Though he's been part of the Kansas City, Missouri, music scene for ten years, Chad Rex has no delusions about where he and his band fit in the city's music community. "If there's an under-underground, that's where we're sitting," Rex says matter-of-factly. That could be changing soon, thanks to the release of Songs to Fix Angels, the debut from Chad Rex and the Victorstands. The disc should do much to elevate Rex's reputation in the rest of the nation, too: Angels is an astounding collection of mature, richly composed American music. The songs slip from spare acoustic numbers to scrappy blasts that forge the rawness of the Replacements with the twang and thunder of Mike Ness's Social Distortion, early Drivin' & Cryin', and the rockier side of Steve Earle.
"It's that Midwestern sound, that singer-songwriter type music," Rex says of his group's sound. "And it's not such a tight pop-rock sound, but kind of loose, almost sloppy." For Rex, the appeal of acts such as the Replacements, Wilco, Son Volt and others is their ability to pair attitudes and chops with attention to strong songs. "They might not have had the best singers, but they evoke a certain emotion," Rex says. "The lyrics are not as run-of-the-mill as the poppy stuff where the lyrics are secondary. The lyrics are the thing, and the music is really the soundtrack for them."
Rex's music and name will be familiar to some Colorado music fans. In 1997 he did a stint with Fort Collins-based Armchair Martian, serving as the band's bassist and doing shows around the state for several months; Rex appears on that band's Monsters Always Scream CD. He also played a number of instruments on Drag the River's Hoboes Demos. His connection to those bands stretches back to his childhood, when he and Armchair Martian/Drag the River member Jon Snodgrass were pals in St. Joseph, Missouri. Rex's connections with Snodgrass and his bands eventually led to the release of Angels -- the debut CD for Mars Motors Records, a new label run by Eric Flashner (owner of Rocks Off records in Fort Collins) and Snodgrass. Snodgrass says Rex and his band were chosen to be Mars Motors' first release for a simple reason: "They sound like Drag the River, only better. And Chad is the best songwriter I know."
Aveo, Bellvue, Drag the River, and Chad Rex and the Victorstands
15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street
9 p.m. Thursday, July 5
Rex's hefty songwriting skills may owe something to his high-caliber influences, particularly a couple of Midwestern songwriters. "The two Bobs," Rex says. "Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü, who pretty much got me through the '80s, and Bob Dylan, who got me through the '90s." He sites Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks as major influences. "For about three years, that was all I ever listened to, and I bought everything. Blood is like the writers' bible to me."
Songs to Fix Angels boasts cuts that reveal some stamps of both Mould (in the disc's blistering power-and-Western tunes) and Dylan (in its plaintive, unplugged numbers). All of them feature whittled-down lyrics and sticky melodies. Recorded at Kansas City's Wheeler Studio, the album's most obvious merit is a bone-dry, live-in-the-studio feel. (The sound is surprising, considering that Angels was recorded completely on Pro Tools software, a package that has earned mixed reviews among bands.) On its softer side, the recording sports Americana gems that echo the Civil War sound of the Band or Wilco, without the over-earnestness. "Tied Up to Die" is a dark little narrative wrapped in acoustic guitars, mandolins and accordions, while "Hearsay Discovered" is achy country rock mixed in with a weary chorus perfect for Rex's reedy voice. "Parting Dress" is a fading love song that fills a similar niche and sports brain-tickling lines -- "Love is blind and sometimes deaf/And sometimes won't commit," for example -- that paint fresh colors on age-old topics. And while the title of "Back to the Breakdown" makes the song seem like some weeping-in-your-heroin tale, in Rex's hands it's a rollicking yarn that makes the prospect of losing one's mind seem downright inviting.
"I hope it's not poor-me-ish," Rex says of his focus on mental anguish and dark subjects. "It could be, I guess, but I revise a lot, and I try to put an element of optimism in there. And the music doesn't sound like the Smiths."
Rex's acoustic tunes have endeared him to fans in coffeehouses and bookstores around the Kansas City area, where he's been doing solo shows for the past couple of years. But Angels sports a second dynamic that's aimed at fans of harder, plugged-in music on a handful of supreme rockers lifted to greatness by the drumming of Rex's brother, Scotty Rex, and bone-breaking tones from Rex's skilled hands. His guitar sound -- which he gets by pushing a Telecaster through a Matchless amp -- is the tone of amplified angels, what rock-and-roll guitars surely sound like in heaven. Its thick distortion takes wing on the disc's solos -- short salvos in which Rex does more in a few seconds than most guitarists do in entire sets. "Desperate and Poisoned" is kerosene-fueled heartland rock akin to Steve Earle's efforts with the Supersuckers. The song's thirteen-second guitar break has Rex launching a solo with a squeal of sheet-metal feedback before blasting through a grungy groan or two and a howling country string-bend, followed by a descending run that ends in a searing vibrato. It's thought out yet reckless, stuff worthy of repeated plays. On "Blue Memory," he hits a similar peak, slicing open a tale of crosses, hearses and skeletons with a ten-second stab of Stooges-style guitar bliss.
All in all, the disc achieves the nearly impossible task of successfully stretching from front-porch folk to glorious roots rock, a leap that few acts can pull off. Angels is an invigorating take on Americana that forges the dirt-on-the-hands realism of country with the grander merits of bar-band rock. But Rex seems a bit reluctant to brand his sound "alt-country" or anything of the sort. "I think we have a country feel every once in a while, but we're just a rock-and-roll band," Rex says of his group, which currently features guitarist Danny Smith, bassist Jason Magierowski and drummer Kyle Hudson. "I mean, I love to listen to Merle Haggard, and I love that old drinking-beer country music. But I think if I tried to do that kind of music, it would sound like I was trying. I think people are smart enough to tell who is telling the truth and who isn't. I'm a pop-rock songwriter who takes it more seriously than maybe a bar rock band normally would. And we tend to be mean about bands that are country for country's sake."
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That fact, paired with Rex's lust for crunchy but lyrically rich fare, has created something of an identity crisis for his band. Rex's loyal acoustic audience in Kansas City has shied away from seeing him in the electrified format. But his emphasis on songsmithing is helping him attract a better breed of bar patron. "In the bar scene, a lot of people don't really pay much attention to bands, but we have a lot of people pay attention to us," he says with pride. "A lot of our fans are people who like singer-songwriters, people who take their music a little more seriously."
He and his mates have gained attention at some of the Kansas City area's small venues, but so far they've not received much notice from the city's music media. But, Rex says, "I'll change that this year. For a long time we kept ourselves low-key and didn't really play out and force ourselves on other people. Which is probably why we didn't get a lot of attention before. I'm taking it all a lot more seriously now. It seems like I'm almost starting out all over again the last year, trying to get everything focused on the business part of things, which I never liked to do before."
The reasons for the more focused effort? "None of us are getting any younger," Rex notes. "And the more and more I've done other types of work, I've realized this is how I want to make some sort of living, even if it's a meager one. And I've realized, in a non-egotistical way, that I could probably get away with this. I think I can actually write a song now and not have to think about it and know what I'm doing. It's easier and what I enjoy doing. It's the only thing I enjoy doing other than fishing. And I don't think I can make any money off of fishing."
This week, Rex and the Victorstands will be earning a little money playing along the Front Range of Colorado, with dates in Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. The trip to Colorado will put Rex on familiar turf and serve as proof that he's taking himself and his music more seriously. "I've just matured, and I've got a better head on my shoulders now. I can look at things more clearly and not just screw around and hang out and go, 'Yeah, I write songs,' and not really know anything about it. Other people around me are growing up, so I need to do a little bit of that. Because I want to be proud of what I do."