Saturday, September 10, 2011

River City Rebels

This is a story of a band doing something that I personally find courageous, which is to stay true to itself even in the face of overwhelming commercial failure. The River City Rebels followed their own muse and ended up at a point they probably could never have predicted when they started the journey.

Looking back from here, it's hard to believe that journey started with an album called Racism, Religion, and War (2000). The lack of subtlety in the title is carried through in the music - it's fairly generic Oi-derived punk with a 3rd wave ska horn section that only slightly raises it above a thousand other bands of this ilk. By their very next album a year later the band was already expanding on that sound, and by their third album, No Good, No Time, No Pride (2002), they'd taken that tack as far as it could go. Many consider this the band's apex - and if your preference is for buzzsaw energy with gang chant choruses you could do far worse than tracking down a copy of this album - but for me this is when the band finally starts to get interesting.

It took two years for them to return with Hate To Be Loved (2004), which represents an enormous turning point. The album was produced by Sylvain Sylvain (of personal faves the New York Dolls), and it's as if he sat the boys down and explained the deep rhythm & blues roots of punk rock to them. It sounds like a lightbulb suddenly flickered to life, because as much as the album maintains the gang chants and punk spirit of past songs, it also possesses a much more varied sonic palette. A song like "Glitter and Gold" could have been played by the Dolls themselves (and the album's version of R&B chestnut "Don't Mess With Cupid" actually was). Beyond that glam rocker there were ballads and straight up rock 'n' roll, a grab bag of genres spilling out amid the more familiar Rebel moves. The band handicapped themselves by equipping the record with puerile cover art, and the fans of their first three albums were probably in an outrage over a perceived sell-out - but Hate To Be Loved was the sound of a band finally recognizing its own path.

Three years later they appeared with Keepsake of Luck, and to say it was a bold departure is something of an understatement. It was a quantum leap forward. Its reach far wider than anyone - maybe even the band themselves - might have anticipated, incorporating a rootsy Springsteen/Van Morrison influence that opened the Rebels to strains of both soul and folk. At the same time, there's a new-found sincerity in Dan O' Day's vocals that evoke the softer side of the Clash, a band with a similar (if grander and more dramatic) growth towards diversity and eclecticism. Despite of - or maybe because of - the wide range of musical influences, this is where the River City Rebels actually forge their own unique sound.  The album is a monster at 16 songs, and while not all of them rise above their derivations enough of them do to make this the band's crowning achievement.

Tragically and predictably, Keepsake of Luck was soundly ignored by almost everybody. By the time of the next album, 2008's In Love/Loveless, the band was down to its two core members, Dan O' Day and Brandon Rainer. Somewhat surprisingly, the River City Rebels continued to push their sound forward. Sonically, there's almost no trace of their punk past here, but instead there are echoes of practically every strain of American music this side of country & western.

O' Day and Rainer reconvened again in 2010 with Done With Love. Perhaps more reflective and introspective than any of their previous efforts, it still sounds far from defeated. Conveniently, perhaps symbolically, this album appeared almost exactly a decade after their first. Those ten years, hard fought and most likely filled with frustration, manifest themselves in the depth of the music, while tracks like "Gone Forever" and "Here Today, Dead Tomorrow" suggest this may be the end of the journey. Let's hope not.

1. Religion
2. Gotta Get It
3. Aborted
4. I'm So Vain
5. Dreamy 17
6. Glitter and Gold
7. Nothing Makes You Hard
8. All The Flowers
9. Sick Kids
10. I've Seen
11. Bright Rays
12. It's Still There Now, Dear
13. Josie
14. One Sheet
15. One More Dance

Track 1 from Racism, Religion, and War (2000)
Track 2 from Playing to Live, Living to Play (2001)
Track 3 from No Good, No Time, No Pride (2002)
Tracks 4, 5, 6 from Hate To Be Loved (2004)
Tracks 7 - 11 from Keepsake of Luck (2007)
Tracks 12, 13 from In Love/Loveless (2008)
Tracks 14, 15 from Done With Love (2010)


biopunk said...

Thanks Ray!

Your overviews remind me of the band "profiles" that used to be a staple of Brave New Waves on the old CBC Stereo. Cheers for that!

Anonymous said...

This is Dan O'Day. Thanks for the love

Roy Pearl said...

Thanks for the note, Dan - and thanks for the great music over the years as well! Are there any further projects to hope for - either from the River City Rebels or solo or something entirely different?

Anonymous said...


there is a rebels 7" due out in the new year as well as a new project called Union Gun of '62. The band is made up of myself, Brandon (rcr) on keys, Chris J (original RCR bass player on Drums), my brother and Current RCR bass player JV. Debut album should be done by late feb. I i will make sure you get a copy.


Roy Pearl said...

Awesome news - I can't wait to hear both! And don't let Brandon put down the horns - I love that aspect of RCR ;)

Best of luck with UG'62 (great name, btw)!