The last 12 months have been a major adjustment period for songwriter Campbell Brown. The Charleston-based musician and bandleader has dealt with a painful breakup, expensive studio sessions, and serious changes within the lineup of his band, Gaslight Street.
"Unfortunately, there was a lot going on in my life that was affecting others," says Brown. "My wife and I separated. There's no hard feelings between anyone. It just didn't work out."
He should seem more bedraggled and stressed-out, but when you get him talking about Gaslight Street's new album and musical plans for 2011, he's as collected and sound as ever.
Gaslight Street initially sprang from Brown's departure from long-running local jam-rock band Live Oak in 2007. Aiming for a more structured, less jammy, song-based approach, he enlisted drummer Brooks DuBose, bassist Frank Nelson, and keyboardist Jason Stokes. In 2009, the band released a full-length debut titled Blue Skies for Fools.
Brown and the original Gaslight Street lineup entered Ocean Industries last July with a dozen new songs.
"Brooks already had one foot out the door last spring when we decided to make studio plans, but he recorded on the whole session," says Brown. "It wasn't until after we finished tracking the new album that we started looking for different players. The situation was complicated, so recording the album was kind of the only safe place for me during that time. That's where the title Idle Speed came from. I wanted to try to go with the flow and get into a safe place with music at my own pace."
The band opted to record the basic tracks straight to analog tape on a vintage two-inch tape machine, enhancing things with tube compressors and old equalization methods.
"We decided to give it a vintage, raw sound that you hear on older recordings," says Brown.
They finished the vocals, horn overdubs, and final mixes in September. The resulting nine-song collection encapsulates Brown's emerging mission to arrange elements of old-school soul and contemporary Americana in the band's own vision. Most of the music is driven by electric guitar, organ, electric piano, and thumping 4/4 rhythms. Additional horn embellishments and accents from the Rusty Trombones — a trio of trombonist Steve Spaulding, trumpeter Kevin Hackler, and saxophonist Eric Mullins — pop up occasionally.
"There's a lot of mention of change and transition throughout the album," says Brown. "Idle Speed is a metaphor for that. We're kind of slowing down ... and not going nuts."
Brown's vocal performance on Idle Speed is noticeably more confident and convincingly emotive than on Blue Skies for Fools, whether he's using a smoother tone, a gravel-throated holler, or the croon of a barfly sliding off of his stool.
"On the last album, I was still trying to figure out how to bend the notes and sing the way I wanted," Brown says. "I think you're always progressing and figuring out what you can do. I still am. It's a growing process."
There are some sloppy moments of execution here and there, as if things were rushed or overlooked. But at times, the music is as rich and detailed as any classic Dylan, Neil, or Booker T single.
Brown's own background comes through on the new album with his accent and his Southern-fried guitar work. Brown grew up in the Chattanooga, Tenn., area, spending his summers on the Gulf Coast in Alabama. One of the most Southern-styled tracks on the collection might be the Civil War-themed "Vicksburg," featuring guest harmonies from Cary Ann Hearst. Brown sings the part of a nervous young inductee, name-checks Ulysses S. Grant, and laments the famous battle over a four-chord progression. His twangy guitar interacts nicely with Jesse Prichard's fiddle, Stephen Stokes's Hammond B3 organ, and Jason Stokes' Wurlitzer.
Another stand-out on Idle Speed is lead-off track "Fast and Slow." An acoustic blues tune that begins with a crackle of a needle on dusty vinyl, it's actually the most stripped-down of the bunch — dynamic, soulful, and from the heart.
"You know, that was the only song we did away from the studio. I recorded that in my living room with one mic and a Mac," says Brown. "Frank really liked it, so we dumped it onto the tape. It was already peaked out and distorted when Jeff mixed it. It's not a radio song or anything, but it sets the tone of the album."
The release of Idle Speed marks a new era for the band. With Brown and Nelson at the core, Gaslight Street has welcomed a new team of musicians and managers over the last six months, including some booking assistance from Ben Bounds of Follywood Productions.
"Frank has been so solid with the band, especially through all the changes I went through," Brown says of his loyal bassist. "He's a brother to me, and I really appreciate him as a bandmate."
Drummer Jack Friel and keyboardist Howard Dlugasch recently signed on to complete the core lineup. The Rusty Trombones are onboard and committed as well. At local shows, special guest musicians will join them on stage. This week's CD release show features James Justin Burke, Elise Testone, Reid Stone, Whitt Algar, and others.
"No matter who's involved, we're definitely still a roots-oriented band," says Brown. "I'm never tied to one style of writing, but all of the styles I use tend to be tied to roots music, American music. There's probably a more diverse mix of styles on this new album."
"What we're doing these days on stage is more of a singer/songwriter format where we break it down to just a few players," he adds. "I always wanted to do that. It's more dynamic. We build it from there into a rock set, which can get a little more funky with a different feel. I like the horns and the vibe. Everything's really quite tasteful. Maybe it's a prelude of things to come."