You might have expected the favourite album of a PopMatters writer like myself to be one of the classics by the usual suspects of the musical canon — the Beatles, the Stones, or Nirvana. However, because of a desire to both defy convention and inform about a band that people don’t know enough about, I have chosen a band from the opposite end of that spectrum: the Loveless.
Yeah, I know, you’ve never heard of them, right? Well that may be the case, but although the now defunct New York four-piece were not exactly a household name, and despite the fact their one and only opus, A Tale of Gin and Salvation did not signal a sea change in the musical climate in the same way as way albums like Nevermind, the band still takes pride of place in my CD rack.
It’s an album so good, I bought it twice, and until now, I’d never really analysed the reasons why I like it so much. Obviously, its superlative lyrics, unforgettable melodies and the perfect musical chemistry between the band members make it one I never tire of, but on a general level the album represents much more than just great music: A Tale of Gin and Salvation is a sophisticated collection that was ahead of its time in many ways, and one that stands as an example of the artistic triumph of the independent band over the corporate machine.
The Loveless were John Schubert on drums, Jonathan Daniel on bass, John Ceparano on guitars, and Shane on vocals. Everyone except Ceparano were the surviving ‘veterans’ of ’80s pop-rock band Candy (who scored a minor hit with their 1985 Mercury power pop album Whatever Happened To Fun), and ’90s pop-metal act Electric Angels (who released one self titled record on Atlantic towards the end of the hard rock era). Both bands had fallen victim to unfortunate timing, and also the fickle nature of major record labels. Both were largely ignored by the music buying public, despite the songwriting talent of Daniel shining through on songs like “Whatever Happened To Fun” and “True Love and Other Fairytales” to name but two.
But Jonathan Daniel wasn’t about to give up his musical career because of a record label. In a move that mirrored the punk spirit and ethos of bands that influenced him as a teenager, the demise of Electric Angels convinced the bassist to gather together Schubert and Shane and enlist the help of New York musician John Ceparano to join him in a band free from the creative shackles of a major label that wasn’t supportive, and the result of long nights and spare time weekends spent independently in the studio was astonishing.
A Tale of Gin and Salvation was released in 1995, and everything about it reeks of quality — the film noir concept artwork, the sharp suits and ultra-cool look of the band, the witty, acerbic lyrics and cast-iron melodies, and also the shift in emphasis from raw, intelligent hard rock to a slick, polished, and sophisticated power pop sound that provided the perfect vehicle for the songwriting brilliance of Jonathan Daniel. Utilising resources such as the fledgling Internet for marketing, and a home studio for recording, it was a low-budget do-it-yourself production that sounded fabulous, and was packaged just the way the band wanted it. More importantly, it was exactly the type of record that a major label exec wouldn’t know what to do with.
Yet in enigmatic vocalist Shane, The Loveless possessed the quintessential pop star; a precocious talent with a sensational voice, and the rest of the band were a perfect fit for each other. Drummer John Schubert pounds the skins with conviction when necessary, yet his playing is wonderfully understated on occasion, and John Ceparano on guitar shows tremendous talent, versatility and originality in colouring the songs with some wonderful lead flourishes and jangle-infused rhythms.
Of course, it’s those Jonathan Daniel compositions that really put the icing on the cake, and without exception the 12 cuts on the album are consistently clever, cynical songs that are smooth yet edgy, and melancholic yet darkly funny. Opening with the raucous anthem “If I Only Knew Then”, the bassist’s penchant for carefully crafted, sardonic lyrics that deliver a wry, humorous twist becomes clear: “The story of his life is a book of regrets / The might-have-beens and the days he’d rather forget / So busy jumping someone else’s train / He always missed the boat / Another missed opportunity, another song somebody else wrote”.
Not a word is wasted, every line evokes a familiar feeling of recognition with the emotion and the clichéd phrase you might expect to hear is actually given a neat flip, making these songs something truly different. The delicate “I Almost Miss You” follows the same pattern before the finest three-minute pop song never to have made the charts appears in the form of the simply superb “The Return of the Ex-Girlfriend”.
The dual theme of disappointment and growing older are brilliantly explored in “Growing Up Has Let Me Down” (“There’s a pretty girl I used to know / Unforgettable, she’s all but forgotten now / There’s a rainbow with no pot of gold / Growing up has let me down”), and then the energetic melancholy of “Bittersweet Dreams” takes centre stage. “Lies My Father Told Me” is brilliantly acidic and possibly the darkest cut on the record, but is contrasted by the gentle acoustics of “Heaven, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades”.
The conventional rock ballad is turned on its head in “Can’t Stand Loving You” while “Postcards From My Heart” raises the tempo and the humour levels again. Then the country-tinged strains of the expertly arranged “Wish I Could Fly” and the heavy power-pop of “Sex, Drugs and Rock N Roll Are Dead” brilliantly close out the album and confirm once more Daniel’s mastery of songwriting.
By borrowing from what came before, and injecting those influences with diversity, style and wit, the Loveless created an album that deserved to have been the soundtrack for a disenfranchised and disenchanted generation. Yet like the album, the band was all over far too quickly. The music industry of 1995 was too busy making stars out of the likes of Hootie and the Blowfish to ‘get’ the band’s classic sound, and as most independent bands find out, without the deep pockets of a major label to fund promotion and radio play, the chances of wider recognition are slim. Despite A Tale of Gin and Salvation gaining rave reviews from anyone that heard it, and after a handful of live shows in NYC, the Loveless split up a few months following the release of the album, and its various members found a life outside music.
Or at least some of them did. The strange thing is — and I’m sure the irony of this situation is not lost on him — after experiencing harsh treatment by the business side of the industry whilst playing in bands, Jonathan Daniel now works very successfully in it as a manager, for acts as diverse as American Hi-Fi, the Cure, Butch Walker, and Sade. John Ceparano returned to his swing-pop band Jet Set Six, Shane hasn’t been heard of much since and John Schubert hung up his sticks to go back to college and concentrate on a career at Time Inc. in New York City.
However, in the same way as other bands I could name that narrowly missed out on the fame and fortune that should have been rightfully theirs, the Loveless have stood the test of time. I know of fans that were lucky enough to grab a copy of A Tale of Gin and Salvation who still e-mail Jonathan Daniel asking him (in hope more than expectation) if a follow-up will be released, and the album itself still sounds remarkably fresh today. Indeed, if this article has convinced you to rush out and buy a copy, you’ll have a real search on your hands. EBay is probably your best option, but suffice to say you’ll never find either of my copies of this irreplaceable disc on there . . .