Pat McKanna has patiently waited almost three decades to release the debut album Palace of Sin from his band The Trees. In an era when short attention spans have made albums tend to be collections of singles, Palace of Sin truly stands out from the pack as an album with a complete story arc from start to finish — the kind of sincere storytelling that in pre-internet decades was more of a prerequisite than the exception.
The story of The Trees' long journey goes back to 1987 with the release of Island Records' Sounds of Deep Ellum compilation. That compilation was a snapshot of the Deep Ellum music scene in the late '80s. Bands like Three on a Hill, Decadent Dub Team, The Buck Pets, Reverend Horton Heat, The New Bohemians and Shallow Reign all left their marks in Dallas music history from the heights of obscurity to full-on major label runs. Unfortunately some of the bands on that compilation fell through the cracks. The Trees were one of those bands.
McKanna did time with other local acts over the years, among them Medicine Show Caravan and Lockjaw, but his music as The Trees was a constant in the back of his songwriting mind. Over the years, he continued to hone his songwriting skills. Three decades after his Deep Ellum heyday, McKanna had something to say with songs. He spent months doing elaborate demos with his longtime bandmate Matt Swaney for every song on the album before even going to a studio.
A connection made through a mutual friend led McKanna to studio wunderkind Salim Nourallah. Nourallah took over bass duties for most of the album.
“He introduced me to some of the best musicians in the state of Texas, [multi-instrumentalist Milo Deering, who has toured with Don Henley and The Eagles, drummer Daniel Hopkins and drummer and keyboardist Rip Rowan]," McKanna says, "who lifted every track they played on up to another level.”
The attention to detail on the arrangements of Palace of Sin is sublime. This is not a major label-funded album, yet it is far more polished than what often comes out of the pop machine today. You can hear the passion, the pain and the joy in every carefully placed note. Musically it touches on “No Depression” era Americana, echoes of '80s college radio rock and the shear ambition of the best '70s rock without owing allegiance to any of it. It has the kind of rebellious unique take on roots rock found in modern-day acts such as Sturgill Simpson. The album fuses a broad scope of the rock and country spectrums into something wholly unique — the kind of ambitious vision that can only come from decades in the trenches of life and music.
The album kicks off with the trio of songs “Schera Azad,” “Girl Most Likely” and “Baby Plays Games” that at first listen suggest that this might be another rock album about a girl, but further into the album sequence with tunes “Grow Your Own,” “Hope” and “ Backslider,” it becomes evident that each song is a chapter in the book of his recent life.
Turns out Palace of Sin is a sincere redemption arc that ends on an uplifting note. After a melancholic front half to the album, the album starts barreling toward that redemption with “Backsliders” into a series of increasingly more uplifting tunes, including an outstanding version of Psychedelic Furs classic “Pretty in Pink,” which is five times better than it has any right to be. They make it their own and lyrically ittakes on new meaning in the context of this album's story.
“Without going into too much detail, it's some of the things people encounter when they leave home to search for the life they think they want, and the detours they take while going for it," McKanna says about the album's inspiration.
In other words when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Sometimes that takes longer than expected, and sometimes the best lemonade is worth waiting for.
Enter semi-legendary local vinyl retailer Randall Frierson. Frierson has been selling vinyl in Dallas since the '70s and he is most known for his brick-and-mortar shop RPM. Frierson is semi-retired and runs the successful Groovenet mail order from his home but still allows his longtime customers to come shop by appointment. On Frierson’s bucket list was releasing an album on vinyl of music he could really get behind. Palace of Sin turned out to be that album. Frierson has been curating the listening habits of the area’s top tastemakers for more than four decades, so his decision to get behind Palace of Sin speaks volumes.
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"It's been a dream to make an album that I can be 100 percent proud of, no excuses and no regrets," McKanna says. "I feel I could walk up to anyone in the world, hand them this record and proudly say this is me.”
That conviction can be heard on every note of Palace of Sin.
The Trees' Palace of Sin drops Aug. 17 on vinyl, CD and streaming. The band is playing an album release gig at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 30, at Good Records.