Between pop and a hard place

When I was in seventh grade, I worshipped Norwegian one-hit wonders A-ha. As in, I got teary when said hit made it to Casey Kasem’s top slot. By the time I was a junior, my tastes had improved to slinky post-punk Love and Rockets.

But since then, it’s been a long wait for a crush-worthy band.

Not that Richmond, Va.-based quintet Carbon Leaf (who open for Big Head Todd and the Monsters at The Orange Peel this week) see themselves as Top-40 heartthrobs. “I consider us more of a rock band than pop,” says front man Barry Privett from a Cracker Barrel in Chicago.

“I think there’s a distinction,” he adds before ordering his coffee.

Okay then, here’s my distinction: Pop is like •NSYNC — synchronized dance moves first, hooks second. Pop-savvy rock, on the other hand, is like the Wall Flowers. There’s more artistic integrity, more-memorable hooks and … um, Jakob Dylan.

“Our goal is to write something that’s meaningful, but in a catchy way,” Privett notes. “That’s the kind of music I like to hear.”

Carbon Leaf’s latest album, Indian Summer (Vanguard, 2004), is pretty much that. The opening track, “Life Less Ordinary,” storms out of the gate with all the hip-shaking, finger-snapping groove of a post-slacker film soundtrack. “The night you came into my life/ Well it took the bones of me, took the bones of me/ You blew away my storm and strife/ and it shook the bones of me, shook the bones of me,” sings Privett.

It’s the repeating line that works, catapulting the song from indie obscurity to pop nascency.

Blame it on reality TV

“In today’s market, you’ll either be a pop star with a hit song, or a [touring] band with a following,” Privett explains. But Carbon Leaf, together since the early ’90s, is interestingly poised between the two possibilities.

“For nine years, we’ve done everything on our own,” he points out. “We’d adjusted to keeping our heads level.”

In fact, since meeting at Randolph Macon College, the group released five albums independently. They’ve built an ever-increasing fan base through hard touring and relentless work, a trajectory the singer curtails as “a steady incline, but not so many big moments.”

Then, in 2002, the group won a Coca-Cola New Music Award with “The Boxer,” a single from Echo Echo (Constant Ivy, 2001). The driving, Celtic-tinged rocker landed Carbon Leaf a slot as the first-ever unsigned band to play at the American Music Awards, a moment in the spotlight that Privett downplays as “when the AMAs dropped in our laps.”

He muses now: “That was a definite shift. A big opportunity was happening, but we knew how fleeting those are. Especially with reality TV.”

According to the lyricist, the current obsession with such shows as American Idol has neatly dismantled the 15-minutes-of-fame theory. Sure, a person can get recognized that quickly, but they could also crash and burn in a matter of seconds — in front of millions of viewers.

So, despite the exposure of the AMAs, Carbon Leaf didn’t rest on their Ivy laurels. “We’ve been working so hard since then, nonstop, getting on the road,” Privett insists.

Finessing the pop charts

Last year — just before finally being signed to Vanguard — the group stepped back into the studio to record Indian Summer, their sixth release. Besides being decidedly more polished, produced and commercially adroit than their previous efforts, the CD is also a departure from Carbon Leaf’s Celtic sound.

“That crept in a little on our second album,” Privett — who claims no Celtic roots — recalls. “On the third album, [string player] Carter [Gravett] bought a mandolin, and I picked up a penny whistle.”

Privett “blames” the influence on a semester spent studying in Ireland. “We took that ball and ran with it,” he laughs.

“We wrote [more than 20] songs for Indian Summer, and many had that Celtic feel,” the musician continues. “But, they weren’t the strongest ones.”

No — the strength of Summer lies instead in the storytelling quality and romance-imbued themes, though Privett asserts that writing love songs is new to him.

There’s also a sense of immediacy, tinged with longing. “Dance til you fall/ Love til you die/ Shut your mouth …/ Raise the roof,” demands the propulsive hook of “Raise the Roof.”

“Our goal is not to reinvent the wheel, [just to write] something that has a degree of gravity, with dignity,” says Privett.

The title of the album (which isn’t taken from a song title) represents just that. “Indian summer is an unseasonably warm winter after an early frost,” the front man explains. “This record deals with friendship and love — a break from a harsh environment.”

Groupies need not apply … yet

This seems like the place to analogize that coming-out-of-the-cold metaphor to the arrival of the group’s long-awaited recording contract. But despite now seeming a shoo-in for pop stardom, Carbon Leaf doesn’t appear to be overly eager to escape their independent ways.

They didn’t, for example, ditch their trusty tour van in favor of a shiny bus — or start interviewing potential groupies. They’re not looking to leave Richmond.

“Maybe if we were in a new band in a dead-end town,” Privett says. “But we’re only in Richmond 100 days a year. That would be the same no matter where we moved.”

And then there’s the band’s first video, for “Life Less Ordinary.” “As our radio exposure increases, it’ll work its way onto VH-1,” the singer predicts. “But lots of bands make videos that never get out. You make a video and put it in your back pocket.”

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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