Ain't life pop?

Grand Street Cryers enter Robinson-Wood's hum-along sweepstakes

Tim Locke, felled by the season's latest and nearly ubiquitous strain of flu, still manages to sound excited through the coughing and sniffling. Locke is the lead vocalist, guitarist, and main muse behind Grand Street Cryers, the Dallas pop quintet that's enjoying the fallout of a magical bit of radio bottle-rocketry called "Angie Wood."

Steady on the Shaky Ground--the Cryers' debut CD--has just hit the streets. Previously, the only place eager listeners could find "Angie Wood"--which first hit mainstream rotation on Q-102 (KTXQ 102.1 FM) and then "The Edge" (KDGE 94.5 FM) last year--was on Eat Yer Vegetables, a compilation album from a Collin County Community College Business of Music class. For those addicted to "Angie Wood," the wait was worth it: Shaky Ground is a seamless batch of ultra-hummable songs that sound like a glee club hook-off between the Connells, Grant Lee Buffalo, Pure Prairie League, and the Gin Blossoms. The local band they remind you of most immediately is the old (and recently reconstituted) Fever in the Funkhouse, a band that might've made as convincing a bid for the gold ring as the Cryers if the times had been a bit different and everybody hadn't expected them to be, well, a funk band.

They're also the latest effort from the Robinson-Wood management squadron that represents Jackopierce, Vertical Horizon, and Adam-12--all acts with a definite propensity to wax melodic. Given the apparent decline of grunge and the hybridization (and possible dilution) of rap in the musical marketplace, the time seems particularly ripe for a resurgence of the thread of pop melodicism that runs from Cole Porter and the Gershwin Brothers through Roy Orbison and Lennon/McCartney, and on to Elvis Costello and Difford/Tilbrook. In fact, this month will also see new albums by like-minded locals Moon Festival, pop poppins, and Quickserv Johnny. Far from despairing the competition, though, Locke views the proliferation of melodic rock records as a breath of artistic fresh air.

"I hope this is a backlash against the whole grunge thing," he says. "I don't mind loud music--I've played it and listened to it--but right now all the bands doing that really suck. The majority of the groups that are played on the radio now are just not listenable. It would be great to move in a new direction."

A direction spearheaded, perhaps, by "Angie Wood"--though the apparently spontaneous ascension of Grand Street Cryers, who recorded their new album in a posh L.A. studio under the tutelage of Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch, to radio kingpins was less a lightning bolt than something orchestrated by the Three Stooges.

Formed of the ashes of Tabula Rasa and Cream of Mushroom, two respectable local alternative bands, the group which became Grand Street Cryers includes, besides Locke, ex-Mushroomers Greg Beutel (guitars/vocals) and Fred Koehn (bass/vocals), former Tabula Rasa guitarist-vocalist Steve Duncan, and a relative newcomer, Max Lintner (drums/vocals).

"The two bands shared a lot of dates," Locke recalls, "and we all enjoyed hanging out together. So when both groups broke up, we kinda mashed them together, and it clicked right away."

Although Locke's roots were in "louder music," the sound which would become instantly identifiable through "Angie Wood" was by design. "Cream of Mushroom was your basic alternative, grunge, OK band," Locke says, "but, at heart, I've always been just kind of a folkie guy. I thought you had to be really loud to make it, so of course I tried it. And I hated it; couldn't sing it. So I went back to what I'd always wanted to do, which is more melodic and folk-based. And all of a sudden, it seemed as though it was the right time for it, as well."

Q-102 disc jockey Buddy Wylie had seen the band--then called dead city radio--several times, and kept asking for a tape he could take to program director Redbeard. Unfortunately, all the band had was a three-song demo of dubious quality. Enter Rob Hamlin, a fan of the band and a student of Patrick Keel's Business of Music class at the Collin County Community College. His class was putting together the compilation record of local bands which would become Eat Yer Vegetables, and Hamlin thought dead city radio should be included.

"Total credit goes to Rob for getting us on the compilation," Locke says. "He kept after us, so we went to Crystal Clear and recorded one song, which was 'Angie.'"

Locke knew from the moment he wrote "Angie Wood" that it had potential. "I thought the chorus was pretty good," he says. "I had a feeling people would like it. I didn't know that all this would happen with Q-102 and stuff, but, if we were only going to record one tune at Crystal Clear, that was pretty much the one to do."

Ironically, the song, which is about suicide, has nothing to do with anyone named Angie, or with "wood," for that matter. Keith Rust, Crystal Clear's house producer-engineer, misunderstood the lyrics of the chorus, thinking Locke was singing "If you could/Angie Wood" where he was really saying "If you could/And you would."

"Keith asked, 'Who's Angie Wood?'" Locke says with a laugh. "And since the song wasn't even titled yet, I decided to go ahead and name it 'Angie Wood.'" At that point, the band had a song they could finally give to Wylie, who in turn passed it on to Redbeard. The venerable program director--who's broken more than a few local acts--liked the song and, after a few positive-response spins on his "New Rock Preview" program, decided to add the tune to Q-102's rotation.

It took off and--while certainly splendid news for dead city radio--it also compounded a few problems. "We had this song on the radio," Locke says, "and people are calling up asking for it, and there's no album. We could've been selling records at a pretty good clip, but we had no management, either. It was pretty frustrating for a while."

Lack of product and management weren't the only downsides to the surprising success of "Angie Wood." There was also the niggling matter of name identification. At the time Q-102 discovered the tune, dead city radio was a great, instantly memorable name for a band. Unfortunately, it was so good that it was being used by several other groups across the country.

"We were starting to build a little bit of a following," Locke remembers. "'Dead city radio' is a great name--it's the title of a William Burroughs spoken-word album--but we should have put more thought into it, because how many other alternative kids across the country are into Burroughs?"

Enough that when South by Southwest lost the band's submission tape and called requesting another, the SXSW official had to ask which dead city radio he was talking to.

"They had, like, five dead city radios submit tapes that year," Locke says. The band came up with Grand Street Cryers after a protracted and beer-infused brainstorming session, and slowly went about regaining any lost momentum from the sudden and unanticipated success of "Angie Wood." The management deal with Robinson-Wood followed shortly thereafter.

"Man, having a song on the radio opened a lot of doors for us," Locke says. "As soon as we agreed to let Robinson-Wood manage us, the idea was to release a regional album for their Rhythmic Records label, and hopefully take it to the next level from there. They began putting us in these high-profile gigs--and one of the first ones was the CD release party at Trees for Finest Hour, the most recent Jackopierce CD. Stan Lynch was there, having produced part of that record, and he asked [Rhythmic A&R hound Paul Bassman], 'Who are these guys? Do they have a record? Do they need a record?'"

Suffice it to say that it wasn't long before the Cryers loaded up Locke's parents' Suburban and drove to Los Angeles for three weeks of labor-intensive recording and mixing at Royaltone studios under the guidance of Lynch and engineer Rob Jacobs (U2, Sheryl Crow, Weezer). Though the band had never spent that much time being constantly together, it was a terrific experience.

Locke smiles at the memories. "If you could have seen the studio we were in. I mean, it's for rock stars--totally excessive! It looks like a castle, and it has a hot tub. We totally geeked out on [Lynch and Jacobs]. We bugged them for stories the whole time we were there. After a while, they opened up and told us all the rock 'n' roll debauchery they've seen. It was beautiful. I'd tell you some...but I don't want Stan to kill me," he concludes with a laugh.

"As we watched Stan and Rob work their weird, symbiotic magic," Locke says, "we just looked at each other, thinking, 'It doesn't get any better than this.'"

Perhaps not, but the immensely commercial appeal--not necessarily a bad thing--of Steady on the Shaky Ground might well portend even better things to come. Along with "Angie Wood," the CD features such delightfully melancholic tunes as "Any City," "You Win Again," and "Don't Hang Yourself"--and Grand Street Cryers have an abundant supply of material. Though Locke wrote every song on the album except Duncan's winning "Loser Not Blues," the entire band is a creative wellspring.

"Steve and Greg are really good songwriters," Locke says, "they're just slower. They're more quality than quantity. I just have so many sitting around that it's been easier to go that way. But--in any case--it's not like we're going to run out."

Grand Street Cryers play Saturday, February 1, at the Aardvark in Fort Worth.

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