An unintentional concept album? Doesn't sound too likely. But oxymoron aside, Limbeck's 2003 opus, Hi, Everything's Great, is exactly what MacLean describes: a work of almost accidental force and grace, casually stitched together by that great, time-tested thread, the open American interstate. Not that the album's navigator is entirely happy with the critical cul-de-sac it got stuck in.
"When people started calling it a 'road record,' that was cool," he remembers. "But then it got kind of annoying. It made it sound like we went on this great field trip that was so fun, and then we wrote a record about it."
Fun certainly abounds in Everything's Great. But it's lined with a dark, thick residue of regret and sorrow that captures the ragged emotive range of the Replacements' Let It Be, Lucero's Tennessee or Kill Creek's Proving Winter Cruel. And despite MacLean's claim to the contrary, there's no denying the highway motif that runs through its twang-injected power pop; the disc is a litany of mile markers outraced and loves left standing at the gas station. That imagery, though, is less an end-all concept and more a vehicle, a device through which to touch on deeper issues: relationships, isolation, the function of memory and geography as psychology. Still, the road theme is perpetuated even more by a lyric sheet that looks like a booklet of postcards -- with photographs supplied by MacLean himself.
"I take a lot of pictures when we're on tour," he explains. "I think that's one of the reasons why Everything's Great came out the way it did. I'd pick a picture that I liked a lot and write a song about what was happening in it."
The panoramic scope of Limbeck's music is enough to make your eyes water. Wide shots of horizon-sized riffs and whooping exultation zoom in dizzyingly to the detailed inner ticking of hushed acoustics and two hearts thumping in tandem. In "Honk + Wave," MacLean keens forlornly about invading an ex's new territory: "It's kind of early so I'm swerving and swerving/There's really nothing else to do except sit and keep steering, thinking, driving through her state." And "Gamblin' Man" offers the prosaic and plainspoken lines "Everyone's dirty/Slept on 11th and 5th/We woke up at 1:30, hopped on the 80/And I know we're losing."
"I want people to know that what I'm saying is real, and not just a bunch of rhymes," MacLean says of his blunt, rough-hewn lyrics. "Although I can appreciate a good rhyme, too. But I just like to say what I'm thinking and have it be somewhat coherent. I really look up to people like Bob Dylan, who is a great storyteller. But you know all that stuff didn't really happen to him. I wonder where he gets all that from? Maybe I don't have that good an imagination, but I feel more comfortable being honest and talking about things that have happened to me. I try real hard to make people understand what I'm saying."
And it shows. In fact, Limbeck's sound is rooted in that most populist and universal mode of harmonic discourse, classic rock. The simplicity and band-next-door directness of Big Star, the Flying Burrito Brothers, John Mellencamp and Neil Young jut sharply out of the group's rustic rock. Not that it's always been that way: When MacLean, guitarist Patrick Carrie, bassist Justin Entsminger and drummer Matt Stephens first got together in Orange County, California, five years ago, the result -- a now out-of-print debut named This Chapter Is Called Titles -- fell a little bit short of timeless.
"It's a pretty typical, boring, indie-rock-sounding record," MacLean admits. "We were probably nineteen, twenty when we made it. I think we were trying to get past all our high-school influences, which were mostly mediocre punk bands."
But like one of the real-life denizens of MacLean's own songs, the most everyday of happenstances led to a downright epiphany.
"Right after our first album came out, I lost this monster CD wallet with all my CDs in it," he recalls. "I was really poor at the time, so I started listening to the classic-rock stations. I'm not sure why I connected with that music. Maybe it's just because there's not that much good stuff on the radio. The classic-rock stations play the same songs over and over, but at least they're good songs. Then I started buying all the records you can get for thirty cents at the thrift store, like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. I just kind of broke out of my shell.
"I never would have thought that one day I would be into Rod Stewart," he adds with a laugh. "If my high school self could see me now, he'd think I was a dork."
Limbeck's new album, People Don't Change, isn't slated for release until August, but if the pre-production demos are any indication, it's going to dig even deeper into MacLean's love of vintage rock and Americana. Recorded live at Cylo Studios in Nashville, the five-song teaser is just a warm-up for the sessions the band will undertake in Minneapolis this spring. Already, though, the outfit's warmth and honesty shines through. Unfiltered and full of grit, the tone ranges from strum-laden hootenanny to pounding anthem, and MacLean's thematic route strays wildly from the asphalt-locked terrain of Everything's Great. But even as the band looks forward to new records to release and new towns to trailblaze, Limbeck's pilot always has one eye on the rearview mirror.
"I wish that I could've grown up in the '60s," MacLean offers. "Sometimes it's just overwhelming to listen to all this great old music and be like, 'Wow, I didn't even know about that! Where have I been all this time?' It's been a really gradual process for us, getting to where we are now. We couldn't have done it overnight anyway; we had a lot of learning to do as a band. It's been a long road."