Let's begin with a stubborn rumor: The Glands' first album, 1997's Double Thriller, was so titled (the story goes) because the console upon which it was mixed was also used for Michael Jackson's Thriller. How that console was supposed to have gotten into a studio across the street from the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, is anybody's guess. But this untraceable bit of apocrypha is actually characteristic of the music in question, because listening to the Glands' sweet indie pop is richly enhanced by peeling away layers to expose the roots beneath. The band's very name, in fact, was chosen via free musical association. ("I always liked the Nerves," singer and guitarist Ross Shapiro once helpfully explained to Atlanta's Creative Loafing newspaper, "so we just picked another body part.") And in 2000, when the Glands signed with venerable Southern-rock label Capricorn Records (former home to the Allman Brothers, the Marshall Tucker Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd) for their beautiful sophomore release, they decided to forgo the whole title thing and simply name the record after themselves.
The Glands, immediately and widely praised for its luxuriant arrangements, invited several comparisons. If these seemed a bit too easy at times, they were also estimable: the Flaming Lips, Guided by Voices, Big Star, the Kinks, David Bowie, etc. The Glands appeared on several best-of-the-year lists, usually in the context of their potential to save indie rock from its despoilment by less talented, less accomplished performers. Even the mighty Austin Chronicle famously proclaimed that "something this perfectly effortless can only be the result of intention."
And so, of course, the album all but disappeared from record-store shelves for about seven months. But it's back now.
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Capricorn recently became Vellocette Records and signed a rash of progressive indie bands as part of a company-wide makeover. But in all the boxing up and the paperwork, the Glands, along with several other groups, lost their distribution for a bit.
As far as Ross Shapiro is concerned, however, the Glands would rather set their sights on the new work to be done. "I try not to listen to [previous records] too much," he says. "I always want to do some things differently. But by now, we're already in the midst of trying to get a new one together, so we're more focused on that."
Slowly, reports Shapiro, the highly anticipated followup to The Glands is coming together, despite a disjointed touring schedule that prevents the bandmembers from getting settled in one space. "We've already been recording on and off. Our bass player recorded a couple of the songs from the last album, and we've been in his studio some. We'll probably spread [the recording venues] around a little bit. Ideally, we'd like to be done by Christmas, but it's been hard for us to spend a long time in one place. Eventually we're going to have to just sit down for a long stretch."
Listening to Shapiro talk, you can almost hear the desire to wind down in the low, slow cadence of his voice. A moderately aggressive touring schedule, however, is postponing that luxury for a while longer. And that is particularly nagging, considering that the hands-on Glands produced the bulk of their first two albums themselves and plan to do the same for the upcoming record. These days, the majority of the work has to take place on stage -- which, along with a recent shift in personnel, renders the band's challenges somewhat more immediate.
"Certain things we don't even try," concedes Shapiro. "Something like 'Mayflower'" -- a lush and heavily produced track from their sophomore album -- "we've never even played that song in our current lineup."
And, oddly enough for a band that's been a locals' favorite since its inception, the Glands haven't spent much time at home in recent months.
"We actually don't play in Georgia all that much," says Shapiro, his voice lifting for a moment, as if it's a surprise to him as well. "The last time we played around here [in Athens] was February. We did play in Atlanta with Calexico about a month and a half ago. We came up the East Coast with them. It was great; they're super-nice guys and great musicians -- fun to watch on a nightly basis. I don't know how well their fans liked us," he says, chuckling amiably, "but Atlanta's always good. And actually, that whole tour was good. We had a great time."
And in spite of the band's distribution problems, audiences have seemed to have a passing familiarity with the evening's text.
"I guess because the last record hasn't really been in record stores that much, some of the crowds who show up to hear us might be coming on a word-of-mouth thing, but we've played up and down the East Coast a bit, so we've got a little more history there than other places. And not all that many people know the first album, in any case."
So who comes out to hear when they're at home?
"It varies. Here in town, some people even bring their kids, and their kids get into it. For the most part, I'd think that we'd get your standard college-age crowd. But we get some really young and some up into their forties."
Undoubtedly, at least part of that wide attraction comes from the Glands' aforementioned familiarity with years of pop-music history. Shapiro himself venerates the Isley Brothers and the O'Jays, and recently took in shows by Radiohead and Tony Bennett -- on separate bills, presumably. Of Bennett's performance, Shapiro reports, "It started out kind of shaky. I think he was searching for his range at the beginning, but then, after a few songs, he really kicked in. Yeah, he was great. He's still got it."
In a slow and sympathetic drawl that places the sprawling musical dialects of The Glands -- particularly the Beatles-esque touches in its production -- deep in the southeastern U.S., Shapiro recalls that putting together their last record didn't go any more smoothly than the current one.
"We'd been recording a little bit, piecemeal, before we did anything with Capricorn. But once we got a little money, we were able to go in and do things faster. Still, though, it took a few months. Some of the songs had been recorded way earlier than others. Some had been recorded at the very beginning of the process, but right before we finished, we re-recorded them to see if we could get it a little bit better. Some we were writing while we were in the studio, and some we'd been playing live for a while before we recorded them. A lot of times, though, it was kind of trial and error."
Hearing Shapiro talk about the construction of The Glands as in any way "piecemeal" is particularly surprising given the harmonious nature of the final document. Here's an album, as many reviewers pointed out, that took elements of the past twenty years of pop history and incorporated them almost seamlessly. Sometimes too seamlessly: "I Can See My House From Here," a rolling, full-harmony voice showcase with minimal instrumentation, originally copped its faint backing piano line from Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons' "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)." When word got back to Valli, he was amiable, but songwriter Robert Gaudio balked, and the offending part (as the law books phrase it) was subsequently removed.
But you see what we're talking about. From the beginning, the Glands were the kind of outfit that knew its history, a band able to incorporate elements from its progenitors without sounding like dumb imitators. That's the reason a towering, shimmering set piece like "Mayflower" can call to mind "Strawberry Fields Forever" and sound like a genuine and accomplished homage, right down to the synth flutes and doubled voices. In the hands of a lesser band, "Mayflower" would come off as coordinated as a fifteen-year-old boy in the backseat, fumbling at the catch of his first brassiere.
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However, it's that very kid whose voice seems to snake through The Glands with a remarkable persistence, that awkward and unsure boy whose inner soundtrack is openly displayed throughout the record. "Why did I go?" Shapiro asks himself on the album's opener. "I had it so easy/I had a room of my own/And the weather so warm." And later: "Stay in one place," he says to himself. "Someday everything will come our way."
Asked about the Glands' lyrical content, Shapiro seems understandably reticent to delve too deeply into its sources. "It isn't a conscious thing, to produce any theme or thread like that. Maybe some of the songs are deeper than others."
Here he pauses for several seconds. "I guess for some of them, I'm just kind of writing things that are in my head, and I don't really expect anyone to understand them." Longer pause. "Like now," he says, laughing. "I'll just start rambling. For me, I know what I'm talking about. But I don't know if anybody else would."