The band strips down and finds itself on "The Secret Will Keep You."
Lafayette's Brass Bed has received critical love for its new album, The Secret Will Keep You. At NPR.org, Robin Hilton wrote, "life is an endlessly baffling ride, and the best we can hope for are pleasant surprises along the way. The Secret Will Keep You is one of them." John Donahue of The New Yorker wrote, "the record arrives as a bracing (if a bit scratchy and fuzzy) take on growing older. The good news is that in the searching there is a great deal of pleasure." Spin.com previewed the album, writing:
Louisiana quartet Brass Bed may have a slightly bleak outlook -"Your dream job, your dream girl, your dream you," reads the band's bio, "[are] really all just that: dreams" - but they do a great job of dressing up all that depression in some beautiful pop songcraft.
Mark Lore reviewed the album for Paste.com, writing:
Good songs never go out of style, and the Louisiana quartet have put together a collection of delectable pop nosh with enough ear candy to seep its way into the pleasure center of even the most finicky listeners.
So what does all that acclaim actually do for a band?
"What your hoping it will do is get you more opportunities like opening for national acts, getting you that one show at a bigger place in the city where nobody's heard of you," says Jonny Campos, guitarist for Brass Bed, who play Gasa Gasa tonight. "You can put down the NPR card, the New Yorker card and they're like, 'Oh, okay. Maybe we should consider these guys.'"
Brass Bed has been a consistently interesting indie rock band since the release of Midnight Matinee in 2008, but its influences were often a little too evident in their material. The album is obviously the product of Flaming Lips fans--a point Campos readily concedes. "Clouds Taste Metallic was our North Star on that one," he says, and between then and now, the band tended to say yes to ideas without considering how they defined or obscured Brass Bed's identity.
They recorded 2010's Melt White on ProTools, layering idea after idea, part after part on to the songs, creating an album that is sonically dense and compelling, but one that also confused fans trying to reconcile the recorded lushness with the more direct live band. Then the band was one half of The Color Sessions, a 2011 split EP with Cajun band Feufollet, with whom Brass Bed shared a keyboard player. For it, Feufollet covered two Brass Bed songs and Brass Bed played two Feufollet songs. Campos deliberately didn't know the originals and didn't listen to them before he cut his parts. Instead, he went into the studio wondering, "What would they sound like if Gang of Four tried to play French songs?" A night of bands playing songs by Harry Nilsson turned into On Nilsson, an EP recorded with Allison Bohl - a cool project, but one that furthered the impression that Brass Bed was trying to hone in on what it is by examining what other musicians had done and how it might relate to the band.
Brass Bed might have continued to slowly stalk its own sound - "We like Big Star. We like their story - slow and steady," Campos says - but change was hastened when bandmember Jacques Doucet lost interest in a road life that still involved driving through the night, $10 paydays, sleeping on floors and food-free stretches. The remaining members - Campos, Christian Maader, Peter DeHart and Andrew Toups (who departed as well after the album was completed) - decided to continue a man down, and they quickly heard how the newfound space in their songs was good for them. "We started listening to each other better," Campos says.
Brass Bed decided to cut its next album, The Secret Will Keep You, old school, on tape instead of digitally. To prepare for the sessions, the band started writing and rehearsing eight or so months before they were slated to go in the studio. They recorded 20 songs on their iPhones, decided some didn't fit and discarded them, listened more, decided another couple didn't fit, and continued until they were down to an economical 10 songs that finishes in a tidy 40 minutes. They had said "yes" to most musical and conceptual ideas in the past, but for The Secret Will Keep You, "we decided to have more borders and guidelines," Campos says. They honed the arrangements to flesh out the songs as fully as possible while sounding like a four-piece band, learning the lesson from fans confused by Melt White. "We played the songs over and over. We played the songs at half-speed to make sure nothing was stepping on each others' toes. We pored over lyrics. We pored over backing vocals. We pored over every detail so that when we got to the studio, we could execute."
Their experimental side was limited to the production side, where they tried out old school outboard effects, nothing made after 1974. "We were trying to hit as much '70s sound as possible," Campos says. "The albums we were going off of were Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Those were our north stars. They could get brutal; they could get delicate and soft. That's the palate we wanted to choose from."
In the studio, they cut the songs as live as possible, and had to make peace with the constraints posed by tape. If someone blew a note or a line for an album cut on ProTools, that part could be corrected, but tape required another take to address mistakes. Vibe came to outweigh precision. "Was the feeling there? Yes, then that's it until the end of time," Campos says.
The resulting album owes a lot to classic power pop, certainly on "I'll Be There with Bells On" and "How to Live in a Bad Dream." They're clear, urgent songs that catch immediately. Whatever musical ornamentation exists does so to focus the listener, such as the harmonies on "Back and Forth" that surround the chorus in hearts and flowers before the bridge stomps on everything like Godzilla. But the musical palate on The Secret Will Keep You is broader than that. The album has earned the band comparisons to Wilco, but that's more for the album's dynamic range. Instead of hearing the band's record collection on The Secret Will Keep You, you hear a distinctive band with broad pop roots.
Much has been made of the album's lyrical bleakness, which came from a moment of uncertainty. One band member left, another was married, and they were all pushing 30. When does rolling around the country in a van steeping in dude sweat become ridiculous? When does your dream become another stick to beat you with? "It came from questioning," Campos says. "Maybe this isn't the right thing to do. But a lot of great material came out of it."
That tension between pop's instinctive uplift and the anxiety that Brass Bed's moment slipped away gives The Secret Will Keep You resonance. Now the challenge is getting it heard, which largely means touring right now. In the spring, they had a good East Coast tour with Generationals (" They're some streamlined pop guru guys," Campos says), and they're getting ready to go west. One song from Melt White ended up on Target commercial and another showed up in a Tony Hawk videogame - two paydays that helped finance the album - and while that sort of exposure is hard to engineer, it's valuable. They hope for better, smarter tours, but there's only so much they can do about that as well.
"All of this coverage for the record," Campos says, returning to the start of our conversation. "It's 30 percent more validation that this isn't a pipe dream. [The album] is not just our Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes; it's not a lottery ticket."