I JUST NEED SOMEONE TO TELL ME HOW TALL I AM
By Max Chenofski
Given the recent passing of Papa John Phillips, we'd like to offer this pretty image: Papa John lying along the sun-soaked shores of Rock 'N' Roll Heaven, sipping mai tais, watching all the pretty young things walk on by. He can't be bothered with the incidentals (how he slipped past the Gates in the first place, for starters). Nah. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knows full well that he's earned his keep--his breezy, blissful benchmarks in pop music having made for one of the finest chapters in the tome that is L.A. rock. More importantly, though, in true hippie fashion, his shimmering strokes spoke intimately to a generation of wistful dreamers.
Make that generations of wistful dreamers. It's gotta be nice to know that a sonic sentiment such as "California Dreamin'" is still capturing the unbearable ache of hopefuls born well after the song's conception--an ocean and culture from the Promised Land--who yearn to slip their gray skies for greener pastures, much as Phillips did some 35 years ago.
Take Minibar, a quartet doing time in Britpop London. A fine time for a fine band to chalk up some fine accomplishments. If you're the kind of band that fit the shoe-gazer mold, that is. If, on the other hand, you aspired to something different, something grander, you might've found yourself relegated to the ranks of Cover Band In What's Got To Be The Only Tex-Mex Joint In Greater London. Simon Petty and Sid Jordan, one-half of Minibar, did. Why? "I dream I'm breathing air/That no-one breathed before/I've got the desert in my hair/My arm gets tanned/As it hangs from a Chevy door." That's why.
The longing seared into "Road Movies," the title track of the outfit's debut, tells the tale. Simply put, they dared to dream. Bucking convention in a land virtually defined by convention, they followed their hearts, adding some distinctly American flavors to their Anglo pop: three-part harmonies, pedal steel, banjo, harmonica. See if you can get your head around a three-car pile-up involving The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jimmy Webb, and Blur. And you know what that kind of ambition will get you back home, where "all the roads. . . are too small."
". . . I can't afford to fail/I've got two straight weeks to lay waste to Babylon." And so they did--have their bidding with Babylon, that is. Armed with enough cash to buy them two weeks in L.A., the boys gigged as best as they could, landed a management deal, and bought themselves musical asylum. In two weeks. The rest of their story also plays out like the stuff of California dreams. In two years' time they manage to secure a major-label deal and the affections of one T-Bone Burnett, the inspired knob-twirler behind The Wallflowers and Counting Crows. A fine fit, indeed.
That's the exposition to Road Movies, a disc so crammed with Americana as to place Minibar well within the alt-country ranks of The Jayhawks and Son Volt, albeit with a distinctly Anglo asterisk. Exhibit A: "Holiday From Myself," the album's opener/first single, which comes loaded down with hooks, harmonies, and lyrics like "I need some time away from being me/I'm worried about my health/And I seem to be bad company." A choice lead-in to a choice cover--"Choked Up," the highlight of Whiskeytown's about-to-be-released swan song, Pneumonia. Much as Minibar does Americana better than most Americans, so do they do Whiskeytown better than Whiskeytown.
Exhibit B: Drunk on Tim Walker's pedal-steel wizardry, "Six Foot" is Minibar at their beat-down best. Petty's knack for the clever lyric ("Cos I'm six foot tall on a good day/I'm eight miles high when I try") and his boys' way with the high-lonesome jam make for a six-pack revelation worthy of Uncle Tupelo. And the revelations are all around: In "Cool Water's" dazzling, dualing finger-picking; "Visible From Space's" sawdust-and-whiskey honky-tonk-isms; "So Long Soho's" snake-charming the sad-bastard soul of vintage Paul Westerburg. Drunk. Whored-out. Reflective.
If Road Movies is any reflection of what Minibar was turning out back across the Pond, it's a good thing they got the hell out of Dodge. Theirs is a sound best suited to the utter vastness of the Golden State. Call it Babylon. Call it whatever you like. It's where they, like so many before them, realized their dream. Right, Papa John?