"Nothing comes easy ... some things take time."
—Mitch Easter (Let's Active), "Fell," 1986
What a treat: this week in the music room, we opened up a package containing the new studio album from the one and only Mitch Easter. The 14-song disc, titled Dynamico, delivers everything a loyal Let’s Active fan could want: brilliant, slightly-psychedelic power-pop, chiming guitar work, nasally Brit-Invasion vocal melodies, meaty-beaty drum fills, and noisy antique organs.
Easter plays and sings on almost every track, working from a backlog of tunes written over the recent years. It’s a ruby 20 years in the making, a cool indie-rock gem from an under-appreciated genius rock vet. Listening to it this week makes an old Mitch follower a bit nostalgic…
Since his days in the early-’80s N.C. music scene, the singer/guitarist, bandleader, and studio engineer has made a career out of twiddling knobs in studios. This week, the smiling songsmith releases his first solo effort in almost 20 years on the label Electric Devil.
Forever cheerful, Easter was already in his late 20s when the youthful members of the then-unsigned R.E.M. puttered into Easter’s hometown of Winston-Salem (the rural neighbor town of Kernersville, specifically), N.C. to record a number of new tunes for an EP collection to be titled Chronic Town.
Easter had just established a small, soon-to-be famous recording studio in his parent’s home garage called Drive-In Studio. Drive-In was truly a “garage” studio, with a total area of 24 square feet. Easter had a 16-track analog recorder, a small console, two compressors, a digital delay, a plate reverb, and a small stack of decent microphones.
In early 1981, Easter performed his first major production when he recorded R.E.M.’s strange and melodic debut single “Radio Free Europe,” issued on the small, Atlanta-based Hib-Tone label (the track may be heard on the odds ’n’ sods collection Eponymous). His session for R.E.M.’s Chronic Town followed in Oct. 1981. He was also in the midst of forming his band Let’s Active, an acclaimed guitar-pop group that stood alongside R.E.M. and others at the forefront of the so-called “jangle-pop movement.”
IRS Records released Chronic Town on Aug. 24, 1982. That successful get-together led to the next year’s landmark Murmur album — a defining piece of vinyl released in 1983 that catapulted the group and Easter himself to high status in underground American pop music.
Easter and Let’s Active received attention from the ’83 release of the chiming IRS debut EP Afoot, featuring the instant cult hit “Every Word Means No.” The band released the more experimental Cypress in ’84 and Big Plans For Everybody in ’86. The harder-edged Every Dog Has His Day — a college radio hit — came in 1988, but things came to an abrupt end for the band shortly after.
The first I ever saw Let’s Active was in 1986 when they opened for R.E.M. at the Township Auditorium in Columbia — Stipe and the gang had just released Life’s Rich Pageant and Easter’s quartet was out there supporting Big Plans for Everybody. New guitarist/keyboardist Angie Carlson (Easter’s wife at the time) added strong backing vocals (right up in Easter’s range). Mop-topped drummer Eric Marshal was a human metronome, pushing every tune with a forceful beat and tasteful, monstrous tom fills.
The very next year, I actually got to open for Let’s Active in Charleston. My garage band at the time was The Nabors — a jangly power trio with Glenn Horres on bass and lead singin’ and Sully Johnston on guitars — somehow landed the supporting slot for Let’s Active’s gig at Myskyn’s Tavern (on Faber Street, now where City Bar stands). The Tarheel band were entering their harder, edgier, rock phase (power-pop with more distorted guitar and Jimmy Page licks) just before the release of their 1988 album, Every Dog Has Its Day. The Nabors had enough sense to exclude our rendition of “Fell” (from Big Plans for Everybody) from the set list that night.
In ’88, I switched from drums to bass for the first time with another high school garage trio called Good Sam, featuring notorious Charleston scenester David Lee (currently of the Legendary Shack*Shakers) on Rickenbacker guitar and CofC campus cool guy Peter Alvanos (currently in Athens-based band Fabulous Bird) on Ludwig drums. One of our favorite covers was of “Every Word Means No,” a classic pop gem off of Afoot. None of us could sing it on key, or with the signature nasally Easter tone. We loved playing it anyway. Especially in our paisley shirts and thrift store jackets.
Since disbanding Let’s Active in 1988, Easter spent his time behind the boards for other bands without a single release to his name. He recorded and produced a slew of acts through the last 15 years or so including Chris Stamey, The Windbreakers, Game Theory, The Connells, Grover, Velvet Crush, Pavement, and Helium.
In the early 2000s, Easter made his way back to a band setting, playing guitar and singing with a power trio called Shalini (named after bassist/girlfriend Shalini Chatterjee). Former Let’s Active drummer Eric Marshal, a human metronome with a strong sense of percussive restraint and fluidity, rounded out the lineup. Most of the tunes were penned by Chatterjee with the guitarist dishing out surprisingly heavy Angus/Page-inspired work. Power-pop, indeed.
Dynamico is not only Easter’s first album in nearly two decades, but it’s also the first to be credited to his own name. While familiar bits of all of his projects are evident, the tunes sound inspired and full of spirit (check out the audio from "Break Through" at the top of the page). So far, it’s a favorite of the year.