YOU LEFT A TRAIL OF STAGGERED FOOTPRINTS
Fly Below The Radar (2003) | Road Movies (2001) | All Music Guide
Mini-Bio: Simon Petty | Tim Walker | Sid Jordan | Malcolm Cross
Perhaps only British singers could sing the word "California" and infuse it with an almost spiritual yearning. For the British quartet Minibar, that's how it felt.
"For us, the idea of America was incredibly tempting," says Minibar's lead singer and principal songwriter, Simon Petty. "We wanted to see it."
The group's debut album Road Movies, on Universal Records writes another chapter in the story of the British love affair with America that began with The Beatles. Produced by American classicist T Bone Burnett (Counting Crows, Wallflowers), the 11-song Road Movies combines the rootsy flavor of the band's American influences with a quintessentially British pop songcraft.
"The English are known for a short, punchy pop structure," says Petty. "We listen to a lot of American music, that's where the flavor comes from, but the songs are still quite English." They are also timeless. Says bassist, singer and co-songwriter Sid Jordan, "I don't think we're a band that takes too much notice of what's happening at the time."
Though the members of Minibar most often mention Wilco, for whom they've opened shows, there are echoes in Minibar's songs of everyone from fellow Brits Aztec Camera and Travis to classic American songwriters as different as Neil Young and Jimmy Webb.
Like those influences, the members of Minibar write songs brimming with wit and wisdom; the quartet's country-flavored tracks bristling with pop hooks and made sublime with velvety vocal harmonies. "That's the buzz," says Petty. "Harmonies are the key thing that we love in the band. The three-part harmony thing is very west coast, which is really our musical homeland."
The band made the move from its national homeland to its musical homeland in July '99 after a brief visit there made it clear to all concerned that Southern California was where they belonged. "We never really thought about it much in England, but it just suddenly hit us to go to the home of the music we love," says Jordan. "And it worked."
According to Petty, the band was glad to leave England. For a long time, he and Jordan's money gig had been doing cover songs at a Tex-Mex restaurant in London. It is a time celebrated -- if that's the word -- in the album's elegiac farewell, "So Long Soho." But the duo didn't mind playing covers -- most of the time. "Let's just say 'American Pie' is not my favorite song," says Petty. "But on quiet nights, we'd trying playing the whole of 'Blood on the Tracks' or 'Harvest'. It was very good training, but quite tedious."
That training taught the band the rudiments of songwriting, and allowed it to develop slowly from the trio Petty formed in London in 1994. The first current member to join was guitarist Tim Walker in early '95, then bassist Jordan in early '96 and finally drummer Malcolm Cross in late '98.
The songs, credits for which are shared by all four band members, are what make Road Movies so rewarding. The sentiment behind "Holiday From Myself", the album's opener and first single, will be recognizable to anyone who is a little too lost in his own head, and the album is loaded with smart, appealing lines like "Will you be my destination/When I run out of gasoline?" ("Road Movies") and "If you need a pick-up/You can smash my old guitar" ("I Know Without Asking").
Other songs capture subtle ideas and emotions in a few lines. On "Six Foot", the chorus begins "I'm six foot tall on a good day," and ends with the plaintive wish, "I just need someone/To tell me how tall I am." Like many Minibar songs, it's vulnerable and wry, self-aware and universal. "It's just so true," says Petty of that chorus, which was written by bassist and chief harmonizer Jordan. "People need other people to bounce off, to reflect how we see ourselves."
"If you're singing a song, the best way to put it across is to say something worth saying," adds Jordan. "And if it's easily listenable, what you've got to say comes across better."
Producer Burnett was charged with making that happen in the recording studio, a job he happily accepted after he saw Minibar play live. The band spent early 2000 going through what Petty calls "T Bone's boot camp." Burnett's approach was as direct and traditional as the band's sound, with several tracks recorded live in the studio, the producer even wielding a razor blade to do edits, an old-fashioned approach that amazed the band.
Working with Burnett required the band to let go of a bit of its innate British perfectionism, says Petty. "The song structures remained the same, the lyrics remained the same," he says. "What changed some with T Bone was the atmosphere, the way we played, the touch of dissonance here and there. What was difficult for me at first was that he would keep vocals that I didn't think were great. I'd been waiting to make a record all my life, and I was thinking, 'You can't put that on the record'. But in terms of getting the essence of the songs, it really worked."
These days, after years of hard work learning their craft, and having relocated to the California of their musical dreams, the members of Minibar are not feeling particularly melancholy. But they hope the album can evoke in listeners that dream not quite realized.
"It's so much easier to feel things when you don't have them," muses Petty. "Every band dreams of being signed, of the glorious future, but it's very hard to keep that when you're doing a day job. That's why 'Road Movies' is a key song. It's about dreaming of coming here. It was written right before we came here. We were striving and hoping, it wasn't real yet. I hope that comes across in the album, that wanting to be here."