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Roman Candle  

Roman Candle has already made one record, the attention-grabbing Says Pop.

Well-crafted. It's one of those fluffy, borderline-BS descriptors that music writers reach for when they want to express that an artist's take on pop-rock is exceptionally smart and melodic and thoughtfully put together, but they want to do so without playing the Elvis Costello card yet again. But that's not to say that well-crafted doesn't occasionally fit perfectly, the same kind of glove-snug fit as when George Ivan Morrison decided to record under a shortened version of his middle name. (Can you imagine hearing, "And that was George Morrison with 'Tupelo Honey'" coming across the airwaves? Nope, me neither.) So here it is: the five-piece band Roman Candle makes well-crafted music, with an attention to detail and a gritted-teeth determination that's hard to find these days. Theirs is a quest for some kind of supreme sonic moment, a layering of sounds and emotions not unlike what's found at the heart of the pastoral-soul work of that Morrison fellow, and they're not about to apologize for it. "We're just trying to make records that we think the people we love musically would like," says Skip Matheny, the band's guitarist and lead vocalist.

Thus far, the band has been nudged under the alt-country tent -- its collaborations with real-country singer/songwriter Thad Cockrell, as well as a Rolling Stone buzz band piece that dropped the "c" word, no doubt playing major roles in that placement. But there's more '70s soul in Roman Candle's sound than '00s alt-country, characterized by, among other elements, a tangible warmth and the wonderful shimmer of a Rhodes. Skip puts it this way: "We'd rather make a record that sounded like Otis Redding than one that sounded like a bunch of college white kids."

Roman Candle has already made one record, the attention-grabbing Says Pop. (Among those whose attention was grabbed were members of the Wallflowers, who arranged for some L.A. shows with Roman Candle.) This spring, that collection of tunes will get a new title and a second life. The songs will have undergone, in the words of producer Chris Stamey, "aggressive remixing." Think of it as an extreme makeover, but for someone who was pretty damn good-looking to begin with. However, that's getting ahead of the story a bit, and what brought Roman Candle to this point is definitely a good tale, with a musical childhood, roles for a DE and a dB, a bi-coastal setting, and even some blue-collar labor.

Skip and younger brother Logan, a drummer and multi-instrumentalist, grew up in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, "surrounded," says Skip, "by music in one form or another." Their great-grandfather would load up a flatbed truck with folks before the crack of dawn, drive them from Rutherford County, North Carolina, to the Grand Ole Opry, and get 'em back that same night. Their father was a studio engineer in the late '70s and early '80s for R&B bands in the Wilkesboro area, as well as the high school band director for 20 years. And come April, the boys would work at Merlefest amongst the rootsy pickers and singers gathered to salute Doc Watson and remember his son Merle.

When Logan joined Skip at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1997, they formed an unofficial band, recruiting friends to sit in so, if nothing else, they'd resemble a full band. As the '90s ended, a regular line-up had taken shape, and the Mathenys and company were playing bars and frat parties, thoughts of the latter drawing a chuckle from Skip. "It's a rite of passage. You have to play at least one show where half the audience is in these kind of half-hearted togas. Then you can really call yourself a band."

After Skip graduated, he and his wife Timshel (who plays keyboards in Roman Candle) moved to Timshel's home turf of Oregon while Logan finished school. In Oregon, Skip drove a forklift and Timshel worked in a cafe, but music was still in the air. Trevor Pryce, a defensive end for the Denver Broncos by way of Clemson University, was starting an indie label, and he contacted Skip about Roman Candle being his first band. Skip, apparently not a Broncos fan, didn't know anything about Pryce. "I was envisioning a third-string kicker who was really into Modest Mouse," he recalls, so he sent Pryce a copy of a homegrown CD thinking that was that. A week later, Pryce called Skip at work and, somewhere in the middle of an hour-long music-geek conversation (all drum sounds and DJ Shadow), he offered the band a contract. He set the band up with some recording equipment, and Says Pop was born in a basement. The results, Skip describes, "had some rough edges -- some we liked, some we didn't like....Analog distortion on records is cool. Digital distortion is never cool and never charming. And we didn't do it on purpose."

Okay, now this is the point where the story becomes all too familiar. Says Pop just wasn't finding its way into people's hands, so Pryce decided they needed to be on a bigger label. Enter Hollywood Records -- specifically Geoffrey Weiss at Hollywood. ("The reason that Hollywood has the Polyphonic Spree in addition to Hilary Duff," says Skip of Weiss, with obvious fondness.) But despite Weiss' best efforts, things stalled at Hollywood, with the label sitting on the record for a long time and false starts seemingly the order of business.

Meanwhile, Skip, Timshel, and Logan were back in North Carolina, playing shows with pal Thad Cockrell and, eventually, crossing paths with dB's founder, producer to the should-be-stars, and authentic NC legend Chris Stamey. Roman Candle soon began working with an impressed Stamey, remolding Says Pop as well as making a live recording at Carrboro's Speakeasy. Among the songs recorded at the Speakeasy were the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" and the Beatles' "Baby You're a Rich Man," which offers insight into their musical inspirations and aspirations, as does one of their own compositions, "Why Modern Radio is A-OK." That song, a live-show favorite, cleverly serves as a vehicle for name-dropping some of Roman Candle's heroes and influences, with the likes of Morrison, Neil Young, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash visiting the chorus. In conversation, the band is quick to build on that list, adding everybody from Bill Monroe, the Band, and Nick Lowe to U2, Oasis, and Burt Bacharach -- not to mention Motown and Stax in their totality. The members of Roman Candle somehow manage to harness all of those echoes, infuse their unique spirit, and create a sound that modern radio would be more than A-OK with, but also a sound that, time-traveling transistor in hand, would feel comfortable on circa '77 radio.

In February 2005, Roman Candle started the extraction process from Hollywood, with an eventual soft landing at V2 in September. V2 is set to release the reworked Says Pop under the title The Wee Hours Revue in spring of 2006, and to say that the band is looking forward to that event is an understatement akin to saying that Astral Weeks isn't a waste of vinyl. In the meantime, the Mathenys plus lead guitarist Nick Jaeger and bassist Jeff Crawford continue to reach for their musical goal, as explained by Skip: "We're trying to create something that's like a spontaneous moment that Steve Marriott would do with his voice, but at the same time it's hilarious and has a sense of humor. And also at the same time it's totally crafted and written out for nine people to play by Burt Bacharach."


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