Suspended in time

There is this thing about Jeff Holmes’ voice, this peculiar little catch, as if some soft, satiny croon were swallowing a nasal howl-at-the-moon dog yelp. His singing suggests intolerable ecstasy, a stalker’s devotion, razor-in-hand isolation, a midnight confession, utter mischief. And it does so all at once, these elements colluding like crude oil and spring water, igniting implacable fires within listeners’ heads. It can be very disconcerting, maybe even a little dangerous.

But to fans of Holmes’ band, the Floating Men, it is bliss.

The group’s sixth and arguably best studio album, A Magnificent Man (Shade LLC, 2002), gives Holmes’ prowling, impertinent voice plenty of room to move. The new album is a wowser, a string of fat musical hooks, lyrical fireballs and exceptionally tender mercies. It is both unabashedly intelligent and melodically spry, a rarity of craft in any year.

The Nashville-based rock trio has been a regional touring favorite almost since day one, amassing a fan base fanatical in its loyalty. Group members — Holmes on guitar, Scot Evans on bass and Jeff Bishop on drums — are schooled musicians who, as Holmes often jokes, play well anyway. Evans’ uncanny vocal harmonies are the stuff of brother bands.

Holmes’ songs, steeped in irony, lust and longing, swell with musical drama and drip with innuendo and ribald excess, inspiring live-show sing-alongs of sweaty earnestness and raucous joie de vivre.

“If you’re stuck looking for a rhyme,” Holmes, a retired drinker, quipped by phone recently in a subdued voice of Southern gentility, “throw in a sexually perverse act, an alcoholic beverage or an illegal narcotic, and there’s probably, among that suite of ideas, a rhyme scheme that will work.” As a lyricist, Holmes can get deliriously word-drunk, so idiosyncratic and smart as to be, truly, peerless. Imagine dream theorist Carl Jung raised in low-country South Carolina on shrimp and grits and early Bruce Springsteen records, iconic American cinema and the youthful poetry of T.S. Eliot and James Dickey. Throw in a few Fritz the Cat comic books and a fresh slice of lemon pie, and you get a slight sense of the writer who is passionate for tornadoes and military history and who champions wildlife preservation (Holmes, soon to become the director of conservation planning for the Tennessee chapter of the Nature Conservancy, especially digs snakes).

Prior to the Floating Men, Holmes and Evans played together for about nine years in the Little Saints, an ’80s rock band memorable if only for Holmes’ budding songwriting chops and Evans’ already spot-on harmonies. The two men soldiered on as an acoustic duo after the Little Saints fizzled out in a long, slow, dues-paying trail of poverty.

“That lifestyle just made me deeply, deeply unhappy,” Holmes says with a laugh.

In particular, the after-midnight bar-band existence left Holmes, a self-described morning guy, feeling permanently uneasy. The Floating Men’s first album, Tall Shadows (Meridian, 1993) — sexually charged portraits of light-starved club-crawlers locked in mortal combat with the dwindling fires of youth — was Holmes’ backlash, he says, against the vampire life.

As a duo, Holmes and Evans moved to Nashville, home to their booking agent, in about 1990. They had about given up on ever finding a copasetic drummer when, Holmes says, “this little pest” Jeff Bishop, fresh from Berklee College of Music in Boston, started hounding them for the spot.

The buzz around the new group was immediate.

“It was a three-piece band and it was acoustic, and we were playing big-hook rock,” Holmes explains. “We were carefully inspected and poked and prodded and felt up by the music industry at large, though nothing ever came of it.”

But no regrets, he says.

“Being a rock star is pretty relative,” Holmes adds with a snicker. “It doesn’t matter if there’s 30,000 women or 30 watching you play, and it doesn’t matter if there’s 1,000 gallons of tequila or one — you can only do so much in a night!”

Tall Shadows, produced by Gary Schatzlein, was followed in 1995 by the Gary Tallent-helmed Invoking Michelangelo (Meridian), which wore its debt to Springsteen like a badge of honor. The Song of the Wind in the Pines (Chelseamusic, 1998), a career high-point, began a trend of self-production and showcased Holmes’ fondness for unifying themes and the band’s burgeoning musical muscle.

Lemon Pie (Shade LLC, 2000) and Heroes, Felons and Fiends (Shade LLC, 2001) continued broadening and redefining the band’s sound with help from a small cadre of complementary support musicians. Live albums (the Bootleg Snacks series) have followed each studio release.

Holmes’ songwriting is bound to a sense of place. Vividly drawn locales — dungeon-dark clubs and sugar-white beaches, whispering pines and singing stretches of open blacktop — help mirror his characters’ often-conflicted emotions. And A Magnificent Man is Holmes at his most visual. The album opener, “Wastelands,” includes a litany of decay — “fields of stone and rusted cans/Bones and bottles and disowned lands.” Later songs add dust and weeds, railroad tracks and rattlesnakes, brambles, broken axles and boarded-up rooms.

Holmes can trace much of the album’s core imagery back to a single summer weekend in the early ’90s.

The band was in Valdosta, Ga. for a series of gigs, holing up in cheap digs on a crumbling highway once the main road to Florida beaches. The motel had some majestic name like the Royal Palms, and the lobby smelled of curry. During the day, Holmes recalls, band members wandered through the blazing south-Georgia heat, along “this decaying street through this once-grand neighborhood.” Cutting down a side road across a weed-choked railroad track, they discovered, of all things, a New Age/voodoo shop. The door opened into air conditioning, soft, ethereal music and the sweet odor of incense.

“I clung to that moment for almost a decade,” Holmes muses. “I said to myself, ‘That could be a deep mine. You could get a lot out of that mine.'” “We’ll make it from here to the border somehow,” the badlands-crossing hero in “Wastelands” declares. “Where we’ll drown/Hallelujah/In exotic oils with forbidden powers.”

Many of the songs on A Magnificent Man heave and sigh with such muted grandeur, grounded in juxtapositions of rank ugliness and mysterious beauty, hard-knocks reality and the world of dreams, where anything is possible.

A Magnificent Man is peopled by ordinary Joes with oversized dreams — of being jewel thieves, rodeo riders, rock stars, globetrotting spies and the penultimate ladies’ man. The album’s cover shows a fat guy sprawled across a couch.

“Wouldn’t it be great if your only role in life was to kick ass and break hearts?” Holmes asks. “That’s the baseline for this whole record.”

The album has the added distinction of being the band’s most musically cohesive. Melody lines repeat, and songs segue cleanly through sundry styles and moods, from anthemic rockers to soul-flattening ballads that ache with the clarity of remembered mistakes.

“We look forward to making these records more than anything else in our lives, other than our families,” Holmes admits. “When I’m putting these songs together, I’m really putting pressure on myself to not settle until I’ve blown myself away.”

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