Sunday, May 6, 2012

Age Rings find a little less is a lot more on ‘Black Honey’

Upon first listen to “Black Honey’’ from Boston’s Age Rings - and let’s get out of the way right off the top that you should listen to it - you might be taken aback at the album’s breadth of song styles. It shifts seamlessly from the bar-rock and chunky-piano riffing of “Important Guy’’ to the Pixies-ish bass-buzz and fuzz of “Rock and Roll Is Dead,’’ to the schizophrenic screaming of “Lemonade,’’ with detours into a looping, loping, Beck-ian drawl, and wounded balladry that would make Conor Oberst weep. It’s like listening to two entire albums worth of material at once.

Actually, that’s pretty much what’s going on here. The band’s second album, coming after a lengthy wait since its debut, 2006’s “Look . . . the Dusk Is Growing,’’ was originally self-released as a double record earlier this year. After Age Rings principal Ted Billings passed off a copy to Cameron Keiber, of Boston indie favorites the Beatings, he decided to re-release “Black Honey’’ on his label Midriff Records. One catch though: They would need to shave the record down to a more manageable length.
At first the idea seemed strange to Billings, 29, who’d spent the past few years working on the songs off and on, going through multiple band lineup changes, and more than a few changes of heart about whether or not any of it was even worth it.

“It kind of felt a little strange because I spent so much time on the order of it, making it work as a sort of a loose story,’’ he says of the double album. “After we made the cuts and rearranged it, I felt kind of foolish, it was like, ‘Why didn’t I do that before?’ I thought this was a statement thing, everything has to be in its right place, but listening to the new one, I just kind of laugh at myself for doing that.’’
Billings admits it was a lesson in learning to take advice from outside, and dealing with the business side of the music business. “It’s the first time we’ve worked with a label, so yeah, the whole process, it’s the first time we signed paperwork, worked with licensing companies, and all that stuff I never knew anything about. Working with [Midriff], it’s a huge learning experience.’’

Another learning experience for Billings, a Hanover native who lives in Quincy, was watching so many members of the band drift in and out over the years. That played a role in the delay between records.

“We had to kind of do it in little legs,’’ Billings says of the recordings with Jack Younger at Watch City Studios in Waltham. “So we could afford it, most importantly, also just so we wouldn’t go mental trying to do 22 songs in a row.’’ Prior to the record’s original release, they experimented with doing online single releases to try to drum up interest, which Billings found discouraging. That, coupled with some personal life unhappiness, and some band members being involved in a live theater production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,’’ put things on hold. “We were like, ‘Let’s just stop.’ ’’

“Then like a year and a half after I started thinking about it again. I was like, ‘Wow we’ve got all these songs, what if I just finished it? No one likes to have things hanging around like that. Let’s put it out and see what happens.’ ’’

What happened were songs like “Lemonade,’’ with its screaming punk vibe contrasted with a carefree-sounding piano, or “Explode Me’’ a creepy, downtrodden song with sweetening backup harmonies. Mixing and matching disparate genres and tones is part of Billings’s writing style, he says. “I think you take essentially two or three kinds of totally different ideas, like three balloons each filled with different colors, and chuck them at a white wall. That’s how I look at a song like that; you kind of cram stuff together that doesn’t necessarily make sense.’’

Perhaps the best song on the album, “Rock and Roll Is Dead’’ details Billings’s travails slugging it out in an indie band. It’s a wry sketch of a day in the life of a Boston rocker, with the memorable, anti-pep talk lyric: “Steven Tyler and Freddie Mercury they said this to me, ‘Quit while you’re behind, because there’s a cover band making money at any time. You could be living the high life.’ ’’
That’s exactly how it feels at times, Billings says. “I haven’t figured out the magic code or whatever to get bigger and to reach more people. I think about it a lot. I don’t necessarily do anything to change it, I just keep writing. I’m not going to pander to anything to get bigger. . . . I think art, especially writing music, is just too kind of important to me to do it any different than I have been.’’

Plus, he says, returning back to the song, he just thought “it was funny, kind of a young kid that is psyched about something and one of his idols, his rock hero says, ‘Don’t bother. Go start a cover band and . . . make some money, start a family.’ ’’

It’s good news for all that he hasn’t yet.

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