It was almost 20 years ago when a young Edie Brickell and New Bohemians got its first bewildering taste of success. "What I Am," the lead single from Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, resonated almost immediately with an audience bored with repetitive synthesizers and formulaic radio. That track, fueled by Brickell's hippie-chick chic and Kenny Withrow's liquid guitar solo, represented a new sound chiseled from the free-form performances of the Grateful Dead and honed by the precise power-pop of '80s radio. Within a year the band had toured the world and appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone. "Our first record wasn't even supposed to do anything," recalls Withrow. "They only shipped 20,000 copies of it, and if we sold those 20,000, everyone was going to be thrilled. They sold out in a few weeks, and the record ended up going platinum."
"What I Am" was to be the turbulent band's biggest success. The hard break-up after its sophomore album and Brickell's subsequent marriage to the legendary Paul Simon seemed to put an end to the band, but the New Bohemians' story isn't over yet. With a new album on the verge of release and a growing concert schedule, the band is back for what may be the emotional highlight of its career.
Blame it all on a serendipitous visit to a messy studio. One night in September 2004, after a jam session with her stepson Harper Simon's band, Brickell was hurriedly driven across the Brooklyn Bridge to producer Bryce Goggin's studio to capture the songs the group had just written. "When I walked in the studio and started looking around I immediately thought: 'New Bohemians,'" Brickell says. "His studio is just so funky. There's junk everywhere, and it looked like the places we used to jam in and rehearse in back in Dallas...I could tell that he was the guy the New Bohemians had always been looking for--our prince!"
The New Bohemians had actually reunited on a few separate occasions, mostly when they all happened to be in the same city. In 2000, the result was The Live Montauk Sessions, a document of a few weeks that the band had spent writing and recording together just for the sheer joy of it. For the album the New Bohemians reunited with former drummer Brandon Aly and added Sorta keyboardist Carter Albrecht. The album had a great vibe but left Brickell unfulfilled. "We were just kind of all over the place, and our recording didn't sound good," she says. "I was very disappointed."
But this time, perhaps the years of distance have finally paid off. The album that Goggin eventually produced for the New Bohemians, Stranger Things, will be released July 25, and because of a unique, long-term deal with record label Concord/Fantasy, it's the band's first to receive wide distribution since 1990's Ghost of a Dog. With it, the band members are ditching their past demons and finally making the album they've always wanted to. "And that's for a lot of different reasons," Withrow says. "A lot of it was Bryce and the way he recorded us all in the same room together. So many times when you're in the studio, your music is immediately dissected. This time it wasn't a layering procedure. A couple of the songs are basically live tracks, and Edie kept an insane amount of her live vocals which is unusual for most artists." Bush echoes the enthusiasm adding, "I think this is without a doubt the best New Bohemians record we've made. It's the best representation of where we are at a particular moment."
The band's right to be so upbeat. More lush and relaxed than previous releases, the 13-song collection is a fresh, modern take on a familiar sound. After such a long absence, it's appropriate that the title track that leads off the album provides a basic history of the band: "You said 'No'/We'll never make it together," and a bridge that repeats, "And the minute you get what you want you don't know what you want anymore" before slyly concluding, "I want to tell you/Stranger things have happened." The album also includes reworkings of "Spanish Style Guitar," "One Last Time" and "Funny Thing" from The Live Montauk Sessions at the request of the band's fans who were asked to suggest songs for the album. The mostly improvised "Elephants and Ants," which closes Stranger Things, builds from a light guitar motif to a cacophonous peak full of Brickell's vivid lyrics.
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It's a fitting next chapter for a band still grappling with the turmoil of its past. "[Recording Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars] was a serious growing time for us," Withrow says. "We had songs that would go on for six to eight minutes, and for radio we were trying to get them down to three or four minutes." Plus, the timing of the recording sessions required that the band move on without drummer Brandon Aly who was having trouble keeping up in the studio. "It was amazing highs and amazing lows during that whole first record and everything," says percussionist John Bush. "It was hard keeping the band together and positive through it all."
After a couple years of virtually nonstop touring, Ghost of a Dog was hastily recorded and released. It had more depth both musically and lyrically but overall came across as melancholic. "I think we never got over losing Brandon," admits Brickell. "I felt just guilt-ridden. I mean, look at the lyrics of 'Forgiven' ["Will you please forgive me?/Give me another chance to show you I love"]...It's hard to make a record with a broken heart, but we did it because we just were sort of swept up in the river of a quick promotional effort. When we toured [for the album] I just stayed in my hotel room all the time and tried to solve 'the mysteries [of life]'--which of course you can't do sitting in a hotel room by yourself. I wasn't depressed, but I just missed Brandon. Experiencing the dream without him felt wrong." When the band officially broke up at the end of the tour it wasn't too much of a surprise.
Brickell went on to marry Simon, start a family and release two fine solo albums. Matt Chamberlain, who joined the New Bohemians when Aly left, went on to become one of the most successful modern pop drummers around, playing with the likes of David Bowie, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple and Pearl Jam. Percussionist John Bush plays with Foamy and the Small Stars and has recorded with the Spin Doctors and Davíd Garza. Withrow most recently toured with Everlast and now plays with BL Lacerta. Bassist/woodwind player Brad Houser plays in Critters Buggin' and with Aly in Zydeco Blanco.
Following this weekend's two-night homecoming at Club Dada (which will be recorded and filmed) and a free show in New York City's Central Park, the band plans a fall tour. What happens after that is still up in the air, but with all the effort and goodwill that is currently driving the band, more is to come. "The spirit of this record is truly joyful," Brickell says. "I think to have come full circle gives it a greater meaning. Everything has been righted, and there's an awareness of it--and that's a powerful combination."