Ain't No Mountain High

There are 11 of them. Well, not right now, actually. At this very moment, only nine of Mount Righteous' members have gathered in the driveway of bass drum player Joey Kendall's house in Grapevine.

(That, in and of itself, is something of an accomplishment.)

The two missing members of the band have their reasons for not being here. One of them, trombone player Allison Wenban, is out of town and won't be making it tonight; the other, guitarist Justin Spike, well, he's just running late. But the other nine in this proudly Grapevine-raised crew don't seem to mind. Congregated here, smoking cigarettes and swapping stories and ideas to pass the time, the group knows why Spike is tardy this evening: He's quitting his day job in the kitchen of a local diner.

"And I don't plan on getting another one," Spike explains with a smile on his face after arriving just a few minutes late.

How's that for a commitment?

The latest darling of the North Texas music scene, Mount Righteous hasn't even released its debut album yet (the band's CD release show is this week), and its members are already focusing on the prospects of their act's future.

"We all want to be doing this for a living," says bells player Kendall Smith. "That's why we're working so hard. We want this to be our workhorse."

And, potentially, it could be.

At the very least, Mount Righteous is a break from the norm in the Dallas music scene. Sure, The Polyphonic Spree came before this particular collective, but the bands are comparable only in the number of performers; whereas the Spree offers listeners a blast of plugged-in crescendo, Mount Righteous proudly sticks by its all-acoustic guns.

Created with the goal of bucking amplification until absolutely necessary, the band has morphed into something of an amp-less, mic-less wonder. The band refuses even to mic up its chorused vocals, and its sound sometimes evokes musical theater. Actually, that's kind of the idea: 11 combined voices, even when harmonizing, are capable of reaching the audience's ears.

"So far," says Smith, "the only complaint is that people can't hear what we're saying. Well, if you can't, come closer! That's what we want!"

Eschewing stages when possible, the band immerses itself in its crowd, playing eye-level to the listeners. It allows for an incredibly intimate setting: On a certain level, seeing Mount Righteous perform feels no different than watching a pal play an acoustic guitar beside you on a couch or a stoop; you see his every move, and if you wanted to, you could swat the instrument from his grasp. But you don't and, of course, you wouldn't; the exuberance on the faces of these young performers (the oldest band member is 25 years old) is too affecting.

And so is their use of slide whistles, accordion and xylophone on various songs. Then there's the actual lyrical content, which playfully, cheerfully and quirkily covers the topics of love, friendship and growing up.

"It's a sing-along band," explains bass drum player Joey Kendall, the member credited with first coming up with the Mount Righteous vision. "Mostly it's a positive thing and about feeling justified in what you're doing. I don't get it when people are encouraging their audiences to sing along to negative ideas."

Maybe that sounds a little cheesy, a little too cutesy. On paper, it most certainly does. But when you actually hear it, when you actually see it performed, it's tough not to beam in response.

The band's debut disc, When the Music Starts, is an attempt at capturing the same feeling of that live show. Produced by The Paper Chase's John Congleton, the album found the band recording its entire 11-song catalog in just two days. On the first day, in a blatant attempt to mimic the live show, the band and producer routed the studio with ambient microphones and performed the instrumentals. Only after the instrumentation was in place did the members record their sometimes intricately harmonized vocals. The finished product certainly captures the feel of the live show, but it does so to a slight fault. The vocals could stand for a slightly louder mixing—you can't move closer to an album—and, thus, the disc requires slightly above-average-volume listening.

Even so, after just one listen-through, each song will have wormed its way into your brain. By the second go-round, you're singing along with each track. And on the third listen, you've brought a friend along to sing with you, it's just so damn catchy.

That each song the band performs must pass through an 11-person democratic approval system probably helps.

"It's cool," says tuba player Lee Bond. "You've got 11 alpha personalities, and when something comes out of that, it's remarkable."

Meanwhile, the 11 hometown friends—there's also Adam Neese (melodica, percussion) and Nicole Marxen (percussion), Clint Parker (guitar), Mason Ponder (trombone), Derek Terry (guitar) and Casey Colby (snare drum)—have expanded their vision beyond Mount Righteous as well. Most of the band members perform in other musical projects; other members are photographers, knitters, writers and poets. Under the title of Righteous Records the band presents monthly compilation CD-Rs of its own individual efforts, plus those of the group's other music-minded friends. The band even plans on hosting art exhibits and producing literary releases.

"This isn't a façade," drummer Joey Kendall explains of the group's support for one another. "We grew up together, and we've been playing shows together forever. And the people that weren't playing shows were at every show with us and were at band practices and were documenting what was going on and everything. We've all been in the scene—the Grapevine music scene—forever."

That's an important thing to note, that last point. Whereas other Grapevine-produced musical acts—like Fishboy, The Rocket Summer and even newer acts like The Whiskey Folk Ramblers—have been quick to list the other cities in the region as their hometowns, presumably to help bolster name recognition, Mount Righteous remains staunchly and happily suburban.

"Everything musical that we've ever done and all of our immediate influences and everything else has come pretty much solely from our experience in Grapevine," says guitarist Spike. "This country is so full of suburbs, and they're often talked about with disdain among those in the art world and those in the music world. Bands from the big cities are maybe sort of given a pass, or given a more instant credibility.

"You can come from anyplace," he says.

And, well, to hear Mount Righteous say it, you can also go anywhere. And do anything. Hell, they even actually sing that second one.

"We're on our way," says guitarist Parker. "We're getting there. We've made an album, we're having tours. That's pretty big."

And not just because there's 11 of them.

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Pete Freedman
Contact: Pete Freedman