In the spring of 1995 my wife and I got our first place together. Well, technically she wasn’t my wife at that point. In 1995 we were still just dating so this new place would be us living in dirty, filthy sin. And to add a little to that, we’d been living with my parents before that but that’s for another day. We were engaged, so the intent for marriage was there.
She’d been pushing me to get an apartment, but if you grew up in my house paying rent was just throwing money away. You saved for a down payment and you bought a house. That’s how you did things. Of course, my parents were an anomaly and not everyone bought a place at 18-years old. Or in our case, 21-years old.
But by February of 1995 we were both ready to be on our own and give my parents a little space. We were both working full-time jobs at the same company and both of us had our own vehicles, she a 1991 Honda Civic Hatchback and me a 1994 Nissan Pick-Up. We were ready for the next step: rent.
We looked at a couple different apartments but decided on Orchard Ridge. It was a reasonably new apartment complex in town, with one car garages you could rent for $50 a month, a party room and an in-ground pool. It was right near the highway, but back enough in a rather wooded area that you felt secluded. Our place was on the second floor with one bedroom, washer/dryer, and a living/dining room combo. For two 21-year olds fresh out of my parents house it felt like, in the immortal words of William Wallace, “FREEDOM”.
As full grown adults that shopped for groceries, paid rent, and laundered our own underwear, we enjoyed the little things. Like on weekends heading to Mishawaka for dinner and a movie. Or hitting Best Buy to buy music and videocassettes. When we’d hit Mishawaka we’d always stop at this used CD place across from Kohls on Grape Rd. For the life of me I can’t remember what it was called, but I found a hell of a lot of CDs there. On one particular weekend trip I bought The Grays’ Ro Sham Bo.
I got to the Grays via Jellyfish. I discovered the California power pop band in high school thanks to an ultra cool and retro video for the song “The King Is Half-Undressed”. On Christmas 1990 I received their debut album Bellybutton and I was hooked. They locked into both Zombies and XTC vibes, with plenty of hooks, melodies, and irreverent humor. Everyone in the band could play multiple instruments and could write amazing songs. How do the Grays fit into the Jellyfish equation? Their guitarist, Jason Falkner, was in the Grays. More on that below.
The Grays were a supergroup which consisted of four insanely talented musicians/songwriters that honestly not too many people knew of outside of the L.A. power pop scene. The band was Jason Falkner, Jon Brion, Buddy Judge, and Dan McCarroll. I know, you’re thinking “Who?”. Falkner got his start in the power pop band Jellyfish. Brion, ironically enough, had taken over guitar duties for Falkner when he left Jellyfish and played on the band’s last album Spilt Milk. Of course Brion has gone on to be a rather prolific film composer and producer, but at the time of The Grays he was still a relative unknown. Judge and McCarroll? I have no idea where they came from, but for them to keep up with Falkner and Brion they had to be damn good.
Jason Falkner felt rather underused in Jellyfish with Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning fighting for supremacy in the songwriting department. He left the band on bad terms and vowed never to be in a band again, just work as a solo artist and make music the way he wanted to make it. But as fate would have it his girlfriend happened to be playing a mixtape at a coffeeshop where she worked that he made for her. It was a good chunk of Zombie’s Odessey and Oracle and The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society, which completely blew away customer Jon Brion. This led to Brion and Falkner meeting, jamming, and next thing you know these cats are signed to Epic Records.
The band was supposed to be a band of four equals, with each getting the same amount of tracks on the album. No one person as front man. Of course this didn’t work. The producer, the legendary Jack Joseph Puig was partial to Falkner’s songs and voice, so he got one more song on the album than the rest of the guys. Egos clashed, feelings hurt, and the band disbanded.
Falkner and Brion did quite well regardless. Falkner went on to a pretty great solo career with solid albums, as well as a side project called TV Eyes with Brian Reitzell and Roger Manning(old pal from Jellyfish.) He also performed and produced two childrens albums of Beatles covers for Sony Music Group called Bedtime With The Beatles 1 and 2(we bought 1 for our kids when they were little…it’s fantastic.) Brion, well he’s scored countless amazing films for Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman, Adam McKay, Judd Apatow, and Greta Gerwig to name a few. He’s also produced for artists like Fiona Apple, Kanye West, Spoon, Keane, Mac Miller, Dido, of Montreal, and Rufus Wainwright. His solo album Meaningless is extraordinary, too.
As far as Buddy Judge and Dan McCarroll, I don’t know. I’m sure they’re good, though(I guess Dan McCarroll was the former president of Warner Brothers Records, so yeah, I think he’s good.)
Despite all the in-fighting and ego clashing, The Grays made an outstanding record. Ro Sham Bo, for me, is the quintessential power pop album. But it’s got some teeth. It’s not twee or precious, it’s a record that pulls from both classic reference points and, for the time, more modern indie vibes. There’s a groove and an edge to the tracks, with an undercurrent of psychedelia. Jason Falkner, on reflecting on the album 25 years later, felt it could’ve been far more psychedelic and weird. But producer Jack Puig mixed it as a more straightforward, “classic rock” album.
Regardless, Ro Sham Bo feels and sounds like an album locked in some inter-dimensional time capsule made by superior beings well versed in melody, hook-driven rock. The McCartney-esque bass lines and groove-heavy drums form a foundation on which the band builds these melancholy rock songs on. There’s nothing standard here. It’s all otherworldly and forward-thinking, yet so catchy and melodic. It’s a warm album. The kind you can crawl into and get lost for it’s entire run time.
There’s not a bad song on here. It’s a damn near perfect record. “Very Best Years”, “Everybody’s World”, “Same Thing”, “Nothing Between Us”, “Spooky”, “All You Wanted”, and “No One Can Hurt Me” were classics from the get go. They feel so familiar, yet so unique and alien at the same time. “Very Best Years” had a video, which I guess got some airplay on Beavis and Butthead. I didn’t have cable so I never watched Beavis and Butthead till years later.
“Very Best Years” was the last song to go on the album, and the one extra Falkner track that gave him the edge over the other guys in regards to the amount of tracks that made it on the record. To be fair, it’s a damn good song and a hell of a way to open the album on. For me, though, Brion had my two favorite tracks on the record, “Same Thing” and “Nothing Between Us”. Both of those songs are catchy as hell while still being quite unique. “Same Thing” has Brion’s signature jangle guitar that captures Revolver-era Beatles and 70s AM pop. “Nothing Between Us” is a gorgeous ballad that has touches of Eric Carmen, Todd Rundgren, and early Smithereens. It’s another case of something feeling so familiar yet so alien.
Ro Sham Bo was one of those albums that I listened to often at night in the apartment. My wife worked 2nd shift while I worked days. I’d come home, pick up the place, have dinner and a beer, and then play music while I’d sit on the porch and stare out into the evening. I was still pretty green in regards to writing and recording my own music, and The Grays were a huge influence on my songwriting. Along with Adrian Belew’s Here and the Kinks Something Else, Ro Sham Bo pushed me to want to make pop music with heft and musicality. I can’t listen to The Grays without thinking of that apartment and the lights that glowed at night over by the community pool I’d never end up swimming in. Hearing conversations in the distance with “Spooky”, “Everybody’s World”, and “Oh Well Maybe” humming in the background.
1995 was a big year for me in regards to musical discoveries. 1995 was also the year of Orchard Ridge Apartments, recording songs quietly on a 4-track recorder with headphones, drinking Bud Dry, and smoking cheap liquor store cigars on the deck. There’s more stories to come.
To be continued.