College rock favourites, The Connells, release ‘Steadman’s Wake‘, their ninth album, and their first release in almost twenty years.
For those younger readers, US college rock was the late 80s and early 90s forerunner of what was to become alternative rock. Some still famous bands fell into this loose grouping, including REM, The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth. These were bands who were championed on US student campuses by small college radio stations. One of the best-loved but lesser-known – at least over here in the UK – were The Connells.
Despite the two-decade gap in releases, The Connells never quit performing. As their lives moved on, despite their various other commitments, Mike Connell continued writing songs, the band all stayed in touch and, more recently, they’ve got together to play local shows when they could. The new album was recorded in dribs and drabs over the last five years, based around early sessions with producer, Mitch Easter, renowned for his work with REM, Let’s Active, Velvet Crush and many more. Easter had also previously worked with The Connells on their 1987 album, Boylan Heights. After these initial sessions with Easter, the band completed the other half of the album with another well-regarded producer, John Plymale (Superchunk, Meat Puppets, Tift Merritt), who also mixed the final album.
‘Steadman’s Wake‘ finds the band playing to their strengths. Jangly guitars dominate, clever keyboards weave through each track, while the drums and bass are all perfectly placed in the mix, and the vocals – with their trademark lovely harmonies – are all given the necessary space to make the best impact. The Connells back catalogue has always benefited from Mike Connell’s mature and thoughtful-to-the-edge-of-darkness lyrics and this album is no different. Across the eleven tracks, he surveys his own interior world, his relationships and family life, and the broader landscape of his homeland as it struggles under the yoke of Trumpism.
It’s hard to single out particular tracks. There’s not a duff track here and each song has its own strengths and charm. It definitely stands up to repeated play, with each listening revealing more subtle layers of excellent musicianship across the whole album. Credit to both producers for their enviable ability to construct arrangements that can accommodate such riches without it ever feeling cluttered or forced.
This isn’t an album trying to redefine the frontiers of contemporary music, just a very fine band doing the same sort of thing that made them much-loved and appreciated amongst dedicated alternative music fans in the 80s and 90s. If that’s your kind of thing, this album will not disappoint. Highly recommended.