|Does anyone else see Nate's uncanny resemblance to actor Frank Whaley?|
Being a fun of his first band, the Format, and watching incredulously as that band got unceremoniously dropped from Atlantic Records after only one album (the absolutely jaw-dropping Interventions and Lullabies) before releasing a second album that sold poorly, until finally giving up in an exhale of frustration in 2008, I took a perverse joy in watching Ruess's rise from the ashes.
After all, this was a guy whose Arizona band had somehow managed to escape the parched desert landscape and take their talents to a national stage, only to be met with complete indifference by the mainstream. Mind you, the Format had a HUGE cult audience on the west coast because if you saw them live or had a friend play you one of their songs, you became a fan. There just weren't enough of us doing that for a band like The Format to compete with the hip hop acts and American Idol runner up's pulling down tens of millions of views and spins every single day.
After forming fun with Andrew Dost and Jack Antonoff in 2008 and cutting their first album, Aim and Ignite, with Steven McDonald of Redd Kross, who had produced the Format's second album Dog Problems, it was great having Ruess back among the living, so to speak, making music that we fans could actually get our hands on.
But I also felt a little selfish having this great music to myself. Sure, I played it for anyone and everyone who would listen, gave my own copies to people as spontaneous gifts when they flipped for the music Nothing like playing a song in the car, very much on the down-low, no expectations, no big build-ups...and watching someone's mind get blown.
It usually begins with just the music playing, no conversation, and then a "Who is this?"
A few songs later.
"Holy shit, these guys are amazing!"
And then I get to do my all-time favorite thing in the world: hit eject, put the CD in its case and say to the person next to me, "You want it? It's yours!"
"Oh no, I can't. Then you won't have a copy."
"I'll happily buy another one, take it."
The Format were that band for me and fun were pretty much picking up where Nate's last band had left off, which was fine if you were happy playing for the same few hundred faces each night.
As a musician myself, I can tell you that playing to 300 people a night is not a bad thing. It's certainly preferable to playing to 50, but nobody who slogs it out on the local club scene and lands a major label record deal ever wants to play for just three hundred people, but that was where Nate found himself again after the so-so sales of Aim and Ignite.
Like a lot of traditional rock musicians looking for ways into the mainstream in a rapidly-changing industry, Nate wondered what it would sound like if a rock band (his, of course) were to approach their next album with the mindset of a hip-hop act. That's not to say that Ruess was going to start writing hip-hop songs, but the cut-and-paste style of recording with Ableton and other computer-based recording programs had thrown open the possibilities of what could now be accomplished in the studio and no rock band had yet jumped on that bandwagon.
In digging through his hip-hop albums (Kanye, Jay-Z, etc.), Ruess saw the name Jeff Bhasker pop up again and again. Like any ambitious musician, he decided to contact Bhasker to see if the much-in-demand producer (who was busy at the time working on a Beyonce album) might be interested in cutting some tracks.
We all know how that story ends, of course, and its safe to say that Nate's gamble paid off mightily, as his penthouse tax bracket surely confirms.
But, in listening to Nate Ruess's just-released solo album Grand Romantic and seeing him perform on The Today Show this morning, it suddenly dawned on me that by embracing the dark side (and, make no bones about it, Autotune and Ableton ARE the dark side) and experiencing the exhilarating buzz of having your music embraced not just by 300 people in a club in Des Moines, Iowa, but by the whole freaking planet, you can never go back.
Well, you can always go back, you just can't take any of those millions of fans with you.
Remember when a commercially-struggling blues band by the name of ZZ Top decided to compete with the synth-pop bands of the day by making an album full of synthesizers and drum machines? It was a huge career risk that ultimately gave their career a new lease on life, but it also forced them to keep making albums just like Eliminator in order to stay on top.
They could have said, "Nope, we're going back to being a three-piece rock band" and their next album would have probably gone aluminum, but instead they went on to repeat the synth-formula on Afterburner and the aptly-named Recycler. Heck, they even got to make a cameo in Back To The Future III.
But by that time, everybody was sick of synths-and-drum machines. A year later, Nirvana would sweep all of that garbage out to sea and ZZ Top would literally be left with no other choice but to return to their roots.
Seeing Nate perform today was like watching ZZ Top trying to breathe some human life into one of their Eliminator-era songs like "Sharp Dressed Man", "Legs", or "Gimme All Your Lovin". There's no mistaking the timeless success of those tunes, but, man, performing those tunes live looks about as much "fun" as pushing buttons on the assembly line at the bolt factory.
Having spent a lot of time with Nate's new solo album, Grand Romantic, it seems that Ruess has firmly hitched his wagon to the same state-of-the-art locomotive that ZZ Top did decades ago, thereby making this his Afterburner, if you will. This time, though, Ruess's dynamic anthems are interspersed with ballads that, in any other studio setting might wind up sounding too esoteric, but, here, all wind up still sounding like anthems played at NBA Finals celebrations.
I figure he's got one more album of cut-and-paste greatness in him before the world moves on and he, like ZZ Top before him, returns to his roots. That's not to say that I'm eager to see Nate's juggernaut of success, where everything he touches turns to gold and platinum, come to an end anytime soon, but, like many of you, I've seen this movie before.
That's not gonna keep me from grabbing a big ol' bowl of popcorn and enjoying every awesome second of it.