Big bear hug
At age 28, George Neal is intent on staking his rightful place in the land of pop culture: front of the ticket line for Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. He's talking not about opening day, but about the wee small hours before the Wednesday that another George has slated for the release of his long-awaited follow-up to the Star Wars trilogy. Whether or not the bearded and hyper-articulate Denton musician will actually land that coveted No. 1 spot in the box-office line is a crapshoot. There are likely thousands of other area 28-year-olds who have, just like Neal, already asked off from work for May 19.
The only sign that Neal's Menace fanaticism may supersede others', the sign that he may indeed have more bite to his determination than the common man, glints through when he explains: "I asked off for that date over a year ago. My first day on the job [at Denton's Recycled Books and Records], my boss was explaining the vacation policy, and I told him the only day I needed was May 21, 1999. Of course, that was before Lucas changed the date to the 19th. So now I'll take that off. I'm gonna camp out overnight."
Also age-appropriate for Neal: his admiration for Robyn Hitchcock, Paul Westerberg, The Flaming Lips. Like countless other former high school band geeks, Neal spent his teenage years driving around Smalltown, Texas, in an oversized hand-me-down car listening to cassette tapes of his heroes, songwriters far too smart for the jocks but right on target for the clever, sensitive types. But, drawing on the same spirit responsible for his Star Wars fetishism, Neal was already developing the backbone that would launch him past the rest of the A/V club.
A trombonist from the get-go (an avocation that stretched through his college days to include a stint in the Denton-bred ska outfit The Grown-Ups), Neal would begin to pluck around on a guitar at age 20 while living in Wichita Falls with a girl who owned a beat-up acoustic. She never played it, so in between his English and drama classes at Midwestern State University, Neal did. In 1991, when the couple broke up, Neal moved to Denton to take up art and lit classes at the University of North Texas, but had music on his mind.
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"I had seen bands there; I knew there was a growing scene," he says. "I already had friends there."
This move marked the point when Neal, brandishing that determination, shifted from a statistic to a name. Beyond his obsession with Star Wars and his waxing poetic over the pop perfection of Elvis Costello, Neal's breakaway from the like-minded masses is the strength of his own music. He never believed he could do it, never bought into the idea that his shoegazing observations could give way to creative output, but some compulsion gave him a rude shove past hesitation.
"If you had told me a couple years ago that anyone would be interested in my music, that any label would actually wanna put my songs out, I wouldn't have believed it," he says. "Guys with guitars were rock stars; they seemed like a whole different species from me."
As Little Grizzly, Neal is gaining on these once-distant creatures. He's been writing and performing his own songs for just more than two years; his first full-length CD, Please Let Me Go, It Wasn't Meant to Be comes out April 13 on Denton's Quality Park label. Flanked by Colin Carter (of Check-cum-Union Camp) on drums and Jacob Barnhart on bass, Neal's band and his brand of trad-meets-experimental are beginning to jell, something he wouldn't have predicted for himself only a few years back.
Neal's acoustic guitar and sandpaper tenor lope side by side, relaxed and melancholy, on most of the tracks. His singing drawl is exaggerated, lilting upward and slipping downward like another instrument--a slide guitar, perhaps. A song will occasionally build from lullaby-slow to an electric roar before settling down again, but you almost don't notice the change in dynamics, so familiar and soothing are the chord progressions.
Many of the nuances--including banjo, accordion, and backing vocals--were added by Centro-matic's Will Johnson, a fan of Neal's who urged the loner to get a few of these songs to four-track early on (among them "Next to Nothing" and "Dream Sister"). Some of the tunes were recorded up in Millstadt, Illinois, during Centro-matic's residency at Son Volt's studio during the recording of their own music. Neal made a visit, and Centro-matic drummer Matt Pence produced "Sweep the Leg" and "Bringin' Ya Down."
A scattered few other songs were captured on recording equipment in various Denton kitchens and rock clubs with Quality Park owner--and Jacob Barnhart's big brother--Matt acting as producer. In all, the 10 songs and one hidden track on Please paint a portrait of a young man enamored of both college radio and barbed-wire fences, two steps removed from No Depression and a hundred miles from nowhere in particular. These are adult lullabies--all heartbreak and meditation.
"I started out playing those Big Beer Nights at the Argo," Neal says, speaking of the community throw-downs that, once a week, possessed the now-defunct Denton rock club. "I'd get up there by myself and play my songs. My first 15 or so songs, the ones I wrote before that, were terrible. But I suppose I had to get those outta my system and then move on. I was still drinking back then."
Ah, another discrepancy between Neal and his demographic. While most of his songwriting cohorts chug the booze like Hemingway on a bad day, Neal recognized its toll on his productivity and personal relationships ("I was a mean, nasty drunk--and I couldn't understand why I kept losing my girlfriends"), so he ditched it entirely. In fact, the tunes on Please Let Me Go straddle that window. About half the songs were written while Neal was still downing 20 beers a night, the other half after he'd climbed on the wagon.
The differences between the two aesthetics can be as subtle as a quiet grin or as overt as an IQ jump of 100 points. While "Buzza Bye" sounds like the swampy, drunken musings of a man who barely stumbled through his own front door at 3 in the morning, all circular riffs and spare sustains, "Boxkite" sounds as if it sprang from the mind of a studio genius with plenty of time and ideas on his hands--the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne on a bright morning. In other words, from warm-but-warbly to crisp-and-stimulating, from longtime haze to a newfound clarity, with nothing more than a four-second silence in between. And both "Buzza Bye" and "Boxkite" work; they are, in fact, the best tunes on the record. What a windfall for listeners to witness the transition.
Before that shift, however, Neal was sharpening his ear and his ambitions in other Denton outfits: Irish trad act Tir-Na-Nog, the Grown-Ups, the short-lived la Cheenies, and Jar. He was also managing the Mr. Gatti's on Denton's historic town square. It was Neal, in fact, who began booking punk acts in the pizzeria's basement, cultivating one of Denton's most obscure and fascinating rock clubs, before the local law enforcement began cracking down on the oasis.
"The first time I started actually writing the songs was with Jar," Neal says of his mid-'90s benders. "Before that, I had always just followed someone else's lead."
And now he has caught up with his contemporaries, sometimes beating them to the finish line. His recent live performances with Barnhart and Carter are famous among the band's followers for being raucous, tight, punchy affairs. As a result, Neal says his newest songs, which he's slated to record this summer with Pence at the helm, will sound more rock, more like a real band.
"I hate my voice," he insists. "But there's nothing I can do about it, so I'm just gonna have to live with it. And I'm still the worst guitar player I've ever met. But if I feel there's anything that I can kinda do, that I can pull off with some skill, it's writing a song.
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