by Chris Parker
Maybe it was all those episodes of The O.C., piped in from a strange and distant land, that prompted quintet The Snake The Cross The Crown to leave their childhood home for California’s shores, dreaming of success.
“Being from Alabama, you kind of expect the rest of the world to be a lot of things,” says singer-guitarist Kevin Jones. “It’s more in some ways and a whole lot less in others.”
They began in junior high as a cover band, with guitarist Franklin Sammons as the sole original member. The quintet left Alabama for Santa Barbara in 2002, calling themselves Curbside Service at the time. (They’re a helluva lot better with songs than band names.)
Shortly after arriving, they changed their name and released the Like a Moth Before a Flame EP. Though it features intimations of their textural prowess, mostly it comes across as middle-of-the-road emo. Their 2004 follow-up, Mander Salis, takes a huge step forward, channeling atmospheric rock with a decidedly British bent, including a noticeable Radiohead fascination.
All that time as a cover band must’ve honed their chameleon powers, because TSTCTC do a fine imitation of that familiar melancholy minor-chord thrall. At times lavish and always richly conceived, the arrangements get knotty, but their sure grasp of melody keeps things relatively grounded.
Attempts to tour in support of Mander Salis were ill-fated. TSTCTC aren’t the most organized or focused individuals, which initially led to haphazard, generally disastrous tours. After about nine months of playing to blank faces and empty houses, a discouraged crew returned to California resolved to make a last album, if it killed them. (It nearly did.)
“We had a year and we practiced zero, and collaborated very little until the very end,” Jones says a little ruefully.
Bassist Carl Marshall left before recording could begin on their latest, Cotton Teeth. The only style of music everyone would agree to play was a buoyant brand of Americana. With a month to go and only half the album written, they embarked on a short tour, “so we’d at least learn to play the songs,” says Jones. Mander Salis, in contrast, had been mostly written together on the spot. “We have a knack for putting the songs together in the studio,” he says.
Continuing taut relations between band members and their inability to agree on arrangements conspired with the “live take” recording ethos to offer a surprising spark to the album. Though much of Cotton Teeth moves with an expansive, alt-country lope (recalling the country-psych of Beachwood Sparks and Kingsbury Manx), the spontaneous, seat-of-the-pants aesthetic ensures a great deal of vibrancy. The results are terrific, from “Electronic Dream Plant,” whose anthemic warmth makes it a cousin of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” to the catchy, Jim Jarmusch-checking “The Great American Smokeout,” whose boisterous strumming suggests Violent Femmes.
Though recorded in April of last year, Cotton Teeth only came out in March. After recording finished, band members dispersed in different directions, reconvening only two months ago to rehearse for tour. Apparently, absence does make the heart grow fonder. “Every time we spend enough time away, when we see each other it’s really great and we love each other,” Jones says of their yearlong break.
Still, TSTCTC remains almost a provisionary pursuit. For instance, they still haven’t found a full-time bassist. (Nate Highley, who filled-in on Cotton Teeth, will join them on tour.) “We’re nervous we’re going to get stuck with someone because we’re all passive-aggressive, so we’d never be able to kick anyone out,” Jones quips.
By now, he’s grown accustomed to the band’s testy interplay and chaotic situations. All he can do is hope for the best. “We’ll cross our fingers,” he says. “We can’t seem to get them uncrossed.”
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