Judging by the retouched bucolic psychedelia of its cover and its Paul Revere and the Raiders-leaning song titles (“Candy Apples,” “Whatever She’s Doin'”), Moods for Moderns‘ Loud and Clear easily could pass for the work of some lost Nuggets-bound band from the Time Before Pro-Tools. (Bassist Ben Force’s Who T-shirt, which is from one of that band’s recent reunions, provides the only anachronistic clue.) Yet Loud and Clear, a quick and catchy summer haze of a disc perfumed with a whiff of authentic late-’60s hard pop, doesn’t suffer a bit from nostalgia.
“People say we sound like ’60s garage rock,” says guitarist Nate Beale from his home in Detroit. “But I think of us more in the ’70s power-pop mode, like the Raspberries.” (Fair enough: On closer inspection, the matching jean jackets the guys wear on the cover are as Me Decade as the conversion van.) The comparison comes closer to intimidating Beale than rankling him, though. “I mean, garage rock in Detroit was serious,” he says. “People moved from L.A. to Detroit to play that kind of music, and they did it right. Music is what you make of it, though. We’ve been compared to the Get Up Kids, too, probably because we’re on the same label.”
That label, Doghouse Records, circulated a story Beale plays down about the vintage technology Moods for Moderns picked out to make its first disc. Propaganda has the trio playing and recording using only pre-1979 technology while listening to no music released after that year. Beale laughs and says, “They just threw that in there. What we did decide was not to use anything digital. It crops your sound. We used no digital effects, but that’s not necessarily unique. Neil Young records analog too.”
The band’s chirpy-choppy sound (the album has a literal crackle to it, like an old LP) does benefit from the kind of can-do British Invasion-influenced production that made George Martin a household name. Moods for Moderns and coproducer Jim Diamond seem to have mastered the fine art of making something dumb sound smart.
“On the second song, ‘Whatever She’s Doin’,’ Dave [Shettler, the drummer] used the worst drum set I’ve ever seen in my life,” Beale says. “We took all the bottom heads off and duct-taped the top heads and tuned all the drums the same. We were mimicking — I don’t know how familiar you are with the album Who’s Next and that song ‘Bargain’ — the drum sound on that. The information we’d heard was that Keith Moon tuned all his drums the same.
“On the next song, Dave used the same shitty kit, and we doubled every snare hit with Dave hitting a metal music stand with his drumstick and doubled the tom hits with a cardboard box and me beating a tambourine,” Beale continues. “On that song, we recorded the verses in mono, then the chorus in stereo. When the second guitar comes in, the microphone pans hard to the left. And we ran it through lots of compressors.” The Moods’ drum sound is admirably Moon-influenced in raw sound if not technique, enough so that you wonder whether the band’s next sonic trick involves duplicating the Los Angeles Who concert during which Moon had cortisone injected in both ankles while he was playing.
It’s hard to hear the distinction on the final product, but that’s a good thing. Clarity wasn’t and shouldn’t be the goal of a disc called Loud and Clear. But Beale is candid about the results as he hears them. “I guess we’re happy,” he says in his low Jon Stewart speaking voice after a drawn-out “uh.” “Every time we do something, we do it so many times [to record it] that we get to the point where we want to do it better. We’re already thinking of how to up the ante for the next album.”
Beale has begun writing for the Moods’ second full-length. At 36 minutes and change, Loud and Clear barely clocks in longer than the EPs he’s used to making, and he admits the album depleted his and his bandmates’ stockpiles. The Moods put out a well-reviewed short stack last year, and Beale and Shettler’s previous band, Empire State Games, never issued anything longer than about twenty minutes. (One of those releases was a split single with King for a Day, the band from which Force was recruited after Empire State Games folded in 1998.) So it’s been an unusually long apprenticeship for Beale and company, a wait not helped by the delayed release of Loud and Clear, which was hammered out quickly last September. “We recorded a lot of demos that no one will probably hear,” Beale says of the downtime between the dissolution of Empire in late 1998 and the emergence of Moods. “We were finding our niche.”
But then, Beale is only 21 — youthful enough that making sure someone he’s talking to has heard Who’s Next is probably necessary. (At 24, Force is the oldest Mood.) He recognizes that his talents aren’t fully formed yet. “I tend to devise a story in my head about someone else after coming up with some lines about me,” Beale says of his tracks on the album, an assortment he correctly assesses as “pretty bitter.” But like Ray Davies after the first few Kinks records, Beale is looking forward to “telling stories” rather than recounting the rudiments of failed affairs. “Storytelling is what appeals to me now,” he says. “It wasn’t something I’d thought about, but as I started writing new songs, the way they seemed to fit together was almost thematic.”
While Beale is excited about establishing his voice, he also welcomes the prospect of songwriting as a full-band project. Moods for Moderns features three songwriters, leading to more complex, rewarding compositions. “In Empire, me or the bass player would write a riff, and then the guitar player would sing over it. It’s not that they were horrible songs, but we were just creating riffs. Now before someone brings a song in, the melody is there and the chord changes are there.” This structured method works better than simply jamming and seeing what comes of it, because when the band goes wandering, “we usually end up just doing ‘Funk 49’ by the James Gang over and over,” Beale says. “Eventually, we hope to master ‘Mississippi Queen.'”
He’s kidding — sort of; Beale promises that for this tour, the band members have “some Blue Oyster Cult up our sleeves.” They’ll also unload some of the new songs, which should more than counterbalance dubious cover choices the band ought to be too young to bother with.