(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

History lesson - The Refreshments, The Bottle & Fresh Horses (1997)

The band developed their Southwestern sound while their label looked the other way

It was just another case of Mercury poisoning, although, at the time, it looked like natural causes. In 1995, the Refreshments signed with Mercury Records. Their first album, Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy, came out the next year and “Banditos” became their breakout, unavoidable single. The attitude – “Everybody knows/ That the world is full of stupid people” – was delivered with tight, power-pop harmonies and the guitar hook was immaculate. Fully hyped with a whirlwind tour, the band made the rounds until Mercury pushed them back in the studio. The resulting album, The Bottle & Fresh Horses, came out in 1997 and undeservedly became their sophomore slump. Much as Graham Parker complained in his 1970 song, “Mercury Poisoning”, “Their promotion’s so lame/ They couldn’t ever take it to the real ballgame,” the Refreshments found themselves neglected by the label and the album quickly sank. By the end of ‘97, they left Mercury and lasted a few months before they broke up later in 1998.

Common wisdom dismissed the band as a one-hit wonder, but despite its rushed recording and chaotic roots, The Bottle & Fresh Horses was a solid follow up to their debut. The rhythm section still delivered crisp, catchy progressions and Brian Blush’s guitar fills struck the same balance between retro rock and hyped-up alternative pop. Where their first album had some outlier songs, like “European Swallow”, this time, the band focused on the Southwestern sound that Roger Clyne and P.H. Naffah would later polish when they regrouped as Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers. There’s no particular reason why songs like “Preacher’s Daughter”, “Wanted”, or “Broken Record” couldn’t find the same success that “Banditos” did. But with Mercury unwilling to promote any of these, the album was trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. Maybe part of the problem is that many of the songs reflected a maturity rooted in the pressure that the band was under. There were still plenty of clever lines and charming losers, but the Refreshments also let their swagger slip and reveal their weariness.

The album leads off with one of these more serious tracks, “Tributary Otis”. The music splits the difference between a Bruce Springsteen Everyman anthem and Western-flavored Americana while the words are grounded with quiet confidence:
Well, I’ve traveled and I’ve seen the things I build, working
Working to bring me down
And I may be thirsty now but I will go beyond this thirst
And the tears I cry for you will all go dry
Clyne builds on the foundation of his earlier work, crafting and singing sincere lyrics just as carefully as he had with his lighter material.

Later, on “Fonder and Blonder”, the band emphasizes the contrast with Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy. It’s a response to the only other single from their debut. Where “Down Together” defiantly proclaimed, “Cars break down/ And people break down/ And other things break down, too/ So let’s go down together,”the follow up is from the perspective of a relationship that faded away rather than flaming out. This time, Clyne sings those same words with a rueful tone and tags them with, “I felt something slip when you left on your trip/ And now I think I’m breaking down on you.” The band uses the lyrical continuity to create a sense of wiser acceptance replacing youthful denial. The simple guitar jangle and light harmonies are close to the sound of their fellow Arizona band, The Gin Blossoms.

Even with these grown up themes and heavier songs, this is not a morose album. Right on the heels of “Tributary Otis”, “Preacher’s Daughter” lays down a classic Refreshments narrative of poor judgment and bad luck. After apparently doing time for scoring with the preacher’s daughter, our hero comes home to tempt fate yet again. Nonchalantly taunting her father, he finds that his temptress has married the sheriff while he was gone. Seems like the perfect time to rekindle passions, at least briefly. The band runs through the tale with a ballsy John Cougar feel and Blush’s singing guitar tone.

The schmuck on “Broken Record” is a different flavor of loser. Like a sad puppy, he can’t seem to settle for being just a friend. He tries his best to ignore how the object of his affection continually uses him and he consoles himself that at least he could have any girl in Japan. The logic may seem twisted, but he’s probably the same kind of fool that accepts the fairness in the assertion, “I got the pistol, so I’ll keep the pesos,” from “Banditos.”

Did Mercury make the right call to let The Bottle & Fresh Horses languish? The implosion of the band suggests that they might have. But the slow-building success of Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers challenges that idea. Refining this album’s musical direction, they built a strong grassroots following without the support of a major label. These songs became a crowd-pleasing staple in their repertoire, validating the quality of the material. While the band may have been destined to fall apart, they held together well on these songs. Poor sales and obscurity in the ‘90s have been balanced out by countless Peacemaker fans trawling through The Refreshments back catalog for The Bottle & Fresh Horses to hear the originals after enjoying Clyne’s powerful versions in concert.

(This first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

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