On the Gravy train

“It’s a strange time,” muses Todd Spahr, a genial (if battle-scarred) pop veteran currently fronting the critically favored (but as-yet commercially ignored) Boston band, The Gravy.

“The record industry is always looking for the next big thing,” the singer/double-necked-Gibson guitarist elaborates, “but everything has been beaten into the ground. They’ve made a really good system of putting [bands] on TV and radio simultaneously, but no one’s listening. What’s going on? College kids are supposed to be smart, but look what they’re listening to. There’s such a lack of [original] songs. There are a lot of hooks out there, but it’s just not making sense. Even the R&B songs are all covers. Where are the songs?

He poses the question rhetorically, even philosophically. But the answer shines as evidently as grease on a paper napkin. If Hangman’s Pop (Q-Division Records), the group’s sneakily charming 1997 debut, is any indication, it seems that “the songs” are hopelessly mired in The Gravy.

And that’s a good thing. Really good, in fact: The album features a clanging mixture of chewy, classic pop and helpless descents into discordant madness — within every tune. Even the jubilant gem “King’s Castle” (siphoned straight from the Beatles) has an ending fretfully extended beyond its initial tidy boundaries, while the toe-tapping, smile-inducing “Pretty Krishna” doesn’t take long to blaze from dream to nightmare.

Hangman’s Pop was a long time in the making, and the songs were recorded in a fragmented fashion that was equal parts craft and thrift (Spahr calls it a “Smile-era Beach Boys cut-and-paste style, which I’ve been a fan of for a long time”).

“I always had a plan, from the initial conception of the album,” he remembers. “And part of it was economics. I had just gotten done doing a really expensive record for Capitol [with his most successful band to date, the Cavedogs, an early ’90s pop outfit destroyed by big-label woes], where there was waste on every level. I knew I could make a record work for no money — which is all I had.”

While the weird hybrid of cacophony and guileless accessibility in these songs is certainly not a new sound in the genre of college-targeted paranoia pop, something decidedly deeper lurks under the murky guise of The Gravy.

“There are a lot of layers and texture [in the album], a thickness. That’s a criticism a lot of people level at it … [that] things are buried,” Spahr admits. But that same dense layering has also been the major source of the disc’s positive reception. Though not instantly palatable, this is a CD that burrows in like a tick by the second or third listen and doesn’t let go until it’s imbibed a healthy portion of your expectations.

The wealth of sadness holed up under this music is too deeply rooted to be traced to a particular song (though “6/8 Time” comes close to encapsulating Spahr’s signature melancholy) or a lone, rueful lyric — and too subtle to have simply been brushed on in the studio. “As much as I get the ‘happy pop guy’ thing slapped on me, there’s always the minor [key] thing going,” notes Spahr. “There’s a three-year period represented from the beginning of the album to its completion, and I was definitely going through some pretty crazy stuff. The album is dedicated to one of my best friends, who died within that period. But the [sad tone] is unconscious. Some people say it’s always there, no matter what. But I don’t know. … We’ll see what the next album is like.”

For now, Spahr’s main goal is simply to get The Gravy — which also features Michael Jordan (no, not that Michael Jordan) on guitar, Glenn Brown on bass, and the soon-to-be-added Mark Rivers on drums — heard and appreciated. Just assembling the group was a job in itself:

“Commitment isn’t so high,” he says dryly. “I’ve been through 11 drummers this year. It’s a joke. I think it’s because I’m getting older, and a lot of people I know are around 30 and are panicking, like — ‘I need a real job.’ They don’t want to try to make this their job. A lot of [a band staying together] has to do with being 18, 19, and learning stuff together, having a few years to mess around.”

What’s more, Spahr’s still dodging the fallout from the sharply mourned death of the Cavedogs. But if the demise of that group has left him bitter, he’s definitely found a positive side to the situation.

“We’re attracting less pop nazis than we did with the Cavedogs,” he reports hopefully. “There were these people that would hold you up against this certain set of rules. … There would always be something you weren’t living up to. The guitars weren’t clear enough, or the arrangements were too long. They never liked the show until after it was all over — but they always came, anyway.”

At least Spahr can laugh at that bizarre set of standards, albeit with some exasperation; but when it comes to the ethics employed by the “pop police,” he’s not chuckling.

“No matter how much you’ve got on them, they can still lie to you,” is his quiet summation of the major-label bullying that cut short his brush with the big time.

The band has just begun touring to promote Hangman’s Pop, and though Spahr has many years invested in the business of road-testing angst, ladling The Gravy on unsuspecting audiences seems to have renewed his sense of wonder at his chosen field.

“It’s still so new,” he says. “We’re playing a couple festivals. We’re just on a few jaunts now, [because] we’re on a really small label, and we’re just trying to get the thing distributed. We’ve gotten some good national press [including a Rolling Stone write-up], but I’d love it if more people could just hear the album.”

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