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Connections - Private Airplane

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Artist: Connections

Album: Private Airplane

Label: Anyway

Review date: Apr. 11, 2013

Connections - “Nightwatch”

This review could begin with some mundane statistic about how Ohio remains the breadbasket for American pop culture, about the pockets of brilliance that populate its mundane suburbs and struggling cities, about how much musical equipment was sold to, handed down and traded to its residents in the past 50-plus years of rock ‘n’ roll’s ascent, about the town of Columbus in the 1990s and the music that came out of there. But it’s not going to, because someone else has already carved the faces in those buckeyes. Rather, this is going to be more about homage, and why the band Connections gets a pass for it.

Connections owes a sonic debt to another Ohio band, Guided By Voices, right down to its history: Singer Kevin Elliott and guitarist Andy Hampel spent the content-rich, quality-poor years of the late ‘90s into the early ‘00s as members of the band 84 Nash, the only non-GBV affiliated group to find release on GBV’s Rockathon Records. If anyone is entitled to crib some moves out of the classic lineup’s playbook, it’d be these guys. Connections is their newest project, a supergroup of sorts; Kevin’s younger brother Adam, of the now-dormant Times New Viking, plays drums, and is joined by El Jesus De Magico’s Dave Capaldi on guitar as well as Philip Kim, of Andrew Graham’s Swarming Branch, on bass. These men have spent a collective century in or around Ohio, Columbus in particular. They’ve soaked up enough beer, scoured every inch of the bins at Used Kids, processed hours of rock records from the ‘70s and ‘80s — and it’s all evident in the ancillary qualities of their debut album, Private Airplane.

I have been remiss in covering other records lately because Private Airplane has taken up so much of my free time. I’m not growing tired of it, and instead notice new details with each listen. Some may take issue with how closely many of the band’s qualities resemble the butter years of the Bob Pollard-Toby Sprout songwriting complex: the mid-fi studio presence, the Anglophilic and double-tracked vocals, and the way they rise into the upper deck of a two-octave range in support of a towering, heart-on-sleeve collection of hooks. The full poetic range of Pollard’s vocabulary isn’t being explored here, nor is the stranger, slurring side of any GBV record you can name; to paraphrase another Columbus classic, Private Airplane is “all meat – not a speck of cereal.” It’s 15 songs in 30 minutes, and every last one is a keeper, the kind that most bands of the day would be giving their eyeteeth to have written.

Private Airplane is like 98 percent fully realized, and it’s that last 2 percent that has me coming back. The band is so well-versed in the power-pop era, starting with Cleveland’s Raspberries and leading through side 2 of a water-damaged Tommy Tutone record procured for a quarter. There is acknowledgment of the music of Bill Fox and The Mice, particularly in Connections’ various British Invasion nods, but the manic qualities that drove For Almost Ever and Scooter, and eventually drove The Mice out of existence, are leveraged here by a sense of suburban comfort, of the need to sing for one’s supper and it eventually being brought to one’s table. Some of their songs seem to be about women (“Cindy”) and the longing for them, while others focus on group activities (“Totally Carpool”), but there’s a kind of Sal Mineo quality to it all, taking the shape of the noble wallflowers that dot the landscape of barrooms with bands in them. “Mall Lights” could be about a woman, or another man (“I live upstairs from you / I’m sorry that I stay up late / I was always scared of you / Sometimes I turn down the volume / Heaven in your eyes”), but it likely speaks to the idolization that we experience as younger people of those in our social strata who are older than us, and have experienced the things we’re just starting to learn about. Particularly in Columbus, the supply of local legends is inexhaustible; “Peach District laureates,” as it were, the overeducated denizens of Ohio State, left with cultural artifacts and the time to formulate them into something meaningful, meant to be handed off to the impressionable over drinks and twinkling eyes.

That 2 percent tells me that the band is still under the sway of these qualities. They know there are still things to learn, and it somehow improves their presence, rather than coating their handiwork in useless bravado. Across the whole record, though, there is a practicality in the lyrics. Kevin Elliott doesn’t leave very many puzzles to solve, and against the dialectics of GBV, this is somewhat welcome. A song called “Strays” actually seems to be about the life of a stray dog; “Nightwatch” feels like an ultimatum: “Would it suffice to feel alive?”

Connections balances their tendencies for warm nostalgia with a healthy barrier of noise. The recording of Private Airplane was done mostly in single takes by Adam Smith, courtesy of his Columbus Discount facilities. He’s got a great ear and has been turning out more and more successful representations of local bands for a good number of years now. He keeps the mix loose and live-sounding: a wall of guitars surges into smoldering amp burn and biting treble; drums are slightly deadened, yet push the songs along because you can tell just how hard of a hitter Adam Elliott really is. Smith’s light hand in producing this session lets Connections’ best qualities come across naturally, and while it muddies at times and might make audiophiles twitch, those who can hear beyond the static will be rewarded. And on that nostalgic end, Private Airplane comes to the world via Anyway Records, quietly resurrected from a ‘90s heyday. Along with the Datapanik imprint, Anyway played a significant part in putting Columbus’s (and nearby towns’) bands on the map, and its proprietor, Bela Koe-Krompecher, was a veritable welcome wagon to out-of-town bands and friendlies alike. Even after the wave of artists he helped to foster succumbed to breakups and tragedies, and attention started to drift from Ohio as a hotbed of rock music – more like how the genre lost its hotbed altogether, really – he’s continued to document a certain stripe of Columbus band as he sees fit. That makes Connections less of a reactivation moment of the type Siltbreeze experienced with Times New Viking, but it’s the brightest star burning on the label’s old typeface.

There are a surprising number of Guided By Voices cover bands performing around the world, surely high numbers in celebration of a band that hasn’t sold nearly as many records as the kind of acts people dedicate cover bands to. The band has engendered that sort of fan base, but moreover they serve as a sort of endcap to an era of classic rock. GBV was around for almost a decade before achieving notoriety, when the explosion of alternative music gave them an audience, but it also served as good timing, as their cribbed influence had matured into a product worthy of representing a vanished era. They wrote hundreds of songs (and continue to do so), tying together several veins of popular expression across the era when rock music actually drove the conversation, and they did it well enough that fan-musicians would rather pay tribute to them than try to extend their work. Or maybe they just like to drink, and so do their friends. Either way, it’s taken some distance to close that gap, but Connections makes the effort to bring rightful, earned homage back into modern pop-rock dialogue. This year still has a long time to develop, but it will be difficult for any more bands this year to make a debut statement as estimable as Private Airplane.

By Doug Mosurock

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