These days, John Common is pretty happy. During the past year or so, his band, Rainville, has become widely regarded as one of the more thrilling additions to the Denver scene. Along the way, he's kept refining his approach to a wholly American songwriting style that echoes the best aspects of heartland rock. Still, Common has a problem: Rainville's collective appearance -- more frat-boy fashion than rock and roll -- has created an image crisis of sorts.
"They remind me of the Archies," says Common's new girlfriend, Terri Hannifan, as he laughs out loud. "But I really mean that in a good way. It's because they look kind of clean-cut like the Archies. But their music isn't clean-cut, and their songs are just so appealing." However, when Common recovers from the giggles, he offers a serious defense of his band's dress code. "Looks can be deceiving, and you don't have to look a certain way," he says. "You just go play. Frankly, I look at some of the bands around here and think, 'I wish you would have spent as much time on your fucking songs as you did on your outfits.'"
Common is equally testy when defending his band's approach, something "progressives" might view as a stern resistance to change or an inability to invent. But Common sees virtue in the band's steadfast embrace of well-worn influences.
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"I'm working on a new song," he says, "called 'Sad But True.' And what the song is about is, it's a sad fact that there ain't much new under the sun. But the good thing is that it's true. The truth is that I'm probably not going to come up with anything real innovative. So you're not going to sit there and say, 'I've never heard anything like this in my life before.' But, if I'm honest, then I'm going to come up with my own version of cornerstone rock. You're probably going to say, 'Boy, I hear strains of Tom Petty, and I hear a Bruce Springsteen ending and a Neil Young solo and a Tom Waits lyric.' But those guys never play together, and they're not in the same band. But they're all in our band."
Indeed, all of those elements are found on Rainville's debut, Collecting Empties. Released last fall, the recording (which includes the playing of drummer Steve Richards, bassist Matt Sumner and keyboardist Gary Brudos) is one of the best local recordings of the past five years, a debut of impressive proportions. It achieves the difficult task of weaving the aforementioned influences into a cohesive whole that should appeal to fans of breadbasket rock and the weary twang and roll created by the best of the alternative No Depression acts.
Collecting Empties covers several rootsy styles without sounding forced, overarching or self-indulgent. And during those rare moments when the band misses its mark, the players make up for it with biting lyrics and an adult sense of songsmithing and arrangement. "Lonely Everywhere" is a wonderful loser's anthem ("I'm just drunk enough to be driving/I'm just stoned enough to be sinking") with Brudos's Waits-y piano fills and Common's inside-out strumming. "Broken Flower" is a gooey tune of the Whiskeytown/Wallflowers sort; "Nothing in My Hat" is a delicious, raggedy-man lurch with dynamics that rise from hushed choruses to stumbling guitar breaks.
Other bright spots on the disc include the Crazy Horse creep of "Convenience Store Killer," the pedal-steeled slo-core of "Windows," and "Another Star," a radio-friendly anthem with an infectious, pass-me-another-beer chorus. "Trains" features the tasteful playing of Sumner and Richards (one of the better rhythm sections in town) against Common's earnest pleas for an anywhere-but-here address; the tune ends with, yes, a perfect Born to Run-era Springsteen finale. Closing out the CD is the absinthe jazz of "Evil Moon"; decorated by Common's charming, locally specific lyrical references ("Those bastards at the Satire, they don't take my checks"), it stars a paranoid protagonist who plays guitar in the tub at night while attempting to drink a stalking moon out of sight. It's dark, delicious stuff -- a long, long way from Archie, Jughead or anything ever heard in Riverdale.
"That album was a fairly dark little number," Common says. "Collecting Empties came from an unpleasant series of years." He says the bulk of the songs were penned during a transitional period when he left his hometown of Pensacola, Florida, to travel the nation, playing music on street corners on the way. "It was awful; I do not recommend it," Common says of his stints in the New York City subways and other places. After a few months in New York, Common busked in Vermont before relocating to Kansas, where he worked a wheat harvest before arriving in Denver in 1996. In 1998 he traded the role of singer-songwriter for bandleader after recruiting Richards and Sumner.
Last year, just before Rainville's CD release party for Empties, keyboard player Gary Brudos left the band, citing differences between where he wanted to go musically and what the band was doing. His departure put the group in a serious quandary: How do you replace a player whose work is an integral part your sound? "We were concerned, of course, and wondered how we were going to do this," Common recalls. "But we showed up at the next gig as a three-piece and went for it, and it was fine."
At a recent performance at the Soiled Dove, Rainville was in full-on guitar mode, rolling through a set of Empties originals, newer compositions and a straightforward replica of Neil Young's "Powder Finger." With the recent addition of Paul Childs on guitar, the band has been moving toward a slightly heavier sound: Its older songs are now keyboard-free, with room for extra solos and stretched-out improvisational sections. The lack of keyboards may come as a bit of a disappointment to those in love with Empties, and the group's new approach does lack some of the textural variations of that recording. But Common and his pals are happy with the sonic shift. "People say we're rawer and sparser these days," he notes. "And when you're playing live in some bar and it's dark outside and you've had a couple beers, that distortion pedal is very tempting. Sometimes you just have to throw down, and it seems like those times are increasing."
"I'm not a good guitar player," Common says, "and I don't think of myself as a guitar player. I'm a songwriter." Rainville fans will disagree with that modest assessment, as Common's gifts as a guitarist include a warm, muscular tone and smart playing that slips from tasteful to dissonant and that's peppered with unexpected turns. "I love Marc Ribot's playing," Common says, referring to the guitarist who has added doses of danger to discs by Waits and Elvis Costello. "I like guitar parts that are really angular and oblique, that make you turn your head and go, 'Huh?'"
Rainville is now assembling songs for a second release; the band is recording in-house, as it did for the debut disc. (Empties is available in area stores and through the band's Web site, rainvillemusic.com. It's also available through alt-country e-tailer milesofmusic.com, which has helped the band move over 12,000 copies.) The second disc, Common says, will sport a slightly sunnier sound. "I don't think we're ever going to get out of Rainville," Common says, "but times are good, and I think that's finally starting to bleed through." The upcoming CD, he adds, will feature more songs "about driving away, but there will also be songs about having the balls to stay. To me, staying is way harder."
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Beginning November 2, Common and his bandmates will be spending every Tuesday night at Denver's Cafe Cero, where they'll serve as hosts and facilitators of Nude Music Tuesdays, a new event designed for fellow singer-songwriters itching to play their own new material with other musicians. (Players interested in participating should contact the band through its Web site.) There are a number of area players, Common says, "like myself, who are in bands and playing out, but we have a whole set of songs that we don't play. And we want to throw them out and see what happens. And there's that group of people who you see and want to play with." The Tuesday night get-togethers are scheduled through November and may extend further if they are successful. Common hopes the evenings take root. "It's about music; it's about songs," he says enthusiastically.
Meanwhile, Rainville will continue to foster its own sense of musical community. Staying the course there, Common notes, is easy. "Is there a choice?" he asks. "If you believe that good art comes from honesty and is the most important thing you can do, the main thing you have to do is be yourself. And for me, this person makes this kind of music. I'm not going to go play stuff that doesn't resonate with me.
"There are a lot of people," he adds, "who try really hard to be original. And I feel sorry for those people. People who are trying to be original are usually not trying to be themselves, right? So listen to your records, listen to what makes you feel good, and write a fuckin' song. Tell a story and let it be whatever it is. You don't have to dress it up in vinyl and run it through 'two turntables and a microphone.' It all goes back to your whole organizing principle, and why you grab a guitar in the first place. If it starts with the idea that you can only be one person, then that sets you down a certain path. But if you believe in some chameleon theory, well, I don't want to hear your album. I'm not going to believe it."