By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
In February, we wrote a story about the Deathray Davies. It was titled "Group Sounds," and in it we made the following point, neatly summed up by the subhead: "The Deathray Davies used to be John Dufilho. That's not true anymore." We came to this conclusion because the group had just released its third album, The Day of the Ray, and for the first time the entire band played on it, and also for the first time Dufilho had a solid supporting cast surrounding his leading role. Before, on 1999's Drink with the Grown-Ups and Listen to the Jazz and the following year's The Return of the Drunk Ventriloquist, singer-guitarist-songwriter Dufilho had pretty much gone it alone in the studio, playing the majority of the instruments and so on.
A year or so later, the point we made still holds. And also, doesn't.
See, the band's fourth album, the recently released Midnight at the Black Nail Polish Factory (issued by Austin's Glurp Records), returns the Deathray Davies to their do-it-myself roots. Chad Ferman plays organ on a couple of songs, producer Michael Crow chipped in with mandolin, trumpet and violin and Jeff Johnston plays the musical saw on a few tracks. But the bulk of the instrumentation was handled by Dufilho (guitar, vocals, piano, organ, lap steel, drums, slide whistle, maracas, tambourine) and his right-hand/utility man Jason Garner (bass, vocals, drums, violin, horns, drum machine, kazoo, xylophone, Rhodes, shakers, organ). (Garner played a similar but smaller role on The Return of the Drunk Ventriloquist.)
Unlike the lo-fi recordings that appeared on Drink with the Grown-Ups, Dufilho and Garner, with fewer hands on deck, have come up with a sound that's bigger than any previous Deathray album--and better, too. Playing in the toy box that is Crow's Adult Audio Megaplex studio in Austin, Dufilho and Garner fill out the songs like an application, adding everything they can if for no other reason than because they can. Some have written off the Deathray Davies as nostalgia rapists because of their name and occasional predilection for sounds nailed shut in dusty vinyl coffins; here's where that changes. There are still reference points (Pixies, the Cure, Wilco), but that is the frame instead of the picture. For once, we can agree with The Dallas Morning News pop-music critic Thor Christensen: It's their best record yet. (Hard even typing the first part of that sentence. )
Some of the credit is because Dufilho's songs are more personal than ever, including "Dominique," a track, as the liner notes say, that was "originally written for Jay [Garner] to sing to woo his wife," but has transformed into a best-friends-forever tribute from Dufilho instead. But the completely impersonal songs are winners as well, such as "How to Win at Roulette," which is little more than a chorus ("How much do I have now?/How much do we need?") and the words "red" and "black" repeated in no certain order--nothing short of minimalist brilliance.
While the recording side of the band seems to include only Dufilho and Garner, the live act is very much a real band, now including Ferman on keys, as well as guitarist Mike Middleton, shakers shaker Kevin Ingle (who's been around since the beginning) and drummer Robert Anderson. Tightened up by constant touring (they're booked by Big Shot Touring, also home to underground faves such as Arlo, French Kicks, Earlimart and the Walkmen), they're one of the most energetic and enjoyable live bands around. See for yourself at the band's CD release party at Trees on June 7, along with Centro-matic, Dressy Bessy and Sparrows.
Thanks to the rep they've built onstage and on record, people outside of Texas are beginning to pay attention. In its June issue, Esquire named "The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower" the "best love song" in its list of the "nine most remarkable things in culture" for the month. MTV recently added the band's video for "I Regret the Day I Tried to Steal Daniel's Ego" to Subterranean, its new forum for under-the-radar music. And Australia's Pure Pop Records will release Deathray's 2002 album The Day of the Ray in August.
All of which flies in the face of all the bands that feel they need a major label to rescue them from Dallas or Fort Worth or wherever, that if they can just get that contract, everything will work out. In the case of the Deathray Davies, you don't even need to always be a band.