Note: this was written in 2005 for an album that never came out. The Damnations broke up soon after.
They’re one of the hippest bands in a hip scene, able to channel the Minutemen and the Carter Family, sometimes on the same song, but ask the Damnations which recordings influenced their third album “Heart Like a Hotel” and for a second there you’d think you posed the question to a feather-haired cover band from 1978.
“We would go up to Bruce’s (co-producer Robison) office and listen to records like “Rumours” by Fleetwood Mac, just to key on certain sounds that they were getting down,” says Deborah Kelly, who fronts the band vocally with sister Amy Boone.
They’ve been pegged “the Everly Sisters” by one critic for shimmering harmonies such as those on album-opening “Where To Begin,” but Kelly and Boone sang together in unison, not harmony, on the new LP’s “Shoulda Been Water,” an effect they learned from the Mac.
At the other end of the listening spectrum was Frank Sinatra’s “One For My Baby,” which set the model for the moody piano on “Fool’s Errand,” a song that exemplifies the expansion of repertoire on “Heart Like a Hotel.” The black and white keys add new colors to the country and rock forms explored so engagingly on the Damnations previous albums, “Half Mad Moon” from 1999 and 2002’s “Where It Lands.”
The records in Robison’s collection that best define “Heart” are by artists like Dusty Springfield and Bobbie Gentry.
This is the latest in a growth pattern fans have followed since the band almost instantly became an Austin club sensation, then a major label act, soon after forming in 1997. The Damnations are the typical Austin music story in reverse. Where many talented bands struggle for years for a big break, the Damnations were signed to Sire Records less than a year after ace guitarist Rob Bernard joined to solidify the lineup.
But now, after recording two albums on Sire’s dime, the band is getting the scuffling days they were deprived of by the quick ascent that landed them on “Conan O’Brien” in 1999 and on a cross-country jaunt members jokingly called the Star of David tour because tracing the route looked like a five-pointed diagram.
“We knew we weren’t ready,” Boone says of the major label deal, “but it’s hard to say ‘no’ to someone who wants to give you money to make records.” The sisters from Schoharie, New York, who moved to Austin in the early ’90s, were having the times of their lives, touring with Cake, recording “Sally Go Round the Roses” for the soundtrack to “A Walk On The Moon,” and being hailed as hometown heroes when they returned to sold out dates. It all happened so fast.
“Our manager wanted us to be famous,” Kelly says, “but we were just happy to have a band and to be able to make money from playing music.”
After getting some airplay with the soulful “Unholy Train” from the debut, the pressure was on to sell records with album #2. Although the band loves the results of “Where It Lands,” they were ready to get off the major label merry-go-round so they asked Sire president Seymour Stein if they could take the finished album as a parting gift and he generously agreed.
But that silver lining was soon consumed by a black cloud. Just as “Where It Lands” was picking up steam, getting major airplay in Austin on both mainstream country (KVET) and Americana (KGSR), the band’s distributor Southwest Wholesale crashed into Chapter 7 bankruptcy, owing the band several thousands dollars in unpaid royalties. Band members had to re-enter the work force to help pay off the debt created when the cash flow dried up.
Fried and frazzled by the music biz experience, the band found solace, as always, in their songs. When they had a few they liked, the stepped into the studio with Jim Eno of Spoon, who’s long been a fan. But after laying down tracks for three numbers, Eno’s home studio was shut down for several months for expansion.
Another musician fan of the Damnations, hit songwriter Bruce Robison (“Angry All the Time,” “Travelin’ Soldier”) heard the demos and asked the band if they wanted to make their album at his new analog studio, Premium Recording Service.
Robison understands that what sets the Damnations apart are the vocals of Kelly and Boone, which meld together like a warm spoon and sherbet, so he enlisted the help of engineer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Trail of Dead, Fastball), a master of mic placement. Robison also made full use of his natural reverb room, which helps give the album an overall warm sound.
In Robison, the Damnations found a kindred musical spirit, who had also been through the major label wringer. “He’s so open-minded,” says Boone. “He didn’t try to push us to do something that didn’t feel right to us.” Kelly, Boone, Bernard and drummer Conrad Choucroun may be somewhat shy and soft-spoken off-stage, but they know exactly what they want to do when it comes to their music. Their vision does not suffer tampering gladly.
By understanding that, Robison has gracefully pulled a wonderfully engaging album out a group that defies labeling.
They are now completely ready for their major label deal, but even though none is forthcoming, and “Heart Like a Hotel” will be released (date) on Robison’s Premium Records, the Damnations do finally feel blessed in the area of timing.
There’s financial debt and creative debt. The Damnations are not ashamed to admit that they’re still saving for a new van. But “Heart Like a Hotel” finds their inspiration level shooting way into the black.