Sometimes merely writing the songs is not enough. There's a passion fulfilled in playing the songs, working with a band, getting the music out there. And when the right band comes along, that kind of choice becomes so much easier.
Such was the case for exceptional singer/songwriter Scot Sax, formerly of Wanderlust and Bachelor Number One. Feel is his latest (and arguably, greatest) outlet for his well-crafted music, a quartet that has a feel for the music, hence the band name.
Heading a new rock division of Nashville's Curb Records, Sax and colleagues offer a self-titled collection of ten songs that will linger long after you're done listening. There's charm aplenty in the strong offerings here, as producer Dusty Wakeman captures this hard-working band's energy in the studio.
While Wanderlust was more of a straight rock outfit, Sax's new band covers a wider realm of sounds and textures, better serving the nuances of the songwriting. When Wanderlust was dropped by RCA, Sax took up an offer to take his Philadelphia roots and go west to write music. In Los Angeles, Warner/Chappell hired Sax to compose songs for their in-house stable of teen and near-teen up-and-comers (e.g., Sax's "Afternoon with the Stars" is on Jennifer Love Hewitt's album).
While the job was a good one, Sax found that crafting pop hits for others lacked the kind of musical feeling he required on a soul basis. To a certain extent, it had become rote and mechanical -- just another job. When Bill Hons picked up a demo left over from the Wanderlust days, and it subsequently interested movie producers, Sax's music began dictating what was to come.
That song "I Am the Summertime" was re-recorded by Sax and childhood friend (and Wanderlust band mate) bassist Mark Getten under the name Bachelor Number One. It was included in the soundtrack for American Pie, which then went on to great box office success. The song got tons of radio play at first, then received no support or promotional assistance. Frustrated and puzzled by the machinations of the record biz, Sax decided to go back to the songwriting, while playing the occasional acoustic gig with Getten.
Through a mutual friend, they met drummer Dave Shaffer, and over time, playing in a band started becoming fun again. The arrival of guitarist Billy Alexander was the piece that made it truly come together. What once was the Scot Sax Band began to take on its own identity as Feel, and the plan was to head back East and begin touring.
One problem: their flight was scheduled for 12 September 2001. Instead, they decided to rent a van and drive across the country to play the East Coast gigs. They played The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, just a week and a half after the terrorist attacks, and the feeling was intense. People came out in the spirit of solidarity, eager to bond and show that they would not let the events change their freedom to enjoy music.
It was right about that time that the band truly became Feel. Following a rigorous tour that crossed the nation, producer Dusty Wakeman donated his studio time and expertise. Without a record deal, the group recorded the album they sought to make, defying conventional procedure (and happily finding the deal after the songs were recorded). Their self-titled album was released just a little over a year after that inspirational NYC performance.
"Won't Stand in Your Way" is the natural opener and first single, a hook-laden radio-ready rocker chock-full of good optimistic advice: "Life is short and sometimes rough / But if you're up for not giving up / I won't stand in your way / You can let the bad days wash down the drain / You can lift your head up out of the rain / Look in the mirror and start again / I won't stand in your way".
Sax knows how to craft an infectious tune -- in "Got Your Name on It", he uses some of that good Philadelphia funk (through Getten's basslines) to capture your aural attention. This is good upbeat fun, a song about having a name written on the blue sky and the sun and his heart, all the better to help him remember names.
Perhaps my favorite tune here is the somewhat somber "Under the Radar", with its beautiful guitar accents backing up Sax's plaintive tenor as he describes the pressure of having to write songs for a deadline: "Through the dark I search again / For a universal refrain / Lost and lonely sea crashing waves / Strumming through my revolving days / And if I don't have it all worked out by five o'clock / I'll just do without it for now". This is Sax as Glenn Tilbrook, Sax as Neil Finn, and ultimately Sax as Sax.
There are plenty of songs that might appeal to movie and television producers among these ten. "Until They Close the World" would make a fine soundtrack to anyone's dreams of being a rock star, and the charismatic but pretty "Come on Down" is a perfect anthem for young lovers willing to follow their dreams unabashed.
For those who like softer ballads, there's "Girl in a Raincoat", a marvelous lyrical fantasy that explores a great relationship that follows a tangent from a daydream. Two great songs are reprised from last year's Scot Sax self-titled NotLame release: "Please Disregard", which has an early Bee Gees groove amid hooks galore (it doesn't get more catchy than this) and a new version of "I Am the Summertime", the perennial sunny pop American Pie song that invites you to sail away on a wave of fun.
Getten shows some more fancy basswork in the "semi-downer" song "Drown Me". This is a man at his wit's end, sick of himself and pleading his case, seeking another state of mind. The album closes with the wonderful "Come Back", a bluesy ballad of a song that sounds like it could be a Neil Finn/Crowded House composition. Again, this is a far cry from the types of songs Sax was able to do with Wanderlust, and another reason to celebrate how good a supporting musical cast he has with Feel.
Forget the fact that most people don't know him -- Scot Sax is a big-time talent, an exceptional singer/songwriter and a nice guy too. There's not a bad track in this melodic pop/rock collection, and this band plays so well as a unit. When I first heard Scot Sax had a new band, I was skeptical. I thought it seemed to follow too closely upon his last solo release.
Then I listened and I listened some more. Getten, Shaffer, and Alexander -- I owe you an apology. What's most apparent is how Feel connects with the feel of Sax's music and serves it far better than anything that has come before. If you liked Sax's previous incarnations, then you'll love Feel. If you don't know Sax but really enjoy melodic and catchy guitar pop, I urge you to get on this bandwagon soon (because talent like this can't stay a secret much longer).