By Mike Sion
For those of you who, like me, are longtime fans of Reno-based quartet The Novelists — those roots-rock/Adult Contemporary virtuosi with the lush, sophisticated vocal harmonies and mature, flayed-emotion lyrics — you’re going to get intoxicated by the quartet’s new EP, “With Drawl.”
If the band is new to you, get set for a fetching mix of catchy melodies and tortured lyrics from both the bucket of the gut and the moral center of the heart. We’re talking Americana music for the complicated times we are living in. And we’re talking about a collection of songs that demand not a local, but a global, audience.
The album title should key you into the semi-Nashville flavor of the recording and the heart-broke sentiments (ranging from busted romance to the nasty, endemic, socio-political polarization in America) — but that’s just a starting point for appreciating the mighty songwriting of Joel Ackerson and Eric H. Andersen, which suddenly — after four self-produced albums — matches the level of their deft musicianship and immaculate studio production. The breakup ballad, “No Other Way,” could hit the country charts if The Novelists had the music-biz machinery behind them. (And that could just be a matter of another year or two? A&R peeps, please take note!) Similarly, “No Closer Word Than Goodbye” could get Adult Contemporary and Adult Album Alternative radio rotation if program directors relied on their instincts, not by-the-analytics consultants.
The Novelists’ remake of one of their strong previous tunes — “Fortnight” — features beloved Reno native Whitney Myer singing soulful background, plus Daryl Stuermer (Genesis, Phil Collins) adding guitar complements to Andersen’s plaintive vocals and piano. The title track is easily imagined as some chart-hitting Taylor Swift single from her country-pop heyday. (Meaning: Music Row songsmiths couldn’t do a finer job.)
From the opening number (“Alcoholiday”) — with its four-part, choir harmonies on the hook giving a sardonic dignity to the sordid tale of a couple of lovers whose lives are stuck in the bottle — to the bitter jagged pill of the closer, “Don’t Let Your Enemies Get You to Hate Your Friends” (brace yourself for the righteous demon-releasing rage at 5:20 of the song: its final separation from its distant musical antecedent, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”), The Novelists have penned a compelling new chapter to their fast-evolving story. To use a countrified expression: I swear!
Ackerson and Andersen, bassist Zack Teran and drummer Miguel Jiménez-Cruz are gonna be best-sellers when the rest of the world discovers them.
Soap Box Time: There is a handful of Reno bands or solo artists who’ve slaved their way to reach the level that merits discovery by “the industry,” meaning: festival dates, radio play . . . and that elusive record-label contract. The Novelists perch at the top of the short heap for a number of reasons:
- SONGWRITING: Andersen was first among the bandmates to sell a song to Hollywood, several years ago, with a remake of his voice-piano ballad, “Save Face” from his solo career. (Note: the song, featured in an episode of a Dolph Lundgren television show, was remade a second time as “War Paint” for a Novelists recording.) Now Andersen and Ackerson have been co-writing songs for the television reboot of “Baywatch.” All this is to say that they have hit their stride as professional songsmiths, and Ackerson is proving as magically gifted as Andersen (whose other self-penned songs — “Blue Green,” “Soul Sucker” and “War Paint” — were the shining moments of previous Novelists releases).
- EXPERIENCE: The Novelists have not only built and maintained a loyal following in Reno — packing the Sparks Nugget’s showroom for previous album releases — but are hardened road warriors, booking shows on both coasts, and chosen by Train for that band’s “Sail Across the Sun” music cruise festival in the Caribbean, two years ago. In addition, the members are full-time musicians with side projects that pay the bills. Anderson and Ackerson, for example, typically form a duo for casino gigs. The stage probably feels as much like home as their private pads.
- STICKING TOGETHER: Ackerson, Andersen and Teran formed the band’s core eight years ago, and have only made three personnel changes since: briefly bringing singer-guitarist Megan Slankard in from San Francisco, and adding a drummer, Justin Kruger, whose slot was recently filled by the impressively multi-faceted Miguel Jiménez-Cruz.
- COLLECTIVE MUSICAL TALENT: Ackerson’s guitar or mandolin strumming are metronome-like in rhythm, and his lead lines, tasteful if not fancy; his baritone has developed beyond an abrasive, Elvis Costello-like tone to a rich, throaty timbre. Andersen’s classically-tinged piano playing is marked by dexterous runs and clean strikes; his resonant tenor on leads and harmonies can reach sweet, high notes as well as the big, soulful wails of an Elton John or pop-jazzy emotings of a Billy Joel. Teran is the tall, quiet eminence in the background: thumping, plucking or bowing sophisticated bottom lines on standup bass or wowing the audience with his six-string electric bass, on which he can switch to lead-guitar shredding and even (as on “No Other Way”) slide out a mournful steel-guitar-like accent. Miguel Jiménez-Cruz — with a background in Latin and jazz drumming — plays with a professional touch, versatility for polyrhythms and ear for dynamics of someone twice his 20-something years, whether shimmering cymbals, tattooing the snare or whomping toms in shifting time signatures. And — having joined The Novelists — he’s stepped up with vocal harmonies. (In two previous album releases, The Novelists closed shows, respectively, with an a cappella version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” and a roof-raising, four-part-harmony rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Need I say more?)
The band’s EP-release show for “With Drawl” — June 15, before an enthusiastic group of devotees in the cozy confines of Reno Little Theater — illustrated its well-hewn musical chops. The Novelists were relaxed, confident and cheery throughout their set: seasoned troubadours not too jaded to appreciate the moment, with frequent banter among each other or directed to the audience. It is somewhat rare for such talented musicians to exude modesty and mutual amity on stage, but that’s part of The Novelists’ special charm. (It also explains why they’ve stuck together as a band for eight years; egotists and narcissists, as well as addicts, can’t stick it out for the long run.)
Their set at the EP release included the seven new tracks, some older ones (Andersen’s wistful ballad of youthful friendship, “Milo,” and his scathing rocker about escaping the clutches of a music-industry vampire, “Soul Sucker,” were highlights) plus some well-chosen, crowd-pleasing covers, including an ultra-soulful, slow-grooving rendition of TLC’s “Waterfalls” (Joel’s deep voice on lead), and the show closer: an almost note-for-note cover of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” with Ackerson handling “The Boss’s” vocal and instrumental parts, including harmonica at the intro, and Andersen punctuating the flow with on-the-money replications of E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan’s chords, arpeggios and climbs. All that was missing were “The Big Man’s” blasts — but the energy from The Novelists more than made up for the absent sax.
If you missed the EP release, mark your calendar for Oct. 6, when The Novelists will be playing Bartley Ranch, in south Reno — a concert that may include even newer songs. In the meantime, you can buy or stream the EP or individual tracks from “With Drawl” on CD Baby, Apple Music, iTunes or Spotify: http://hyperurl.co/x6dem1.
And here are Weblinks to catch up to The Novelists’ story-in-progress, as well as chapters to come: