By Brad Lopez
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By Noah Hubbell
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You don't have to be serious and emo to make a record," insists Tom "Alice" Gilbert, drummer for the Maybellines. "People are happy in the world. And we're generally four really happy people."
For the past seven years, the Maybellines have done more to push their agenda of musical Pollyannaism than the Glee Club and Up With People combined. Take, for instance, A La Carte, the band's new six-song EP: Comprising songs of syrup-dunked daintiness, the disc glitters with swooning romance, the sparkle of vintage Casios and unadulterated pop innocence that makes Free to Be...You and Me sound like Black Sabbath, Vol. 4.
But there's a somber undertow that's seeped in beneath all the candy and flowers. On "Our Hearts Keep Time," Gilbert doles out a skipping beat as singer/keyboardist Julie Dorough nearly whispers, "I search a sea of faces/No familiar smiles or landscapes/Shadows casting down, and it's gray and cold in the shade/But the sun is finding its own way/Our hearts will keep time/And we'll even travel in the afterlife." The song was inspired by the cancer-related death two years ago of Julie's husband, James Bludworth, who was also a freelance photographer for Westword.
"I kept avoiding 'Our Hearts Keep Time,'" Dorough admits. "I tried to write about something else, but I just kept coming back to James. The night before we recorded the song, I was, like, ŒAll right, I've really got to work this out.' So I finally caved in and ended up writing that song in twenty minutes after struggling with it for two months."
"James was such a huge part of the band," Gilbert says. "He helped get the band together. He ran the website. He booked all of our tours. He made all of our T-shirts and took all of our photographs. He basically kept the band going. I know Julie had a lot more to deal with, but me and Mike and Dave felt a little lost. James had always defined the direction we went in."
It took nearly a decade for the Maybellines' lineup -- Gilbert, Dorough, guitarist Mike Levasseur and bassist Dave Reeves -- to come together. Gilbert originally conceived the name in the early '90s, when he was an engineering student at Virginia Tech. A graduate of the hardcore scene, his tastes had broadened since the teenage years he spent in the pit watching Corrosion of Conformity; in fact, he came up with the moniker as a tribute to the first lady of country music, Maybelline Carter of the Carter Family. Incidentally, Gilbert met Maine native Levasseur in 1995, when both were stationed in the Ivory Coast as Peace Corps volunteers -- and started an acoustic country combo called the Five Guitar Army with him.
Bludworth was the catalyst. A friend of Gilbert's from school, he tracked his old classmate down and in 1997 convinced him to relocate to Denver. Levasseur followed, and he and Gilbert became roommates. The Maybellines began soon after as a humble recording project in their basement, producing a raw demo with Levasseur on guitar and Gilbert on vocals, bass and drums -- the latter being an instrument he barely knew how to play. Once again, Bludworth triggered the next step in the group's evolution.
"We all went out to dinner one night after a Dressy Bessy show," Dorough recalls. "Al and Mike were talking about doing some recordings in the basement, and they needed someone to do backup vocals. James nominated me. So I went over there and hung out with them in the basement and just started singing. After that, Al said, 'Why don't you just sing in the band?'"
Although Dorough had never even considered being a musician before, crooning and tickling keys runs in her blood. Her uncle, Bob Dorough, is a famed jazz singer and pianist who's recorded for Blue Note and appeared on record with Miles Davis. But he's most famous for a kid-friendly style of music that, oddly enough, isn't that far from that of the Maybellines. He was one of the pens and voices behind Schoolhouse Rock, including such indelible ditties as "Three Is a Magic Number" and "Electricity."
"He was the coolest uncle you could possibly have," Dorough enthuses. "We had a piano at our house when I was growing up, and every time he came over, we'd gather around it and sing songs.
"He's one of those cool-cat jazz guys," she continues, laughing. "When he finally heard my band, he was just, like, 'Wow, that's groovy.'"
Reeves was the last to join, and he did so by much more prosaic means. "These guys put an ad in the paper," he explains. "It said 'No rock wizards.' That sounded right up my alley at the time. So many people in bands try to be too technical or crazy or whatever. These guys were the opposite of that."
Originally from Texas, Reeves had tried playing in a slew of groups upon moving to Denver in 1990 -- with little success.