With his full head of spiky hair, rail-thin frame and unflagging enthusiasm for playing music, John Freeman looks as if he has not aged 15 days in the 15 years since his pop/punk band the Magnolias last put out a record. Fortunately for him, though, the indie music world underwent a major facelift.
"In 1997, bands were still beholden to record labels," the 47-year-old Twin Cities native said. "Now look at us."
Always billed as the junior band to the Replacements, Soul Asylum and other artists on the fabled local Twin/Tone label -- a distinction Freeman said he wore proudly -- the Magnolias are now one of the more senior bands still kicking around the Twin Cities scene.
Last month, the singer and a hodgepodge lineup of bandmates from different eras finally issued a new Magnolias record, "Pop the Lock," which they are promoting with a release party Saturday at the Ritz Theater. Loud, dirty, spazzy, squawky and loaded with sharp pop hooks, the album sounds remarkably like the Magnolias of 1997 or 1987. Which is absolutely a compliment.
Only the Magnolias of 2012, however, could have gotten away with making the disc the way Freeman wanted to, using classic (and pricier) analog recording equipment, a reputable local producer (Mike Wisti) and no record label. They did it thanks to Kickstarter.com, the online donation site that has funded many a young band's record of late -- and now some not-so-young bands, too.
"It's really the first Magnolias record to be made all on our own, which felt pretty liberating and exciting," Freeman said, taking a break last week during their weekly rehearsal at a northeast Minneapolis space. Lined with Kiss posters and nudie-magazine cutouts, the hovel workspace is shared with Dumpster Juice and guitarist Mike Leonard's other band, the Red Flags.
Leonard is the one who remembered the "final" Magnolias show at the Turf Club in 1997, which he said was "pretty much a joke" since it somehow took place without the band's frontman. The writer of all but one of the Magnolias' songs before "Pop the Lock" (which features two fit-like-a-glove tunes by Leonard), Freeman had cut out for a getaway to Italy.
"We hit a real rough patch where we lost our record label, booking agent and manager all close together, and I was just so frustrated with the whole thing," the singer said. "I wanted nothing to do with the Magnolias."
That's a sharp contrast to Freeman's fond memory of opening a sold-out Fleshtones gig their first time in Boston in 1986 "and the place just going ballistic for us." The band went on to earn radio play and even MTV attention for its singles "Pardon Me" and "When I'm Not." I can personally vouch for them having a good following in Austin, Texas. Their base grew strong in Europe, too, after Virgin France released their 1992 record "Off the Hook."
It was an invitation to tour Europe in 2008 that started the Magnolias down the path to a more permanent revival. The tour wasn't exactly a high-roller affair -- comparisons to the recent hit documentary on metal Anvil abound -- but it convinced Freeman to do more than the couple local gigs a year that the band played for much of the '00s.
"It was just a lot of fun," he said. "That was the problem in 1997: It had stopped becoming fun."
Along with Leonard, who first became a Magnolia in the early '90s, the lineup is now rounded out by bassist Kyle Killorin (from the late-'80s Mags lineup) and drummer Pat McKenna, who backed Freeman in his post-Mags groups, the Pushbacks and Action Alert.
Some of the songs on "Pop the Lock" started with Freeman's other bands, including the disenchanted opening track "American Dream" and another brick-chopping rocker, "Neighborhood Patrol." But about half the record was written in the past year with the new album and lineup in mind. "At a Disadvantage" is a more somber gem with a 12-string/Byrdsian jangle, and "Kissing the Ground You're On" bursts with the thrill of traveling abroad.
Despite the 15-year holdout, Freeman admits that the new Magnolias might be as unchanged sonically as he is ageless in appearance.
"It's pretty much my thing all over again," said Freeman. "What am I going to do? Add cello or synthesizers?"
Howler at last
From 47-year-olds using fan support to make albums to 19-year-olds doing it with one of England’s most fabled indie labels of all time …
After months of international buildup and a couple weeks or so of actually being recognized in their hometown, the young, baby-faced Minneapolis kids in Howler finally have a full-length album to show for all the hoopla. “America Give Up” arrives in stores Tuesday via Rough Trade Records, and the local release party is Saturday at the Triple Rock (10 p.m., $8, and still not sold out at press time).
So how close does the record come to living up to the hype? Close enough. Dare it be said the dueling, snaky, wiry guitar parts are more impressive than those on the Strokes’ “Is This It” (to which this debut is being compared)? Especially scorching are the as-yet-unheard songs “Pythagorean Fearem” and the surf-rocky opener “Beach Sluts.” Meanwhile, “Back of Your Neck” and “Told You Once” — the latter from the prior EP — show off whippersnapper frontman Jordan Gatesmith’s whip-smart writing style, with clever word twists and classic melodies.
The record’s one big shortcoming is Gatesmith’s rather puny voice. A guitarist by trade, he sounds as if he’s still growing into his rock-frontman vocals throughout much of the album. He starts off with a forced-sounding husky tone in “This One’s Different” and comes off like a post-pubescent version of the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Jim Reid in “Too Much Blood.” This will be easy enough to remedy as the band hits the road right after Saturday’s show: Just turn up those beautiful guitars.
One of the more promising new dance-rock bands of late, Still Pacific takes over the Hexagon Bar on Friday to tout a new Jacques Wait-produced 7-inch single. The quartet is new, but its members are no spring chickens: It features longtime Northern Lights record-store geek Brad Weller and his wife, Tracy Tayberry-Weller, channeling vintage synth-pop à la Depeche Mode and Information Society. Not so coincidentally, InSoc’s Paul Robb will DJ the show (10 p.m., free.) ... Mint Condition was in Atlanta last weekend performing alongside honorees Earth, Wind & Fire at the Trumpet Awards (for African-American achievement). Next Friday, the band plays a hometown gig at the Fine Line. ... The Jayhawks will play their first local theater gig since reuniting Feb. 18 at the State. ...
Cinemaphile musician Jeremy Messersmith is hosting Wednesday’s installment of “The Defenders” at Trylon Microcinema, a “secret film” series where the guest picks an unsung flick. Details at www.Take-Up.org. Next month’s host is Keri Noble. ... Rapper Nicky May plans to help a cause unfortunately close to his family, the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance, with an upcoming album as well as his show Thursday at Hell’s Kitchen (10 p.m., $5). ... The date of this year’s Record Store Day was wrong in last week’s column. It lands April 21. ...
Music fans headed to St. Paul for the big Red Bull Crashed Ice giant skate-slide competition can catch a free DEMO showcase afterward on Friday night at Wild Tymes’ Palace stage with Cooker John, As It Is, Hillary Howard and Duluth’s Gallus (8 p.m. start). And if you aren’t going to that crazy Red Bull thing, check your pulse.
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