...this is the very model of the modern Breakup Record...with its emphasis on acoustic guitars, uncertain melodies and hushed, tremulous singing, Dog Eared most recalls the work of the late Elliott Smith (TIME OUT NY )
Dog Eared spins like the disjointed bipolar days just after a messy breakup-I'm up, I'm down, I'm drunk, I'm free-without sounding mawkish. Call it sloppy art for sloppy hearts. (MAGNET)
Cerveris takes simple songs and transforms them into mini-operas with thick arrangements, inventive counterpoint and sharp vocal harmonies... turns pathos into pop redemption. (AMPLIFIER)
a stately duel between saturated sound and barely-there vulnerability (SPLENDID)
Some thoughts on cerveris and dog eared...from some of his stellar cast of not-quite-thousands:
Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney, co-writer/vocals on "SPCA): "One of Michael's strengths as a musician and songwriter is his versatility ... And with Janet and Ken playing on [the album], it felt like a little supergroup."
Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, various tracks) - "Subtlety in textures and writing, a world-class cast and crew ... everything was exciting!"
Laura Cantrell (vocals on "Two Seconds") -- "[Michael is] a fabulous singer and it was a real revelation to hear his music -- I'm just terribly flattered to be asked to come in and sing with him."
Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub, guitar/vocals on "Crosshill") -- "There's this classic thing of actors wanting to be musicians -- but Michael can really do both, which is difficult ... and unusual."
Adam Lasus (co-producer) - "He has a great sense of not overdoing things or trying to make it sound like things you've heard before. There's not one moment of this album that has that clichéd bullshit...the very subtle songs begin to creep into your mind with all these little hooks, drum parts and vocal melodies"
Michael Cerveris -- "[dog eared] was my way of making one big alternative reality. I have such a literal or emotional connection with all these people and it seemed as if they all belonged in the same room together ... and that room became this record.
Nothing is quite as compelling on record as the restless fluctuations of the fractured heart--something singer/songwriter Michael Cerveris proves brilliantly on his ferocious and fragile solo debut album dog eared. From the roiling anthem of “SPCA” (Cerveris’ cheeky, power-pop collaboration co-written and sung with Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker) to the melancholy, but muscular musings of “Can’t Feel My Soul,” dog eared is Cerveris’ lush declaration of liberation not only from lousy love affairs, but from his complex, parallel life as a critically acclaimed, Tony-nominated actor -- an extraordinary, but convoluted path for a rock musician. Cerveris -- former frontman of British band Retriever (Hinterlands) and guitarist/vocalist on Bob Mould’s 1998 US/UK “Dog and Pony Show” tour -- originated the title role in the Broadway hit Tommy and in the late 90s, he starred in the smash cult hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch on London’s West End, off-Broadway in New York and in Los Angeles and has recently been starring with Ricky Martin and Elena Roger in EVITA once again on Broadway while continuing his roles as The Observer on FRINGE and a recurring role as music manager Marvin Frey on HBO's Treme.
Cerveris and his co-producer Adam Lasus (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah,Madder Rose, Clem Snide, Helium) chose to make dog eared a unique “family” effort. They reached out to Cerveris’ extended, diverse network of musician compadres and friends -- Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss, Ken Stringfellow (Posies, R.E.M.), Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Laura Cantrell, Norman Blake (Teenage Fan Club), Jeremy Chatzky (They Might Be Giants), Kevin March (Guided by Voices, Dambuilders), Anders Parker (Varnaline, Space Needle), Lara Gray (Luna, Ben Lee), Joe McGinty (Psychedelic Furs), strings arranger David Arnold (Bjork) and Alex Lutes (Nightnurse, Retriever) for recording sessions that took place sporadically over the course of six months in locales ranging from Brooklyn’s Red Hook waterfront to Portland, Oregon to Glasgow, Scotland. The album was mixed by Nick Brine (Oasis, Stone Roses) and Adam Lasus at the famed Rockfield Studios in Wales
“The reason I chose not to continue [with Retriever] on this record was partly logistical -- the band was in London,” explains Cerveris, who lives in Manhattan. “But I also felt that there was a musician, a person and a life I needed to shed.
“During a rough time in my life I learned to reach out to people in a way I’d never done before,” he continues. “And reaching out to my friends, these musicians, for this album was very much in the same spirit.” He laughs. “God, it was like rock group therapy!”
To simply call dog eared a “breakup” album would undercut the universal poetry and power of Cerveris’ eight original tracks and two carefully chosen covers. From the playful, but incendiary hooks of “Dog Eared” to the driving drums and lyrical snap of “SPCA,” the grinding guitars of “Another Time” and the hushed, hypnotic beauty of “Snowbound,” Cerveris and his rag-tag “supergroup” have found a gorgeous balance between sorrow and luminous self-discovery, dark mood swings and gentle fury.
“I didn’t start writing these songs with the intention of writing a breakup album,” says Cerveris who wrote the voluptuous, distorted ballad “Golden” just a few whiskey-soaked days after a three-year relationship foundered. “I just started writing because there were these thoughts I really needed to rid myself of -- it was the emotional equivalent of the medieval practice of boring into people’s skulls to let demons out when they had migraines. But I think of this album less as a document of a breakup and more as a recovery record.”
Self-resurrection following heartbreak is traced on dog eared from the ground zero of ghostly tracks like “Golden” which, cleverly and perversely, ends the album -- a raw memory of a lost love bound by electronically-altered, whispered vocals, twangy, raucous guitars, and Ken Stringfellow’s sinuous organ work.
“It was a really intense slow jam,” says Stringfellow who worked with Cerveris and Lasus in both Portland and Brooklyn. “Michael knew I could go rogue [on the track] and he let me have free rein. You have to find little places to breathe in a way, where the notes can stop. It was exactly like a meditation ... which is a good thing to experience.”
Cerveris has a decade-long friendship with Stringfellow but was still surprised when the ever-busy musician asked to be involved with virtually every track. “He’s one of those guys who plays so many instruments so well,” says Cerveris, who was appearing in Tommy when he first met the R.E.M. sideman, former Posies member and solo artist. “[Ken] has this technical ability to respond immediately to what he hears and a lot of his work on this album was just done in one to four takes.”
In addition to his original songs, Cerveris includes two intriguing covers on dog eared: Guided by Voices frontman Robert Pollard’s “Drinker’s Peace” and Volebeats singer Robert McCreedy’s tune “Two Seconds.” The latter was covered by grassroots country singer Laura Cantrell on her own debut album Not The Trembling Kind and when it came time to record the track himself, Cerveris asked Cantrell if she’d jump aboard the project.
“I thought it was really interesting what Michael did with it,” says Cantrell, who traveled to Lasus’ Fireproof Studios in Red Hook to sing harmonies on a bitter cold day in early February. “Michael brought [“Two Seconds”] to even a moodier, quieter place than I had thought to do which was cool. It communicates a very basic longing and the way Michael has done the song, it does have a sort of late night, introspective vibe ... or like [the way you feel] on a cold day when you just want to curl up and put a blanket over your head.”
Several compositions on dog eared evolved from sudden epiphanies. While hanging out at a guitar shop near the Chelsea Hotel one warm October afternoon, Cerveris spotted an old Gibson ES-125 archtop guitar, began noodling with it and within a half-hour had found the bare-boned essence of both “Can’t Feel My Soul” and “Dog Eared” (and yes, he bought the guitar). While he was working on “SPCA,” Cerveris reached westward to his friend Corin Tucker, who was between tours with Sleater-Kinney. He sent her an instrumental demo of the track and encouraged her to run wild with her words.
“Everything that I’d written dwelled on the loss, longing and sadness,” explains Cerveris. “But Corin’s thing was the loss, the sadness and ‘fuck you because you’ll regret this!’”
Tucker recalls that the skeletal demo of “SPCA” was rather melancholy and somber. “At first I did consider a Leonard Cohen type thing about a taxi pulling away in the morning,” she recollects. “But eventually I took the theme of splitting up and turned it into a ‘you’ll be sorry’ type song, a la Connie Francis. This is just my sort of natural ‘rise above’ spirit, which crept into Michael’s record -- I think to his surprise.”
Cerveris admits he was happily taken off guard and credits Corin’s lyrics and the rowdy Portland sessions -- Corin’s harder vocal edge, Janet Weiss’ powerful drumming and Stringfellow’s endless ideas -- with firing up dog eared with an irreverent, bulldog ferocity that crept into the final mix and in later compositions like “Crosshill.” That track, the last song written for the album, inspired Cerveris to travel to Glasgow to work with his longtime compadre Norman Blake in his tiny home studio.
“The first night Michael got here we got unbelievably drunk on whisky AND vodka which I regret doing ,” says Blake, laughing. “But somehow we got up the next morning and put the song down. We kept it simple, really stripped it down to the basics with a bit of vocals and a bit of guitar.” The one problem -- Blake’s proximity to a railway line.
“The trains are pretty frequent so we had to time when we were recording between trains,” says Blake. “I should have downloaded the train timetable from the internet. ‘Cause we’d record five or six minutes between each train and I know there are a couple of takes where you hear a rumble in the background!”
Blake is fascinated by Cerveris’ career path that has kept the singer’s feet straddling the disparate worlds of theatre and indie rock. “It’s an unusual background but I do think that his theatrical skills have helped him in rock and roll. You know the classic thing about actors wanting to be musicians -- but Michael can really do both.”
Cerveris’ ability to navigate two worlds has been a blessing -- and a conundrum. The son of a university music professor and a modern dancer, Cerveris grew up in West Virginia and spent his youth appearing on stage in political Bertolt Brecht plays -- and playing noisy electric guitar to Joy Division and David Bowie records. After studying acting and voice at Yale University, he landed an array of music-oriented roles, ranging from the TV series “Fame” to films like “Tokyo Pop” and “Rock And Roll High School Forever.” But that dichotomy of artistic interests eventually paid off in securing Cerveris his breakthrough gig originating the role of “Tommy” in the 1992 revival of the Who’s rock opera -- after he impressed director Des McAnuff at an audition, ripping through Bowie’s “Young Americans.” Not only did Cerveris land a major, critically-lauded role on Broadway, but he worked closely with mentor Pete Townshend on developing the role. Cerveris later performed with Townshend during the legendary guitarist's "Psychoderelict" tour. And in a memorable two-day session, he had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to record the Grammy-winning original cast album under the guidance of famed Beatles producer George Martin.
“My whole career as a musical theatre person is such a fluke,” Cerveris says. “It was never what I set out to do. But the only reason it happened, oddly, was because of rock and roll. I bet no one else went in to audition for “Tommy,” brought a guitar and played a Bowie song.”
Not surprisingly, despite a well-received run in the 1997 Tony-winning musical Titanic, Cerveris realized that he was too much an indie-rock maverick to be happy in traditional musical theatre. He jumped off the Broadway ship to go back off-Broadway, taking over for John Cameron Mitchell in what is widely considered the ultimate glam rock musical -- Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Cerveris went on to open the show in Los Angeles and in London’s West End. In between his acting gigs, his songwriting remained a constant via bands like the New York-based Lame and London-born Retriever. He played one-off gigs with the Breeders, Frank Black of the Pixies, Stone Temple Pilots and Boy George, eventually landing a gig as touring guitarist/backing vocalist on Bob Mould’s tumultuous US/UK road trip “The Last Dog and Pony Show.” He subsequently appeared on the album capturing that band’s last London gig, BobMouldBand: Live Dog 98. Cerveris made London a second home base for his music, working and recording with UK musicians like Norman Blake, fellow Teenage Fanclub member Francis MacDonald, Euros Childs of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and Retriever bandmates Alex Lutes, Mark Kulke and Dave Ledden.
Drummer Lutes flew in from London to play on “Snowbound,” perhaps the ethereal centerpiece of dog eared, recorded -- appropriately -- during New York City’s February blizzard of 2003. A song that embraces the uncertainty of the impending war with Iraq -- and Cerveris’ own emotional battles -- ”Snowbound” breathes as softly as a snowfall, pushed gently by Lutes’ sensual drumming, Lasus’ barely-there bass work, Lara Gray’s eerie accordion, and Anders Parker and Cerveris’ fragile, shuddering guitars. “Alex’s playing on the track has this slow motion march tempo,” says Cerveris. “There’s this foreboding menace under it which, for me, is life in wartime. We had this insane snowstorm and we were in this cocoon of a studio, the city was muted and there was this end-of-the-world feeling.”
“I think it’s one of the strongest songs on the record,” says Lasus. “That’s what’s interesting about Michael’s work -- the very subtle songs begin to creep into your mind with all these little hooks, drum parts and vocal melodies. They stick with you ... and I think that’s a strength he has which he might not even know about. He has a great sense of not overdoing things or trying to make it sound like things you’ve heard before. There’s not one moment of this album that has that clichéd bullshit.”
Deeply personal and passionate, dog eared has accomplished exactly what Michael Cerveris envisioned -- as he terms it -- a Band-style “Music From Big Pink” front porch experience of friends gathering to make a good album.
“It was my way of making one big alternative reality,” says Cerveris, laughing. “I have such a literal or emotional connection with all these people and it seemed as if they all belonged in the same room together ... and that room became this record.
“It was interesting writing, recording and singing these songs through some of the events that have happened in the past year,” he continues. “When we were mixing the album in Rockfield, the television in the lounge was showing the bombing in Iraq and I thought, ‘I should be responding to that.’ Why was I writing about a broken heart ‘cause some girl dumped me? But I came to the conclusion that putting heart and feeling out in the world is still a positive thing ... and maybe that’s just what I was supposed to do.”
© Kara Manning 2003