The creative leap that brought House of Freaks to life in Richmond, Virginia as a duo of guitar/vocals (Bryan Harvey) and drums (Johnny Hott) has become an article of faith for the group. Intelligence, urgency and creative use of guest musicians far outweigh any structural doubt about what properly constitutes a rock combo. (So much for the 21st century modernity of the White Stripes.) Related by scope and approach to the Violent Femmes and redolent of cultural history in much the same way as the early Band, House of Freaks covers a rich and evocative American musical landscape. What makes the group work is not the novelty of the guitar’n’drums lineup, but Harvey’s guitar and vocals, which jump out at you with all urgency and stripped-down emotionalism. Furthermore, Hott’s industrial-strength drumming and Harvey’s terrific songs that draw on American folklore and mythology from the days of the slave trade up through the atomic era make for a winning combination of punch and intelligence.
Harvey and Hott demonstrated and explored their immediate surroundings in Monkey on a Chain Gang, a resonant album of Southern lore and heritage, and then did themselves proud on their second album, handsomely produced by John Leckie with the aid of a guest keyboard player. The masterful Tantilla has memorably original music that smolders with repressed passion and explodes in gloriously liberated choruses. Harvey castigates the memory of Jim Crow racism (“White Folk’s Blood”), summons up the Civil War (“Big Houses”), questions religious faith (“The Righteous Will Fall,” “I Want Answers”) and ruminates on his roots (“Family Tree”). The duo’s unabashed rock edge invests the catchy folk melodies with sturdy power; a piano/organ-playing guest adds a bit of subtle texture to the band’s ample resources. Absolutely first-rate.
Little on the six-song All My Friends, however, comes close. Guest horns (a nice touch) don’t make up for the listless material’s tossed-off melodies or stylistic dilettantism; the lyrics (about pop star reality and armageddon) have scant cultural resonance. “This Old Town” is acoustic folk, and “Ten More Minutes to Live” (an intriguing hypothetical contemplation) follows in Tantilla‘s footsteps, but “Meet Your Heroes,” a dig at fame, does the rhumba; “You Can’t Change the World Anymore” comps along with cool nightclub élan and “You’ll Never See the Light of Day” jitters like a tiny Spike Jones extravaganza with bullfighting accents and jaw harp. “Pass Me the Gun,” a dissonant and downcast effort, is ironically the record’s only bright spot.
Cakewalk, the band’s shot at commercial success, is something of an extravaganza. Among the two dozen people credited with “musical help and inspiration” are ex-Long Ryders guitarist Stephen McCarthy, ex-Silos bassist/guitarist Bob Rupe, Tantilla organist Marty McCavitt and producer Dennis Herring. The diverse, often busy (but occasionally spare, as in the offhand acoustics of “Magpie Wing”) arrangements could have dandified even plain material, but the pair’s writing, notwithstanding a lyrical shift to more personal reflections, is right on track — expansively original, vital and surprisingly poppy. “I Got Happy” and “This Is It” do the band’s trademark sound proud, but the Beatlesque “Honor Among Lovers,” the rockifying Marshall Crenshaw soundalike “Never” and the doo-woppy “A Good Man” all explore unknown stylistic crannies in the Freaks’ house. The creepy “Ants,” however, would have better been left in the basement from where it seems to have been excavated.
In ’92, Harvey and Hott wrote and recorded the serendipitous Gutterball with McCarthy, Rupe and Steve Wynn, forming a part-time band in the process. Between Gutterball projects, they have continued as House of Freaks, recording Invisible Jewel in Richmond with All My Friends producer Bruce Olsen and no acknowledged helpmates. If the album title doesn’t quite convey the extent of the band’s defeated depression, perhaps these detail the mood: “It’s a Fucked Up World,” “Whipping Boy,” “Stupid Things,” “I’ll Treat You Right Someday,” “Awholelottanothingoingon.” Opening romantic wounds, rediscovering the mundane details of their hometown and switching back to raw, no-frills rock music effectively stripped of life (but deeply ingrained with “Working Class Hero”-era Lennonism and ’60s Beatleshness), Harvey and Hott barely bother to pick up the pieces of what sound like broken lives. The despair of “Lonely” circles back on itself: “I don’t miss you / But I’ll tell you one more time / While you were crushing dreams / I was filling all of mine/Now I’m lonely.” “Motorbike” plants a surprising melodic gem in all this tear-stained grit; “Fat Boy Tom” is just a furious drum solo. Invisible Jewel is a tough, honest and compellingly sad (though not quite for the right reasons) chapter in an otherwise artful career.
Bryan Harvey, his wife and their two daughters were murdered in their Richmond, Virginia home on January 1, 2006.