Volebeats – Below the radar or: Keep a secret
A relatively affluent inner-ring suburb, Huntington Woods seems to blithely ignore the notion of Metro Detroit as a wasteland of post-industrial blight. The houses here, generous old brick edifices mostly, sit well back from the shaded streets. They’re carefully kept up, some of them even elegant.
By local standards, the Oakes place is modest. Comfortable but well worn. It’s dim inside, even on a perfectly sunny afternoon.
Turn right at the kitchen and duck down the stairs. Another right, into the cool, musty dark. Down a short, narrow hall, an aisle really. On the right, the concrete block interior wall; on the left, the stacked detritus of the decades of a family’s storage. The laundry room ahead.
The Oakes brothers — Al, Brian, and Jeff — grew up in this house, and here, sometime in 1986, the Volebeats were born. In this laundry room.
Matt Smith played lead guitar. In the liner notes to the 1999 reissue of Ain’t No Joke, the Volebeats’ first LP, Smith described the scene: “It was summer, we were bored with everything, and Jeff Oakes’ invitation to bang out some tunes on a bunch of broken down, beat-up instruments seemed like a good idea. Soon we were meeting in his basement a few times a week.”
That first lineup consisted of three singing and songwriting guitarists (Terry Rohm, Al Oakes, and Smith), plus Brian Oakes on upright bass and Jeff Oakes, who sang and “handled most of the percussion.”
“Ain’t No Joke was released in 1989 on Relapse Records, a small Michigan label,” Smith wrote in the reissue notes. “It immediately sank into total obscurity, of course, but we were too busy making music to ponder any notions of success or failure. We just moved on to the next bunch of arguments that would result in the next Volebeats record.”
Four albums, an EP, various seven-inches and compilation cuts, countless personnel changes, and more than a decade later, the Volebeats are still meeting in this basement a few times a week, still too busy making music to give much thought to success or failure.
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The latest addition to the Volebeats catalog is Mosquito Spiral, released in May on Detroit label Third Gear Records. It follows the latest subtraction from the Volebeats lineup: Longtime rhythm guitarist and songwriter Robert McCreedy departed after the album was recorded, and has since been replaced by John Nash, who joins Jeff Oakes, Matt Smith, bassist Russell Ledford, and drummer Scott Michalski in the band’s current incarnation. “It has a stability it didn’t have before,” Smith says.
On Mosquito Spiral, the Volebeats sound has a glow it didn’t have before. “I’m surprised at how cheerful it is,” Smith concurs, then laughs. “The other records are all so miserable. This one’s a little less miserable.”
That, of course, is Smith’s brand of humor. Though he’s the most forthright conversationalist of the Volebeats, Smith projects a kind of lazy cool that, coupled with his appearance — stringy blond hair, mustache and goatee, faded denim jacket and ripped jeans, Rolling Stones t-shirt from the Steel Wheels tour — gives him an uncanny resemblance to the Muppets bassist Floyd Pepper. Like Floyd, Smith favors the word “groovy.”
Mosquito Spiral positively leaps from the speakers, riding tight harmonies and the glitter and wink of 12-string guitars. Starting with Oakes & McCreedy’s smoothly melodic “Radio Flyer”, the album’s dozen tracks proudly wave a flag for the classic pop that inspired it.
“I can’t overemphasize the fact that we grew up on CKLW,” Smith says. “All through the ’60s and ’70s, it broadcast across Canada from Windsor [just south and east of Detroit], and it was the guiding light of pop music culture then. You’d turn on the radio and hear Gordon Lightfoot next to Alice Cooper next to the Carpenters next to T-Rex, and then all the R&B and Motown stuff. Our whole perspective on music comes from that.”
On the new album, those influences are easy to spot: Oakes makes like Roy Orbison on “First Love Never Dies”, an obscure cover he likely learned from the Walker Brothers, while Smith’s “I Just Want Someone To Love (For The Summer)” is a ringer for the Beach Boys (as its title plainly reveals). Another highlight from Smith’s pen, “I Don’t Want To Cry Tonight”, swells with cascading vocal harmonies.