CASEY NEILL & THE NORWAY RATS
"GOODBYE TO THE RANK AND FILE"
Portland, Oregon-based Casey Neill's songs have always walked the line between lyrical song craft and ferocious electric live shows. But, their new album, "Goodbye to the Rank and File," is the first to feature the full Norway Rats lineup including members of the Decemberists, Lucinda Williams Band, and the Minus 5.
The band, consisting of Casey Neill (vocals, guitar), Little Sue (vocals, acoustic guitar), Chet Lyster (guitar), Ezra Holbrook (drums), Hanz Araki (vocals, flute), Jesse Emerson (bass), and Jenny Conlee (piano, accordion), recorded "Goodbye to the Rank and File," produced by the band's own Ezra Holbrook, throughout the fall of 2009 and winter 2010.
Like on previous releases, though, the band had their friends come in and play on the record, including R.E.M. touring musician Scott McCaughey (also front man for Minus 5 and the Young Fresh Fellows) and Talkdemonic's Lisa Molinaro.
Richard Thompson influenced the result as much as Husker Du and The Clash. Casey Neill & The Norway Rats' sound combines post-punk energy, narrative storytelling, haunting ballads, and whiskey-fueled rave-ups.
As for his history as a full-time musician, Neill has released records on famed folk label Appleseed Recordings and Amy Ray's (of the Indigo Girls) Daemon Records. He's toured the world several times. And befriended some of his biggest musical influences - Jello Biafra, Pete Seeger, and Steve Earle. But, for this Portland, Oregon-by-way-of-New York resident Casey Neill, all that matters right now is "Goodbye to the Rank and File" and his band, The Norway Rats.
"'Goodbye to the Rank and File' is an album made by a working band. We've performed these songs live for awhile and fleshed them out. Our shared history together in the Northwest music scene and the sheer number of gigs we've played has all been poured into these performances.
"Collectively, two or more of us have been in many different bands together - KMRIA (a Pogues tribute band), Decemberists, Minus 5, Little Sue Band, From Words to Blows, and that's just the bands that are still together. So there is a lot of history and time in the trenches of the Northwest music scene," Neill says of the band and the new record.
It is this camaraderie, as well as the Northwest environment that shaped and formed the record.
"For me," Neill discusses, "that camaraderie is thematically built into these songs lyrically and musically. 'Goodbye to the Rank and File' is about resilience. It's about the endless drives up and down I-5 in the rain at 2am after a show with 18-wheelers blowing walls of rain onto the windshield. It's about watching some people fall away and others stay with you. There is a certain nostalgia in the music for a time when Seattle was a lot like Tacoma, and Portland was pretty rundown too. Things have gotten better in a million ways, but a certain feel has been lost. 'Brooklyn Bridge' has a strong East Coast bent to it and I wanted this one to be very much rooted in the Northwest where I have spent the majority of my adult life."
The twelve-track collection spans the gamut from "All Summer Glory," a song about hot summer nights, girls, and cheap beer delivered with a late-night, summertime pop feel turned rustic with a roots-rock kick. All complete with the chiming carousel sounds at the end that invoke the shore sounds of early 70s Jersey.
The album also features the power-pop-punk feel of "This Year Was a Blur" and the heavy riff-rock of "When The World Was Young," about losing touch with people who you thought would be with you the whole way.
Love, defiance, defeat, and life in the Northwest are also topics covered on "Goodbye to the Rank and File."
Just as the stories are diverse, but pulled together sonically, so is the sound of the record. The band showcases their strong Americana roots on "Radio Montana," their dreamy indie-folk leanings on "Ouroboros" and "Idyll," and the dark, Waits-ian ballad, "Guttered," the thematic centerpiece of the album. "Guttered" offers an opposing view to the defiant "When the World Was Young."
"This character [in 'Guttered'] is filled with defeat. How does this kid get on with his life even though there are no more $5 Fugazi shows?" states Neill. "He can't decide whether he has held true to some pure punk rock ideal or whether the world is leaving him behind. He's drunk and stoned in a graveyard and lamenting to his friend that at thirty his world has passed him by. Meanwhile his friend is stronger and she is so fucked off with the Bush years that she is headed for Central America to redefine herself."
A huge fan of Joe Strummer and The Clash, Neill decided to write a song about Strummer's life, but also about other couples he knew on "Nightowl and the Skylark."
"When Joe Strummer died, there was an interview with his wife Lucinda in a British paper. She talked about how she was a morning person and he stayed up at night. She said he was a nightowl and she was a skylark," explains Neill. "The song has specific references to Strummer's life but it is about another couple also. In both cases the nightowl is a well-loved public icon and she is singing to him how the whole world loves you but no one knows you like I do."
Also a big fan of Husker Du, Casey Neill & The Norway Rats decided to cover the Grant Hart-penned "She Floated Away."
"[It] has been a staple of our live shows for over three years. We included it for a few reasons," recalls Neill. "Audiences really respond to it for one. We also needed something in triple time as the rest of the record is in four. But the main reason is that it echoes the themes of the record - not just the lyrics but Husker in general.
"We made a very American record and any cover had to be an American band. I am a huge Bob Mould fan, but it felt good to work on a Grant Hart song as he wrote so many of their most timeless songs. This being one."
Unlike its predecessor, "Brooklyn Bridge," Neill and the band wanted to make a record together. Whereas "Brooklyn Bridge" found unity in its thematic design, with "Goodbye to the Rank and File" Neill and company wanted to make a record that rooted its unity in the sonic sound of the songs.
"'Brooklyn Bridge' was a collection of material recorded with twenty-five different musicians over a period of 5-6 years," discusses Neill. "Our primary goal going into ['Goodbye to the Rank and File'] was to have a unified sound. My recent CDs have been more like collections of studio tracks that genre-hopped a lot: punk rock songs, traditional Irish songs, Americana shuffles, piano ballads. All that is still in here as those styles inform my writing, but we wanted it to be less schizophrenic and more of a sonic whole. Ezra's production made sure we kept to that."
Playing the songs live a lot and touring on them before recording them helped achieve this goal. They also decided a key component to making the record sound the way they wanted to would be to record the foundation and rhythm tracks live.
"I really am a believer in recording the foundation and rhythm tracks live," Neill comments without hesitation. "Track drums, bass, and guitars playing live in a room and overdub afterwards. It keeps the original feel of the song at the center. We did the same thing on this recording."
Continuing to discuss the recording process, he says, "With every record I make, I am getting closer to an ideal I am shooting for. I think the songs themselves are stronger and by virtue of having such great musicians to work with - the music certainly is. What I am most proud of though is the unity of thematic content in the lyrics coupled with a sonic continuity in the music."
Now, with the band in tow, and a new record on the horizon, the band has a new goal. They plan to pack it up, hit the road, and tour as much as they can to get these songs into people's ears, minds, and ultimately music playing devices, whether it's their home stereo, car CD player, or iPod.
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