Starting out as a vehicle to play Def Leppard covers, the Gravel Pit evolved into a group that effortlessly meshed ’60s-influenced garage rock with quirky (and highly intelligent) pop songs to great effect. The Pit formed in 1983 when singer/organist Jedediah Parish and guitarist Jeff Juhase (aka Lucky Jackson) were classmates in a Durham, Connecticut junior high school. They played with various rhythm sections for almost a decade before solidifying a lineup with bassist Ed Valauskas and drummer Pete Caldes and making New Haven their home base.
The quartet traveled to Memphis to record their debut, Crash Land, with legendary producer Jim Dickinson (Replacements). The record starts out, promisingly enough, with the anthemic “Standing in My Way” and closes strongly with the witty, harmonica-driven funky tale of “Tyrannosaurus.” But Dickinson’s surprisingly unfocused production mars slower and more moody tracks, like “I Want You” and “You’re a Lie,” and it sounds as if he didn’t bother to set levels when he recorded the driving rocker “This Old Clock Doesn’t Make Any Sense.” Parish does rise above the subpar recording at certain moments. His vocal on the power ballad “Fainting” proves that he spent a good deal of time listening to another singer who recorded in Memphis, Otis Redding.
The Pit moved to Boston in 1995 to get greater exposure and ended up with a producer, Mike Deneen (Letters to Cleo), who could better capture their powerful sound. The Gravel Pit Manifesto opens with “New Haven,” a blistering (almost) punk-rockish track that either indicts or endorses the band’s former hometown. That sort of confusion stems from Parish’s increasingly obscure lyrics, which hide meaning behind intricate wordplay. “Something’s Growing Inside” could be about a cancer patient or someone with an infected limb, neither of which is a typical subjects to sing about over a riff that Kiss would happy to steal someday. “Officer Dwight Boyd” might be about “a crime-fighting clown” straight from George Orwell’s 1984, but it’s hard not to sing along with a chorus about a clown. Overall, Manifesto is a sonic leap forward with which the band lives up to the potential of its debut.
Silver Gorilla finds the Pit exploring the quirky and experimental side of their personality. Weird tempo changes and ever more obtuse lyrics dominate, with Parish’s vocals and keyboards more up front in the mix. Songs like “The Mosquito” (complete with a horn section) and “I Climb Up His Tree” (which seems to be about that gorilla) are much more complex than your standard rock fare. In “Where the Flying Things Go,” these things fly everywhere from Africa to Ithaca (either New York or ancient Greece) for a worldwide travelogue. “When Will Our Bucket Come Up Dry?” heads the band into country and western territory, with Parish using his wide vocal range to great effect. But for all of the pushing of musical boundaries, Silver Gorilla contains the Pit’s most accessible straight-ahead pop song, “Favorite.” Sailing along on a bouncy organ groove, it became a genuine hit in Boston. The album ends with “Get Tangled,” a track boasting baritone sax by They Might Be Giants’ John Linnell.
Mass Avenue Freeze Out (a cheeky reference to the Bruce Springsteen song and the main drag in Boston and Cambridge) was recorded in a studio after a lengthy break from touring, which makes its live sound so surprising. “The Ballad of the Gravel Pit” and “Unit Three” sound like they were recorded on a hot, sweaty night at a packed club. Producer (and ex-Letters to Cleo bassist) Scott Riebling allows the powerful rhythm section of Valauskas and Caldes to shine through like never before. Parish reigns in his lyrical obtuseness and gets downright humorous in “Baby Gap” (“Met my baby / At the baby gap”). “The Ballad of the Gravel Pit” fictionalizes life on the road, with backing vocals by the musician namedchecked in the lyrics, guitarist Mike Gent of The Figgs. The closer, “Short Western Film,” is album’s standout, an epic that lives up to its title by capturing the essence (visual and musical) of a good spaghetti western in just five minutes. All in all, it’s the Pit’s finest work to date, and quite possibly the band’s last, as they’ve gone on hiatus.
No One Here Gets in for Free (titled as a parody of a Jim Morrison lyric and biography) collects the band’s first cassette release (The Shark Long Player), various demo sessions, a holiday single and a 1983 cover of Def Leppard’s “High n’ Dry.” It’s an interesting historical document but a must-have only for hardcore Pit fans.
Gravel Pit singer Jedediah Parish wrote many songs over the years that he thought didn’t fit the band’s rock sound, so he recorded them on cassettes and gave them to friends under the pseudonym Kid Nietzsche. In 1999, he issued Bloodsucker Blues on CD under his own name. Eight of the songs have blues in the title, covering our simian ancestors (“Monkey Blues), bugs (“Mosquito Blues”) and kings (“Belshazzar Blues”). Some of the songs are downright puzzling, such as “Weird Sister Blues,” which sets words from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to an odd orchestral arrangement, and includes a sample from Orson Welles’ 1948 film of the play.
The only thing truly puzzling about Parish’s second solo album, 21st Century American, is the title. This entertaining collection of tunes might better be titled “Late 19th and Early 20th Century American.” There are songs about trains (“A Train Named Hiawatha” and “A Train Named Ninety Three”), ships (“A Ship Named Eclipse”), obsolete technology (“Rotary Phone”), even antique bathrooms (“Clawfoot Tub”). Parish uses his tremendous voice to leap effortlessly from genre to genre, sounding like a weathered bluesman one moment (“Bad Dream Blues”) and the star of a Cole Porter musical the next (“Memories Are Just a Day Away”). This is a timeless work that draws from the touchstones of all types of American music and reveals a new highlight with each listen.
Singles of the Month Volume One and Two are compilations of tracks Parish put on his website as free MP3s, highlighted (on Volume Two) by a cover of George Jones’ “Jesus Take the Devil Out of Me.”