An indie super-group comprised of members of the Feelies, Winter Hours, and the Bongos, East of Venus have crafted one of the year’s best rock and roll records so far.
The joy in arrival of indie rock supergroup East of Venus' Memory Box is tempered significantly by the knowledge that this will be the band's only release. Guitarist/vocalist Michael Carlucci died of a heart attack in October 2015, a shock to the broad indie music community and one felt especially deep within the New Jersey scene of which he'd been a part since the exceptional run of his band Winter Hours in the 80s. That said, though, there is much to celebrate in the existence of this release.
Carlucci is joined here by Stanley Demeski, who had been Winter Hours' drummer before joining the reconstituted Feelies to record The Good Earth in 1986. Fellow Feelie Glenn Mercer shares guitar duties and ex-Bongo Rob Norris provides bass. Again, "indie-rock supergroup" is hardly an overstatement here.
Fragmentary, characteristic elements of the primary source bands are evident throughout, but East of Venus stands as its own unit with its own distinct blend of sound. Mercer's languid, ringing guitar playing dominates songs like "You Started Something" and "Who's to Know" while his whispered talk-singing is central to the sweet, Lou Reed-inspired "Jane September". Norris carves intricate bass patterns below the lead guitars and around Demeski's solid drumming, adding a deeper sonic complexity to even the album's slower songs. But, from start to finish, this is Carlucci's record. He composed six of the ten songs here, collaborated on a seventh, and sings lead on all but one track. Even the three covers reflect his spirit.
If a little thin on first listen, the raspy sincerity of Carlucci's voice adds an endearing intimacy to these performances after repeated plays. Having travelled around central Georgia with this disc on repeat for a couple weeks now, I can't imagine them sung any other way. "Faded Pictures", a previously unrecorded Winter Hours song, makes the most of this characteristic. "Have you been wondering", he sings, "what to say? / Have you been wondering where all the happy people play?" The repeated refrain of "Where do they play?" is heartbreakingly beautiful.
The band's upbeat performance of Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe", turns this classic bitter pill of a song into a folk-rock singalong, without softening its sting. The dark mood continues in "Wishing Well", a song depicting the stubborn refusal to accept a relationship's end and which gives the album its title: "The memory box it's full of pain / Ten years later we remain the same." A Byrds-like, twisting guitar run drives "Who's to Know?" then gives way to a solo straight out of Crazy Horse. One of the album's gems is the already-mentioned "Jane September", a track composed by Richard Mason and Kristen Yiengst for their early '80s band Red Buckets, a group of significant potential that toured the Boston to Philadelphia corridor before imploding, as so many do.
Three of the four members of East of Venus -- Carlucci, Mercer, and Demeski -- were members of Red Buckets during that band's brief period of promise. All moved on to their better-known bands, while Yiengst became an art director of note, working with a diverse collection of artists from Melissa Etheridge and Jon Bon Jovi to Jay Z and Kanye West. Mason, though, that band's brilliant and troubled leader, never rose to the heights his talent promised and died of diabetes-related complications. It was a direct result of a 2004 tribute show for Mason that Carlucci, Mercer, Demeski, and Norris formed East of Venus. The excellent Tapewrecks blog has published a fascinating oral history of Red Buckets including commentary from all band members, save Mason, and scene contemporaries such as Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan.
This Memory Box, despite the tragedy at its heart, is not "filled with pain". This aptly titled album is a tribute to the memory of Michael Carlucci and to the ever-pulsing beat of a true believer.