Featured Music: Wednesday, March 27, 2003
Great Reformation

Crisper Southpaw Preachers have arrived with their latest c.d., Contender.


When Mike Merritt and John Daniel put together a band three years ago, the name Southpaw Preachers seemed a natural. It’s a pretty good shorthand for Merritt’s family history: a brawling, partying grandpa; a real preacher for a dad; and Mike, the kid who listened to music that no one else in the family could make heads or tails of, and who eventually began to make his own music that is at the same time athletic, aggressive, unconventional, and thoughtful.

Those bits of family history are reflected in the title of the Preachers’ new c.d., Contender, which they’ll launch with a show at the Aardvark this Saturday. (By the way, that’s his dad strumming the guitar in the pic on the back of the c.d. case. The kid on the front is Merritt’s best childhood bud.)

Merritt grew up in Denton and remembers walking around Fry Street Fair as a kid, drinking in the edgy and alternative sounds. Sitting behind a Red Bull with his bandmates at the Moon several weeks ago, he said that his father was surprisingly understanding and supportive when he made his initial forays into the rock ’n’ roll world. When Mike told his dad that he felt like an oddball in their extremely conservative clan, the elder Merritt assured him that it was just an echo of his grandfather’s rough and rowdy ways.

While he’s not a championship brawler, Merritt is a pensive young man who can write brawny, aggressive rock anthems that are as long on melody and hooks as they are on guitar chomp. With the album completed and Merritt and Preachers utility musician Daniel through with college, the band is poised for a shot at bigger and better things. Having just celebrated their third year together in February, they’ll follow up this week’s Aardvark show with a May c.d. release party in Dallas, as well as shows in Austin and Norman, Okla.

Merritt describes himself as “conflicted” between his straitlaced upbringing and the urge to pursue the rock ’n’ roll life, and that inner turmoil is reflected in the titles and subject matter of songs like “Salvation,” “Reformed,” and “Sunday” (the last having been the subject of an ecstatic HearSay rant a few months back). But that’s not to say Contender is an unremitting angst-fest. On the contrary, it’s downright poppy, so much so that the teen-ager at my house pronounced it “fun and danceable” after a single spin of the disc.

The songs on Contender are replete with stirring buildups and breaks to create excitement, singalong choruses and soaring harmonies to beguile the ear. Daniel’s an aficionado of ’70s keyboard sounds, and he uses vintage analog synthesizers to evoke the glory days of the Cars and ELO. (It’s unusual to see a keyboardist with a fetish for old gear, a perversion more typical of guitarists.) Many of the songs are built around his simple, repeating synth figures. Drummer Greg Dodson kicks the traps with tremendous authority and musicality, adding power and drama to the music. His intelligent stickwork maps the terrain of the songs in the same way the Cars’ David Robinson and the Clash’s Topper Headon did for those bands.

The blending of elements on “Salvation” is a good example of what the Preachers are up to. Its opening blast of punk-rock guitar heat gives way to poppy backing vocals. A second guitar almost imperceptibly joins the fray in the middle of the first verse, then the band adds handclaps to the mix over the subsequent break. “All Right” showcases the band’s superior comprehension of dynamics, what with John Goetz’s bass dropping in and out of the arrangement to build and release tension. The exhilarating rush of “Adolescent Love Song” neatly encapsulates all of the c.d.’s strengths, while “Girl” boasts one of the disc’s most irresistible choruses.

Listeners who remember the Preachers’ live shows from last year are in for a stunning surprise. While these musicians once sounded like a band with a lot of interesting pieces at the ready but unable to make them fit together, the unit on Contender is now tight, focused, and assured. Merritt gives much of the credit to Valve’s Casey Diorio, who produced the album, and Centro-matic’s Matt Pence, who mixed it. “It was really nice to have input from different people who might agree or disagree but all want to make a great product,” said Merritt. “Casey and Matt were very willing to let us benefit from all the things they’ve learned.” (For live work, guitarist George Cain will help fill out the sound and ease the onstage burden on Merritt and Daniel.)

Contender was recorded between June and September 2002 and mixed last October, with the band working in 10-day intervals as finances allowed. The boys did extensive pre-production in preparation for the sessions, carefully analyzing each song and working with vocoders and samplers. Still, Merritt said, “when we first went in to record, we didn’t realize how unprepared we were. Casey played an active role and served as our objective sounding board. He wanted arrangements that were constantly moving. He encouraged us to experiment and write parts on the fly. He also convinced us to include some older material we’d already recorded on the c.d.”

A couple of weeks after that night at the Moon, the Preachers joined the hordes of hopeful unsigned bands in Austin for South By Southwest — not to perform but to slip copies of their c.d. to inebriated reps from labels like Barsuk, Columbia, Suburban Home, and Post Parlo. “Now we’re crossing our fingers and praying that our promo c.d.’s didn’t just serve as coasters,” said Merritt. “Next, we’ll be calling to verify levels of intoxication and follow up on the beer-breath conversations.”

Grandpa would be proud.

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