Friday, May 06, 2011
A model mellow-out: Freddie T and the People
I am never not going to want to know what's up with Fred Erskine. As discussed in this ancient DFSBP post, I've been interested in the man's work since the mid-’90s, when he played bass in two of my then-favorite active bands (the Crownhate Ruin and June of 44, both of whom blew my mind live) and one of my then-favorite nonactive bands (Hoover). (I still really dig all three of these bands, esp. Hoover, which I consider all-time-great.) Erskine's achievement, incorporating funk and reggae elements meaningfully within the post-hardcore idiom, was simple-sounding but totally profound. As with Joe Lally from Fugazi, Erskine made me want to focus on the bass above all else while listening—his bulbous, trancey lines (rendered in one the coolest and most distinctive tones I've ever heard on the instrument) were magnetizing. He was like a guru of groove—"Remember kids, this may be punk, but we can't forget the lessons of great soul"—and he elevated any band he was in to a certain level of class and worldliness, helping them to transcend the sometimes-hermetic post-hardcore sphere. Fred was also a really unusual and expressive vocalist—part bleater and part screecher. He always sounded like he meant it.
Aside from the three bands mentioned above, Erskine has undertaken a bunch of other projects, and I've dutifully checked them all out. I haven't always been thrilled. Him, his dubbed-out, somewhat Tortoise-y project with June of 44 drummer Doug Scharin (together, Erskine and Scharin were maybe the most incredible rhythm section I've ever seen live) seemed monotonous and not edgy enough, and the horns-heavy Boom (check out these two posts from Hardcore for Nerds) was an interesting detour but not something I ever really felt like spending good time with. Ditto for the band Abilene, a later project led by Erskine's Hoover comrade Alex T. Dunham, in which Fred played trumpet.
Just a Fire, a now defunct Chicago-based band, was an exception—definitely my favorite latter-day Erskine concern. Their two LPs were slightly spotty, but the good stuff on them was truly great. I would highly recommend the first JaF album, 2004's Light Up, to any Crownhate Ruin fan, and there were a few mindblowing tracks (e.g., "Runaway") on the second one, Spanish Time, which I reviewed for Time Out NY a while back. As promising as Just a Fire was, the project never seemed to really take. I saw them in ’05 or ’06, and it was a cool but sadly underattended show. At some point after that, I heard that Erskine had moved to Indiana to start a family, and I assumed that I wouldn't be hearing too much more music from him.
Thus, I was very pleasantly surprised the other day when I stumbled upon People In, the semi-new (December 2010) debut album by a new Erskine project, Freddie T and the People. The band came through Brooklyn last year, and I'm really bummed I missed it, because this record is honestly outstanding—one of my favorites of the year so far. (It technically came out last year, yeah, but to me, it's a new release.) What Freddie T and the People sounds like to me is Erskine coming into a very legitimate kind of maturity—not a tedious growing up, but an honest, natural mellowing out, with just enough feistiness under the surface. I heard the Boom, which was active at the same time as June of 44, as a mash-up, an awkward marriage of Erskine's post-hardcore and soul/reggae influences. But Freddie T and the People is all of a piece: People In is basically a very convincing soul record (complete with horns, backing vox, reverby production, the whole thing) seasoned with tasteful little Erskine-isms.
As in the Boom, Erskine plays guitar rather than bass in this band. On paper, that fact is a bummer to me—again, I adore his bass work and want to hear as much of it as I can. In practice, I'm cool with it. Erskine brings a ton of flair to his guitar playing here. I'm in love with his twangy punk-Ventures lead on People In's self-titled opening instrumental, in which you can hear some of his trademark sinuous rhythm sense translated to the guitar, with an added element of fun, fiery grandstanding. (Here's a clip of him ripping it live in Chicago.) I remember that back in the Crownhate Ruin days, Erskine was rocking a sort of ’50s greaser vibe, with pomaded hair and gas-station-attendant-type shirts; here his music seems to have caught up to that. It's like super-soulful surf funk executed with punk rawness.
The record works just as well when Erskine is singing. "Enemies" is a little masterpiece. Again you have that sort of Dick Dale feel in the guitar, laid over a driving beat. Erskine's lyrics ("I been running myself into the ground") have a sort of classic Beat vibe, i.e., sort of cosmically bummed. Unlike in Just a Fire, where he was writing about politics, here Erskine is just talking about the way he feels; it's totally lived-in and plainspoken and real. The horn arrangement is so natural and happy-making. The band name comes into clear focus here—this sounds like a gang—a huge ’70s-style band like Earth, Wind & Fire or Parliament—a leader and a bunch of friendly collaborators, all committed to bringing the tunes to vibrant life. (I'm not familiar with any of these other players, but they're all great—even, yes, the bass player. Apparently some of ’em hail from Racebannon, a ferocious band I've heard a bit of but need to check out more.) And in contrast with the Boom, Erskine is actually writing really hooky music these days: The "Enemies" refrain has been cycling in my head for days.
What really blows my mind about the album is that it typifies what can be a somewhat painful process for a fan to witness—namely the gradual mellowing of an artist you know and love from really intense projects—yet completely bucks the stereotype of that having be a lame or disappointing progression. Take "Beautiful Simple Moments," a straightforward song that's actually about beautiful, simple moments ("a warm autumn day," "my fireplace is burnin' in the living room," etc.). Miraculously, it's totally unsappy. Despite the subject matter, the song has a defiant spirit to it, and it actually feels kind of hard-ass. And this is coming from an artist who used to specialize in seething frustration ("You want to play games / I want to play war," Erskine screeches in one of my favorite Hoover songs, "Weeds," from the excellent self-titled posthumous EP) and inscrutable spaz-outs (I've never had the slightest idea what he was yowling about in "Distant" from Hoover's The Lurid Traversal of Route 7—"I've got my cat back / You've got those glasses"??!).
People In is concise and good all the way through. While I dig the reworking of the great Just a Fire track "Graduation," the new tracks get me the most. The hooks just burst out, and I love the pacing of the record, how brief, super-melodic instrumentals (like "People In") serve as interludes between the longer, meatier tracks. It's crazy—I've only had this album for a few days, and I'm starting to think of many of the songs as bona fide hits. (To name just two, the showstopping soul ballad "You Are Your Brother" and the hard-as-nails funk-rock track "Voodoo" are both total killers.) Erskine's voice is still eccentric and maybe an acquired taste if you're not familiar with his prior work, but it's just such a pleasure to hear him belt this music out, to sound so native in this new style. Nothing put-on or forced—just a joyous "This is where I'm at right now." The biggest compliment I can pay People In is that I don't miss Erskine's previous output when I'm listening to it, and considering how I feel about Hoover and the Crownhate Ruin, that's really saying something. People In is maybe the classiest, most thoroughly enjoyable late-career mellow-out album I've ever heard. I'm thrilled that Erskine, chill though he may be at this stage, has retained the fire, the bite and the soul.
BUY THIS RECORD (digital or limited-edition LP)!
P.S. If you don't know Erskine's prior work, you need to hear:
1) "Ride Your Ride" by the Crownhate Ruin
2) "Electrolux" by Hoover
3) "Seemingly Endless Steamer" by June of 44 (dear God, the Erskine/Scharin interplay on this song…)