Led by guitarist Mike Connell (his brother David is the bassist), this Raleigh, North Carolina quintet possesses a fragile, vaguely Celtic melodic sense that nicely complements the introspective lyrics, making for music that combines the best impulses of Southern guitar jangle and the sensitive singer/songwriter tradition.
Darker Days broods a bit too intently, and suffers from Doug MacMillan’s awkward, affected vocals. The band sounds too inexperienced to properly execute their sophisticated songwriting and arranging ideas, but obvious talent shines through.
The Mitch Easter-produced Boylan Heights is altogether more graceful, as the band has matured into a distinctive enough unit to do justice to Michael’s yearning collegiate considerations of love, war and alienation. MacMillan’s vocals are likewise substantially more effective, lending emotional authority to swirling folk-rockers like “Scotty’s Lament” and “Try,” as well as fragile specters like “Pawns” and “Choose a Side.”
On Fun & Games, producer Gary Smith gives the band a slightly harder-edged sound, to the benefit of such Mike Connell compositions as “Something to Say,” “Upside Down” and “Hey Wow.” Five tunes written and sung by guitarist George Huntley, while stylistically compatible with the rest of the group’s material, are considerably less satisfying.
England’s Hugh Jones, who took over the production reins on One Simple Word, is apparently the arbiter the Connells have always needed, as this is the band’s tightest, catchiest and least wimpy effort to date. The guitars ring out more distinctively than ever, MacMillan’s singing is more confident, and the best songs — “Stone Cold Yesterday,” “Get a Gun,” the title track — are the strongest that the group has recorded. Even Huntley’s contributions (“The Joke” and “What Do You Want?”) are superior.
The next album lacks much of One Simple Word‘s punch, yet the appropriately titled Ring does just that — at least the guitars do, on songs like “Slackjawed” and “New Boy.” The record contains some brilliant pieces of pop songcraft (“Carry My Picture,” “Eyes on the Ground”) and some bittersweet lyrical ruminations, but slower numbers like “’74-’75” are so sweet they border on cloying. For all its solid virtues, the Ring still sounds tentative compared to its predecessor.
Fun but basically disposable, the New Boy EP combines live and studio versions of its title track (from Ring) with two previously unreleased songs, a second live number and a cover. The new studio tunes are unexceptionally decent, but the pop-inflected rendition of Jethro Tull’s “Living in the Past” is a goof that quickly wears thin; while introspective and powerful, the live “Fun & Games” is not nearly enough to carry the record.
Huntley’s solo album — which he didn’t quit the Connells to record — is an attempt to get back to his Southern roots. Unfortunately, only a few of the songs on brain junk effectively combine country and pop. The rest aren’t as catchy or clever as most of the tunes Huntley has written for the Connells, and his debut is disappointing compared with the group’s recent albums.