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Jay Clifford helps the Tarlatans find their pop-rock sweet spot

Democracy of Sound

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The Tarlatans' new EP Good Luck is a finely polished nugget of pop-rock Americana, thanks to a gang of guest instrumentalists and the production help of a music industry veteran. Surprisingly, the new disc started as a collection of disjointed, tinny cell phone recordings passed between bandmembers.

Good Luck is the long-awaited follow-up to the Tarlatans' self-titled debut, which was recorded in a Clemson apartment in 2012. The EP features a couple of repeat songs from that first lo-fi effort, but in the meantime those tunes have been road-tested and embellished, and the results are lush and memorable.

Guitarist and vocalist Taylor McCleskey says the final product was a total collaboration. "I've been in bands where it's just one guy calling the shots and everybody's working around him, but it's the best and worst to be basically a round-table kind of band," McCleskey says. "Sometimes it's slow-moving because everyone has their opinion, but in the end I think it creates the best product because everyone's heart is into it."

McCleskey met his bandmates — Ryan Williams on guitar and vocals, Blake Shorter on drums, and Eric Mixon on bass — while they were attending Clemson University. They booked a few road shows but weren't able to get much traction in the tiny Tiger Town music scene. "We didn't play out much in Clemson. We just had this one coffee shop," McCleskey says. But when the guys graduated and moved down to Charleston in 2012, they found a crowd of Americana lovers who welcomed them in.

But after a few years in the Holy City, the Tarlatans still sound like Clemson, a school that the Princeton Review consistently ranks among the happiest campuses in the country. Even when McCleksey and Williams are pouring their hearts out, as in the opening breakup track "As Long As You're Happy," their vocal harmonies and triumphant guitar solos are pure, sunny folk-rock.

In a major step up from their first recording, the Tarlatans brought on former Jump, Little Children frontman Jay Clifford as a producer. The band recorded at Clifford's Hello Telescope Studios in downtown Charleston, the same studio that has turned out pop gems from the likes of Heyrocco, Slow Runner, French Camp, and Rachel Kate in recent years.

"I've been a longtime admirer of Jay," McCleskey says. "I think I was listening to him when I was 16 and my older brother was showing me his stuff. So it was kind of intimidating, before we actually met him, to say we were actually going to work with Jay. But after hanging out with him, he just becomes one of the boys."

The band's sound has always fallen somewhere near the intersection of Williams' old-school Johnny Cash inclinations and McCleskey's love for the poppy end of pop rock, and recording with Clifford helped them arrive at what Williams says is a signature sound.

"I think what's really nice is to have somebody that we all respect guiding us, telling us what might be good ideas, making changes," Williams says. "But it's also the inverse of that. It means a lot whenever he says, 'That's really good.'"

The band brought in several guest musicians for the EP, including a string trio of Micah Gangwer (violin), Peter Kiral (viola), and Norbert Lewandowski (cello) on the title track and Hello Telescope producer Josh Kaler on lap and pedal steel for "As Long As You're Happy." But the biggest name in the thank-you notes is G. Love, who happened to be bringing his blues-rock act to the Music Farm around the time that the Tarlatans were recording. The Tarlatans' manager sent a rough recording of the song "Home Sounds Fine to Me" to G. Love's manager, and G-Love agreed to lay down a harmonica track while he was in town.

"We sent him the song, what we had of it so far, and he was like, 'I like it. I'm down to do it,'" Shorter says. In the end, G. Love's legendary harp playing was the missing ingredient that completed the track, adding texture to the otherwise stripped-down verses.

But the real standout track on Good Luck is "Fancy Things," a love song that sounds like vintage Matchbox Twenty and features the refrain, "She wants me / She don't care about fancy things." It's a simple sentiment expressed in an uncluttered song, and it almost didn't make it onto the EP. Shorter says he encouraged McCleskey to try the song again after leaving it alone for years, partly because he enjoyed playing the song's drum part.

McCleskey says he's glad to have other voices helping to make the band's decisions, a rock 'n' roll tyrant he is not.

"The first thing we put out, that 10-song album, was kind of us searching for a sound McCleskey says. "I'm excited about this one because I feel like we finally honed in on a sound that I feel like if people hear this stuff and maybe stuff that comes afterward, they'll know it's us."

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