sunday, october 01, 2006

Love Tractor

Boredom should never be underestimated as a creative catalyst.

Take Athens, Georgia, for example. Back in the mid-1970s it was the typical sleepy college town – lots and lots of liberal arts majors with way too much time on their hands.

"We had nothing to do except make our own fun," recalled musician Mark Cline in a 2001 interview. "So people would make their own bands and have these band parties just for fun."

Then, starting in the late 1970s, things started percolating. Begining with the B-52s, band after band came out of the scene that were breathtakingly good. As the 80s started to pick up steam, the town became a college rock powerhouse. For a college DJ during those years, you couldn’t escape it. And it was wonderful.

But, other than R.E.M. and the B-52s, very few of the bands from that era broke out of the southern college circuit and into the national consciousness and, for many, that was just fine by them.

Which brings me to Mr. Cline’s band, Love Tractor.

The quartet, guitarist Cline, fellow guitarist Michael Richmond, multi-instrumentalist Armistead Wellford and drummer Kit Schwartz were typical of the ‘Athens sound’ in the fact that they weren’t like anyone else playing music at the time.

"We were never the most marketable band," Cline says. "We were always this kind of outsider, art rock band. We didn't write singles, we wrote albums."

Like a lot of Athens legends, their origins seem almost accidental. They pulled together for a party on Baker Street in 1980 and grew from there. A local drummer named Bill Berry played with them regularly before deciding to go full-time with his buddies in R.E.M.

They built a reputation as an ‘instrumental band’ after their first two records, Love Tractor and Around the Bend and a mini-album 'Till the Cows Come Home featured a minimal amount of vocals. Critics were quick to compare them to the genre’s stalwarts the Ventures or the Raybeats. That, according to the band, was a case of mistaken identity.

The truth, according to a Cosmic Debris feature writ in 2001, was even more straightforward. "The secret to Love Tractor is simply this," wrote D.J. Johnson. "If a song doesn't absolutely need something, leave it out." And that went for the vocals as well.

What you got, was a strange hybrid between experimental and the practical sides of rock. This band's first several albums were mostly instrumental works - intricately layered guitar melodies allied with a killer sense for how to write a hook.

Athough the structure wasn't complex the progression was. As one reviewer put it, the songs didn't repeat - they developed.

But it was for their third record, 1986’s This Ain’t No Outerspace Ship they finally stepped up to the microphone, slimmed down a few compositions to a regular pop-song format and produced a masterpiece.

There is just a great feel to the whole record that is hard to put into words. The songs are all dead-on from "Cartoon Kiddies" the closest thing they ever produced to the archtypical 'Athens sound' to the inspired cover of The GAP band's "Party Train" that might the farthest.

There are still plenty of excellent instrumentals such as "Rudolf Nureyev" and the glorious heartbreak of "We All Loved Each Other So Much." But the glorious beating heart of the record is the jangly-guitar euphoria of "Beatle Boots" that remains one of my all-time favorite songs.

Interestingly, Cline says the band is less idealistic about the product and admits the band felt pressured to make the album. Their "hands had been tied" by the label (the now-defunct Bigtime Records) in terms of the production. Which, I guess, is partly why I feel this album is less self indulgent than a lot of the band’s other work.

They followed up with the wonderful Themes from Venus that took the ‘new’ Love Tractor the next logical step. "I Broke My Saw" is a rollicking rocking tune with fat meaty riffs and deliriously stream-of-consiousness lyrics. "Satan’s New Wave Soul Losers" stands as the acme of the band’s instrumental approach using the lyrics as just another instrument to make the song work.

But this record strength, its professionalism, is a bit sad for me. As much as I love it for the glory of the musicianship and the fun of the songs, that romantic air to the proceedings is long gone.

And then, after that. . . nothing. They simply disappeared. But they didn’t go away. The band kept reuniting and making new material but nothing they felt worth releasing until 2001’s The Sky at Night. Two recent records, Black Hole and Green Winter are under the name of the band but the only original member of the band is guitarist Richmond.

Which is, in many ways, what makes them completely faithful to that long lost Athen's ideal. They are still just a group of guys who get together to make music for the music's sake.

But with those first records and especially with Outerspace Ship Love Tractor somehow found a way to circumscribe that weird bittersweet hopeful glory of my wasted youth in the backwoods of the American south. Something about these songs made me gloriously happy and on the verge of tears at the exact same time.

I can't put this CD on and not think back to those days at the University of Alabama with the ashtrays full of Marlboro 100s, the endless cans of cheap beer and some of the best, and worst, times of my young life.

Which is understandable seeing I was stuck in a dead end town like they had been in Athens. "There was literally nothing to do," Cline recalled. "We'd drink, do drugs, write rock and roll and go to school."

The only difference for me is that I was listening to the rock and roll they were making.

more:  Music 

posted by kleph @ 10:50 pm |

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