I’m sitting in a room surrounded by tubes, wires and knobs. There’s a turntable for playing records, and a mixing board.
Next to me are the Ex-Bombers – 8-string bassist/vocalist Scott Walus and drummer/vocalist Keri Cousins. Somehow, I’m the fifth person outside the band to actually hear their new album. It’’s called “Five Star Night.”
As the needle on the turntable moves regularly across the grooves of the vinyl, Walus and Cousins talk about the process of recording their second full-length LP. The duo, who are also the heart of Cavetone Records have a distinct approach to recording. Walus prefers to use analog equipment and release albums on vinyl. You’re not going to find a Cavetone CD at 4th Street Records.
“Five Star Night” takes this to the next level – even the liner notes, designed to resemble a file folder/dossier, were constructed without any desktop publishing finesse. The notes were typed on a Smith-Corona typewriter. The photographs from a polaroid camera. This is also the first time the Ex-Bombers have included a lyric sheet in an album.
But the analog-iness is just lagniappe really, an added gift to the listener. The true value of “Five Star Night” is the stellar production, the sense of a band that has grown to maturity in songwriting and instrumentality, and what Walus calls “maximum minimalism.”
The album was written sequentially – the songs build upon each other, the album making sense as a whole. This isn’t a bunch of random songs thrown together. For Cousins and Walus, this was intentional. You get a sense of this from the opening sound effect (no spoilers) until the needle rises at the end of side two.
“This record is meant to be listened to by the side,” Walus said.
It took 2 1/2 years from the band’s first full-length album, “The Tightwire,” to tonight’s Release Show at Free Music Friday at Top of the Roc in Charleston, where the Ex-Bombers will perform along with the Cruddites, A.M. Radio, Monte Carlos and Carlos Danger’s Inbox.
The recording process for “Five Star Night” alone took 7 months, and another 4 months of vinyl production. The finished product shows a band in a different place in life.
“The narrative of the first one,” Walus said, “was who I was and when I was at 27. It’s dark, brooding.”
The new album is something of a touring record. The Ex-Bombers have performed over 150 shows, and “Five Star Night” is a reflection on that experience.
“It’s an absurdist version of America’s vast landscape,” Walus said. “It’s about the ups and downs of one drunken night in a city. It’s three years of interactions and moments.”
Music fans who’ve attended any of the Ex-Bombers shows over the last two years will recognize some familiar songs – “The Rock Show,” “Five Star Night,” and “Walking in Those Mary Janes,” for instance.
But if you pick up the record expecting to experience the energy of the live versions, you might be disappointed. There’s energy there, but there are subtle differences. The vocals are more prominent, there are additional instruments, layered backing vocals, and a “feel” that you can get in the studio that ties the record together.
“Nighttime music,” the Ex-Bombers called it. There’s a very noir feel to the entire thing. You won’t find an anthem or a light song of the summer. But the grooves are unmistakably catchy, and if you follow along, you’ll notice a certain sexuality to the lyrics – not the sexuality of a pop song from Nicki Minaj or Justin Timberlake, but sultry and mysterious, like a femme fatale.
“There is nothing outside of right here. What is right and what is real are much further than how they appear. The Queendom that awaits you is much more than it seems. The place we make our violence is the place we make our dreams,” – “All You Have To Do For Me Is Crawl”
The song topics range from the absurd (“SOSO”) to the personal (“Cal’s”).
“Cal’s” is a story about a Chicago music venue that is now no more.
“(“Cal’s) is so personal to us,” Cousins said. “It’s a place we played. We got engaged there.”
During the process, both musicians learned things.
Walus “learned to cut things out, to not overproduce.” Like any recording process, there were snags along the way, but “you’re at your lowest point before you find your way back up,” he said.
Cousins said she settled in to who she is as a musician, and “the consistency of dynamics” of recording. “On stage, I can fuck up a line and nobody remembers.”
The Ex-Bombers are releasing two special versions of the album – The Espionage Edition has an individually stamped and numbered label and is limited to only 100 copies. The Deluxe Edition comes with a different label, insert, and bonus 7” record.
You can pick up a copy after doors open at Free Music Friday tonight at Top of the Roc in Charleston. “Five Star Night” will be available for $10 at the show.
Doors open at 8 p.m. and you must be 21 to enter.