Citizens’ Utilities – That great hydroelectric power
“Most of us like our jobs,” Bill Herzog says, and he isn’t referring to those hours each week he, Joshua Medaris, Chad Shaver and Eric Akre spend together as Citizens’ Utilities. Indeed, the first news he shares isn’t about No More Medicine, their second long player on Mute Records, nor about the Whiskeytown dates they’ve just been told they’ll be opening, but about the young Cabernet we sampled a year ago that just won a 92 rating (out of an impossible 100) from Wine Spectator.
Herzog, in fact, is calling from a truck stop phone booth in Eastern Washington, having dropped casks of the good stuff off in Spokane. Which isn’t to suggest that Citizens’ Utilities is an accidental hobby they’ve stumbled upon, simply that — and despite the fever that has gripped Seattle for most of this decade — this singularly democratic outfit has a fair grip on what’s important.
Singularly democratic. Bassist Herzog and guitarists Medaris and Shaver all sing. And write. Even drummer Akre is beginning to claim the mike — he debuts here on “Idaho” — if only in self-defense (his older sister Carrie is the vocalist in Goodness and previously fronted Hammerbox).
“Whoever’s singing the song doesn’t necessarily mean they wrote the song,” Medaris said over Indian food a year ago, and that hasn’t changed on their second proper release. (The first album they cut has never appeared, though one track from that session is on a promo-only EP that went out to college radio.) In keeping with that democratic spirit, songwriting is credited to the entire band, and never mind who dragged words or melody to rehearsal first.
Such esprit de corps has much to do with their selection of Los Lobos sax player Steve Berlin to produce No More Medicine. “We had a long list, and even went to L.A. to talk to Pete Anderson,” Herzog says. “But in the end we really wanted to work with somebody who was actively in a band, who understood our process.” A recommendation from the Picketts’ Walt Singleman helped, as did the fact that Berlin had come to the bandstand to say hello shortly after moving to the Northwest.
From the outside it’s hard to tell if Berlin’s understanding, understated production is responsible for the band’s more cohesive sound this time out, or if it’s just the virtues of time spent together. Familiarity breeds contentment, something like that.
Whatever the cause, they’ve managed a curious and rewarding mixture of sounds, from the scratchy guitars of indie rock to Byrdsian harmonies. And there it is, a mixture of innocence and expertise, rural roots and urban sophisticated, all filtered and aged like good wine. It ends up more pop polish than rural route rusticisms, but that’s hardly a bitter pill to swallow.