Lots of bands go through This Is Spinal Tap/exploding drummer sagas. For The Virginia Reel, it's been a near-endless procession of bass players since forming four years ago that has kept the local act on the periphery. But with the release of its elegant, full-band debut EP, Dark Ages of The Virginia Reel, singer/songwriter Neil Allen says that's proof enough this particular curse has at last been lifted. (The band celebrates with a CD release party Friday, Nov. 28 at Snug Harbor, with South Career.)
But before landing ex-Kicking Jackson bassist Dana Stickels -- Allen calls him the "reward for all our suffering" -- several months ago, the bandleader says he can't even recall how many bassists have sat in that chair. Particularly painful were some of the Craig's List auditions.
"People would show up who didn't own a bass, and weren't even bass players, but they purported to be," the 27-year-old Allen laughs. "They'd show up, 'Well, I'm really a drummer, but I think I could do bass -- do you have one?'"
The EP was recorded in Winter '07 -- sans bassist -- at Duck Kee studio in Mebane, where regional stalwarts Polvo, Superchunk, Kingsbury Manx and The Strugglers (with Allen chipping in guitar parts) have recorded before. Allen and drummer Darrell Ussery (ex-Lou Ford, Aqualads) and Kyle Dussault (keys) knocked out eight songs in one day (six made the cut), tracking drums, keys, guitar and vocals live.
Allen later added pedal steel, additional guitar and the bass, and part-time member/current ex-pat Kristin Garber overdubbed trumpet parts. Ex-Charlotte resident Nicole Atkins also provided back-up harmonies during the initial session (Atkins, now signed to Columbia, was in an early incarnation of the band).
In addition to financial considerations, the one-day hit-and-run approach suited Allen's recording philosophy (he has also solo-recorded three previous full-lengths on an 8-track under The Virginia Reel moniker).
"I'm a firm believer in, if you've got a good take, cool, and if you don't you shouldn't be in there," he says. "I don't like the whole cut-and-paste, auto-tune, musical air-brushing or doctoring idea. I'd rather just not record if I'm not ready to do it. I think it sucks the life out of stuff."
The band could have released the record shortly after and followed that with live dates, but Allen doesn't take to playing the songs live solo or as a partial band -- plus, you know, that whole exploding bassist thing. And though Allen insists his relationships with the Virginia Reel core members have always been drama-free (a fact Ussery insists on emphasizing), he admits that hasn't always been the case with former members.
"I'm pretty much known as an asshole in Charlotte because I have a vision and I give direction to people," he candidly says. "Some people are team players and some get their feelings hurt by that -- the 'don't tell me what to do' thing. Those are people who can't play in bands -- if you're in a jam-band I guess that's fine, but if you're in a band where there are certain parts that need to be played, it doesn't work. It's not perfection we're after, because I don't believe in that, but you're trying to be as faithful to the song as you can."
Allen believes that structure enhances Dark Ages' laid-back vibe, but bristles at the notion that The Virginia Reel doesn't rock. Sounding like the vocal offspring of early-'70s Ray Davies and Transformer-era Lou Reed, and using Luna-like guitar lines to bring the songs to a slow-burn boil, Allen and company have crafted a fine Indian Summer-pop record with an instant classic feel -- classic rock, if you will, but in the best sense of the term.
"We're not trying to be sensational, we're not trying to be quirky or ironic or cool, and as a result maybe to some folks it really does sound, I dunno, plain," he chuckles, "or it doesn't snag their attention because it's not math rock or the pimped-out '80s flavor of the week. But if a melody is strong enough, or there's some quality that suggests the music could last longer than whatever Pitchfork thinks is cool that week, that's what we want to do."
NEWS & NOTES: Bruce Hazel and Some Volunteers are one of 13 semi-finalists in an international search for the Best Unsigned Band by Little Steven Van Zandt (of E Street Band and Sopranos fame). The next round of voting continues through Friday Dec. 5 via Genya Ravan's Sirius Satellite program Goldie's Garage (www.goldiesgarage.us) ... Seasons tidings from local imprint Kinnikinnik Records, whose Another Merry Kinnikinnik has 12 artists confirmed, including a couple out-of-town surprises -- stay tuned for more details, but free copies should be available beginning Dec. 6 at Lunchbox Records ... Friday, Nov. 28, also sees Public Radio's EP release party at Tremont; free copies with every ticket!