" present a grittier sound from the band, and are certainly "fun" enough -- especially the former's spaghetti-Western vibe -- but in the context of the album (and here my inner wuss emerges) they just aren't as vital as the sweet songs.

After so many entertaining tunes, it's a shame I can't muster more excitement for the title track. As dark as its name suggests, it opens with a delicate, plucked guitar, half-whispered, filtered vocals and a xylophone tune that echoes the Bedroom Orchestra mini-suites. The song swells as Dufilho bellows "I know soon I'll be howling". Others may find the song to be the culmination of the band's new approach, but to these ears, it's too weird and too reserved.

I'm not sure when I started writing publicity copy for the Deathray Davies, but Midnight at the Black Nail Polish Factory is a promising new direction from one of Dallas' finest acts. Radio is cruel, so do a little digging and find the album.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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