Superdrag, Knoxville’s much-loved purveyors of Brit-invasion power-pop, were, by most definitions, casualties of the major-label machine. Their highs were high—at the band’s commercial height in 1996, they enjoyed heavy MTV Buzz Bin rotation for the Regretfully Yours hit “Sucked Out,” moved over a 100,000 units, hit the hooch hard and summoned a loyal fanbase. Of course, the lows were equally low, and by 2003, the band had shattered under the weight of one-hit-wonder pressure, burnout, singer John Davis’ increasing alcohol addiction and his subsequent newfound faith.
Superdrag’s new rarities collection released last week, Changin’ Tires on the Road to Ruin, doesn’t contain “Sucked Out,” a song that, for all its slick and punchy, vocals-out-front appeal, waxed weary about the very played-out rocking routine that was about to get them into trouble. But the exclusion is fitting, because among the band’s six EPs, four full-lengths and the countless rarities floating around, there were always far more compelling Superdrag songs, tracks that showcased their mastery of the urgent pop song enveloped in love-addicted longing, kamikaze crushes and plumes of exhaled cigarette smoke.
In that sense, Changin’ Tires serves as a 14-track blueprint for the pop and fizz the band would churn out for nearly a decade under the shadow of that hit. As an added bonus, the last two tracks are live performances from the group’s farewell shows in Nashville at Exit/In. And, the material here is professionally mastered—good news fosr diehard fans tolerating low-quality MP3s all these years.
In 1996, off the strength of their debut EP The Fabulous 8-Track Sounds of Superdrag, the band signed with Elektra. With Regretfully Yours—a pop confection of staggering melodies and itchy tempos—as their calling card, the band appeared on MTV with a mod-haircut Davis and a fierce Beatles-meets-shoegazer aesthetic.
Between Regretfully and the sophomore release Head Trip in Every Key, Superdrag isolated themselves with rock producer Nick Raskulinecz in Bearsville, N.Y., for a month, cranking out demos on the same 8-track cassette recorder that brought Fabulous 8 Track to life.
Of the four unreleased tracks included here from that period, the breezy, sweet-tempered “She Says” earns Davis an A+ on his Beatles homework, while “My Day (Will Come)” shows his penchant for crafting mind-numbingly catchy melodies in a cloud of three-chord fuzz.
But instead of giving Elektra another batch of straight-forward rockers, 1998’s Head Trip presented a swirl of polished studio work that fleshed out their melodic crunch with orchestras, sitars and swoon. Many fans and critics consider it the band’s masterpiece, but the label didn’t see dollar signs and pulled tour support and funding from their one-hit wonders.
As the band prepared to leave Elektra, they continued to demo new material for their third full-length, 2000’s In the Valley of Dying Stars—a dark record fueled by both the grief Davis felt over the loss of his grandfather and the band’s final farewell to major-label hell. Tires features impressive work from that period, particularly in the tight harmonies found on “Doctors Are Dead” and the ragged Beach Boys sheen on “No Inspiration.”
This collection also shows the band’s final incarnation, prior to their last record Last Call for Vitriol and after a few lineup shifts. Like Vitriol, the last third of Tires shows the band exploring alt-country-tinged fare, while still keeping pace with the streamlined rock of earlier numbers. The jagged “Keep It Close to Me” from this period, laments, “I want rock ’n’ roll, but / I don’t want to deal with the hassle.” It could be viewed as a full-circle answer to the prophetic worry of “Sucked Out”: “Look at me, I can write a melody / But I can’t expect a soul to care.”
But luckily for Superdrag, there were always plenty of serious fans on a scavenger hunt for another fix, enough to warrant not just this sort of release, but also a reunion. According to Davis, now a Nashville resident, not only is there a wealth of material tentatively slated for future release, but the chatter about a reunion with the original lineup, among them bassist (and Nashvillian) Tom Pappas, is true. Davis says he’s been fielding numerous reunion requests from promoters since 2003, but it wasn’t until Rick Whetsel, veteran local promoter and the head of Great Big Shows, offered the band a slot at the upcoming Crawfish Boil, that Davis seriously considered dealing with the hassle again.In light of that news, Changin’ Tires—a batch of demos with more songcraft behind them than most band’s proper albums—is not just proof of Superdrag’s seemingly inexhaustible wellspring of melodies, but also an opportunity for the band to rewrite their own history. If they once looked like casualties of the music industry, it’s beginning to look like they may still get more mileage out of the rock routine yet.
Love the Gills.. Great work guys
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