I owe this to Wes Anderson. After the final credits rolled on the director's The Royal Tenenbaums, I rushed from the theatre to the record store across the street and picked up the soundtrack. Like the OST to Anderson's Rushmore, it's a remarkable record, perfectly evoking the film's eccentric melancholy. But even though the album was rich with great songs by artists like Bob Dylan, Nico, and the Velvet Underground, there was one track on the album that I had to hear again.
It was "Lullabye", a sad, gentle wisp of a song, sounding for all the world like a McCartney track that had somehow been left off the White Album. I'm ashamed to say that I had never heard of the performer, Emitt Rhodes, even though I have made it my mission to own anything vaguely considered Beatlesque. (This misguided quest has led me to make some fabulously dubious purchases over the years, the worst being Enuff Z'Nuff's first release . . . but I digress.) I set out to educate myself about Emitt Rhodes immediately.
Rhodes recorded his self-titled debut solo album in 1970 after disbanding his group, the Merry-Go-Round. A complete DIY project, Rhodes played all the instruments himself, carefully laying everything down on a four-track recorder. Yet while the album's analogue hiss and less-than perfect sound quality reveal its humble roots, Emitt Rhodes is nothing like the half-baked low-fi works of fellow Beatlephiles, Guided by Voices. Richly detailed and meticulously crafted, Rhodes's first record offers pure pop heaven.
The opening track, "With My Face on the Floor", firmly establishes Rhodes's MO: jaunty music hall piano, floppy drumming liberally spiked with tambourine, crackling, simple guitar, and highly melodic bass lines. Rhodes complements his pure tenor with tightly harmonized, multitracked backing vocals. All are delivered with an infectious energy that invariably leads to some serious toe tapping. (Listeners less repressed than I might have a more exuberant reaction.) Rhodes doesn't burden his confections with excess verbiage. His lyrics tend to be on the repetitive side, but this isn't a drawback. The plain words become another hook in Rhodes's arsenal. By the time you've listened to the record twice, you'll be singing along. And, as with the best pop lyrics, the songs deal more with longing and loss than love, tempering the sweetness with sadness.
There are a few exceptions that veer into banality; "Fresh as a Daisy" sounds like it should be a feminine hygiene jingle, while the attempts at motivational material in the well-intentioned "Live Till You Die" ("You must "live 'till you die / You must fight to survive") were perhaps best left unsaid. Pity the fool who turns to pop songs for wisdom, anyhow. What Emitt Rhodes offers is more valuable: a record for people who have played out the McCartney tracks on their copies of Rubber Soul and the White Album. Occasionally, Rhodes pulls from other Beatles sources -- the guitar in "You Take the Dark Out of the Night" is straight out of "Octopus's Garden" and it's honestly terrifying how much "You Should be Ashamed" sounds like a Let It Be outtake, right down to its lazy drum fills and soaring backup vocals that I swear are sung by George Harrison. The spirit of Lennon even makes an appearance on the final track, "You Must Have", in Rhodes's gently weary delivery and melancholy lullaby melody.
A true gem, Emitt Rhodes's self-titled album is all the more precious because there's not much else by Rhodes that's available. Other solo albums were released, but record company pressures meant that the careful craftsman never got to lavish as much attention on another single recording. Eventually, Rhodes fell silent and tumbled into obscurity. The songs on this record, however, still chime as vividly and brightly as they did when they were set to tape in that Hawthorne, California garage.