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Reason No. 28,939 the '70s blew: "concept" albums. Frighteningly overwrought attempts to turn rock & roll into high aht, propagated by putrid, wankerrific Brit bands—like Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer—and albums branded with extraordinarily silly titles like Tales from Topographic Oceans and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
Long Beach's Havalina Rail Co. make concept albums, too—only good, unpretentious, thoughtful albums you actually want to pay attention to, without that naturally soporific feeling that Pink Floyd LPs always gave off. This is especially true of the band's latest disc, America, an aural road trip in which the band takes you through many of the country's musical hotbeds—from gentle Johnny Cash-style country pickin' to gritty Memphis garage soul to Mississippi River harmonica romps to Acadian fiddle rave-ups to Georgia hippie-swamp grooves to Pentecostal Appalachian howlers to old-school urban hip-hop rhythms to smoky Manhattan jazz riffs to Midwestern roots rock to Hawaiian slack-key guitar impersonations, all decorated with violins, mouth harps, banjos, lap steel guitars, farfisa organs, washboards, and assorted freaky-ass percussion tricks, like the sound of rocks spinning inside a clothes dryer. As you might guess, there ain't anybody else locally doing what the Havalina Rail Co. are doing.
"There are a lot of cultural elements that we try to bring together," says head Havalina Matt Wignall, who handles most of the singing and songwriting chores. "We call it modern punk because punk was always rebelling against modern culture and what everyone else was into. Punk these days is on regular rotation in the malls and movie theaters."
Peppered throughout America's "modern punk" moonscape are random incidental music snatches and stray radio signals. Really cool, yeah, but also joyously weird, like a psychedelic David Lynch movie that's been scored by a cranked-up Tom Waits. And if you bum a ride long enough on Havalina's funky road trip, it's easy to imagine that you're right there in the van with all six of them on one of their cross-country tours, en route to the next gig, wherever it may be.
They've done five such tours since forming in 1992, each trek a big inspiration for the America disc. But back then, the only shows they could get locally were as the opening act for Christian punk bands, plus the occasional slot at the much-missed Bogart's. They were even more eclectic then, experimenting with different styles like swing and jazz—and trying on different band members. Wignall wasn't terribly confident about his voice (which would eventually evolve into a distinctively nasal, Bob Dylan-cum-Gordon Gano whine), so they went through several female lead singers. One of those, Rebekah Kellar, went on to become Miss California, competing in the Miss America pageant.
"We were watching her on TV at Miss America," Wignall remembers, "and we were joking, 'Yeah, I bet she wishes she had stayed in the band.'"
They eventually signed to Tooth & Nail, when the Seattle label was still based in Irvine, and released two albums, the second of which, The Diamond in the Fish, was their first conceptual stab, a loosely based spy-movie theme done up in a retro-jazz vibe. By their third disc, 1997's Russian Lullabies, Wignall had started his own label, Jackson Rubio, which he named in part after his favorite painter, Jackson Pollack. Jackson Rubio now has seven local acts on it, including Thee Spivies, Robert Deeble, and Wignall's wife Judita's band, the Halo Friendlies.Russian Lullabies was a Slavo-Baltic precursor to the America disc, with the place names changed and inspired chiefly by the Wignalls' Lithuanian honeymoon several years ago. Matt tried to get psyched up for the journey by reading Crime and Punishment, but when he sought out authentic native music in cafés around the region, he met with the hideous trappings of Western culture he thought he was getting away from.
"Everywhere we went, it was macarena-macarena-macarena," Wignall recalls. "We went to one café and found a guy playing an accordion, so we sat for a while. Then he finished, and they started playing 'Every Breath You Take.'"
With Russian Lullabies, Wignall finally found the sounds he searched for in Lithuania—by making them himself. But that album and America are more about how Havalina can interpret Russian and American music, as opposed to merely copying it, Wignall explains. "The main concept was to take a region and ask ourselves what our impression of that region is," he says. "That way, we can romanticize it, and it works out really well. America is us saying how we feel about all these places. That way, you're kind of creating music that hasn't been done before, as opposed to saying, 'Hey, let's do a country, blues or jazz song.' We also wanted to do an album about what we like, which is traveling and touring, so I made everybody read John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley for inspiration, too."
While there's certainly an element of Kerouacian adventure in taking off, not really knowing when—or even if—you're coming back, it's not a completely romantic ideal in Wignall's world. On America, he takes little stabs at the country he has based an entire album on. In "California," Wignall raps against The System in a way that recalls Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." "American Skies" is a riff about the love-it-or-leave-it crowd, with Wignall singing in character: "The good Lord stands above us/So people all will know/There's something special under American skies/We don't see bad times under American skies/There ain't no sad times under American skies."