- Steppin' on the gas: Rosavelt's new album leaves the country behind.
Though Rosavelt frontman Chris Allen sings of the '60s on his band's latest, flowers have never been his thing. "They died beneath my feet," Allen croaks on the gritty "Emerald Hope." "They turned into something mean."
Namely, Rosavelt's third LP, The Story of Gasoline. The rootsy Cleveland band's first release in six years starts off strumming lightly through the title cut, with Allen singing plaintively over muted guitars. Then he halts the song abruptly, announcing: "I want to do that different." His voice rises to a strained howl to match the suddenly growling guitars, while drummer Miles Loretta strikes his kit with the force of a drunk falling off a bar stool. From that point till album's end, Rosavelt keeps it loud and loose.
"I've always thought we were a rock band through and through, not so much Americana," Allen says of the country designation often applied to Rosavelt in the past. He's talking via cell phone from the streets of New York City, where the band played a packed gig at the Mercury Lounge the night before. "We've actually changed things around quite a bit, because [Gasoline] definitely has way more fuel to it."
Though Rosavelt hasn't issued an album since 1999's acclaimed Transistor Blues, it's continued to play sporadically. After co-frontman Kevin Grasha left four years ago, the band made the rounds as a three-piece (with bassist Keith Hanna), even cutting an album -- Goodbye Rollercoaster -- that has yet to be released. Loaded with guest musicians ranging from Gem/Guided by Voices guitarist Doug Gillard to singer-songwriter Anne E. DeChant, it's an exploratory, keyboard-heavy affair that Allen shelved because it would have been nearly impossible to tour on.
"In my heart, I knew we needed something that had a little bit more focus and a little bit more fire to it," he says. "But I'm proud of it. It'll see the light of day at some point."
Looking to ratchet up the intensity, Allen recruited former Qwasi Qwa frontman Jesse Bryson, son of Raspberries guitarist Wally Bryson. "From the day he started with us, it was like, 'We're back intact,'" Allen enthuses. "We were a three-piece for a while, which was fun, but I think the three of us knew that in order to make it sound like we wanted it to, we needed an extra guitar player. Jesse kind of brought it all together, and it almost feels like being in a completely new band again. We had hired Jesse for his vocals at first, but I hadn't realized what a nasty guitar player he was. He brings a really nice, kind of old-school rock element to the band that was just kick-ass from the beginning."
Bryson certainly influenced Rosavelt's more visceral, immediate sound, but much of the credit goes to producer Don Dixon (R.E.M., the Smithereens). The band rented out the Beachland Ballroom for two days and two nights last summer, and with Dixon's guidance, laid the record down quickly, with a raw, live feel.
"He knew how to have us play where we felt really relaxed when we were laying down the tracks," Allen says of Dixon. "That's the way he sets up records, where you just don't see the man behind the curtain. We felt like we were just playing. Anytime we were steering a little too nice on a track, he totally deconstructed it and said, 'This is going to be a Rolling Stones record, not an Eagles record.' And it just came out great."
Gasoline drips with sweat and three-part harmonies that leaven the boozy charge. Bryson brings the heat on ill-tempered exhortations like "A Little Bit of Trouble." But from those harder moments to the 100-proof pop ("Perfect Girl") and straight through the biting ballads ("The Ghost of Emerald Hope"), the lone common denominator is Allen's cutting lyrics, which read as if they were penned in bile.
"I started in kind of a good place, but entered into a lot of darkness personally for a while," he says, referring to rocky relationships that spawned the album's downbeat themes. "I called Dixon about it one afternoon, and he said, 'Just write. Write your way through it.' Doing that and playing with the band, who are just great friends of mine, was very therapeutic. I'm not going to lie; it wasn't a real happy time in my life, and when things like that happen, I just basically turned inward and really worked my ass off on these songs, and did nothing but that for quite a good period of time."
Allen's cathartic tunes have translated into increasingly heated concerts, and audiences have been feeling it.
"It's gotten to the point where, in the live shows we've been doing, I've been picking up the acoustic [guitar] mid-set and fronting the band with that, just to kind of break it up a little bit, because for the first couple of dates of the tour, it felt like too much of a sledgehammer effect. It gives people a little bit of time to kind of digest it, then you come back, and the rock music sounds that much harder."
Rosavelt plans to tour throughout the summer, and has already completed three weeks of dates with fellow Ohioan and longtime associate Tim Easton. Allen says the band has been going over better than ever, especially at a recent gig at Schuba's in Chicago.
"It was a highlight of my musical career," he gushes. "I felt like we were really good at what we do. It felt fun. It felt loose. We're going to be touring a lot this year, so I might have a different opinion in seven months, but right now, it couldn't be more fun."