The Connells

TrackAlbum
Scotty's LamentBoylan Heights
PawnsBoylan Heights
Fun & GamesFun & Games
Hey WowFun & Games
Stone Cold YesterdayOne Simple Word
The JokeOne Simple Word
SlackjawedRing
'74-'75Ring
The LeperStill Life
Back In BlightyOld School Dropouts

The Connells photo 1

The Connells (l-r): David Connell, George Huntley, Steve Potak,
Mike Connell, Peele Wimberley, Doug MacMillan

 

 

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Connells playlist

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

The North Carolina-based Connells were part of the crop of southern jangly guitar bands that rose to prominence (at least in college radio circles) in the wake of R.E.M.’s success. Guitarist Michael Connell, who has written the bulk of the band’s music, has an uncanny gift for melody; when paired with the gently insinuating vocals of Doug MacMillan, the band’s songs are almost invariably enchanting, with both the quieter ballads and the more rousing pop anthems ready-made for mixtapes you can pass along to people of almost any taste, impossible not to like yet still bearing just enough edge to elevate them far above the rest of the pack.

Beyond the magical coupling of Connell/MacMillan, lead guitarist George Huntley took on the George Harrison role, stepping to the mic once or twice per album with some reliably hook-laden songs that mixed things up just a bit. Meanwhile, the rhythm section (Michael’s brother David on bass and Peele Wimberley on drums) kept it simple, supple but never obstructive, though on stage Wimberley could sometimes shake off his studio restraint and show some real chops.

The band was active from the mid-80s through the end of the 90s, with a series of fine albums that never quite cracked the mainstream to the extent they deserved, though the wonderful, largely acoustic 1993 single ’74–’75 gave them a brief flirtation with radio airplay. They largely sat out the past couple decades aside from some live performances, but regrouped (alas, just in time for the Covid era), with a few personnel changes, for an upcoming reunion-of-sorts album due in October 2021.

Their 1985 debut, Darker Days, was a mixed bag, the sound of a band still finding their voice—in a literal sense, with MacMillan taking on an affected, dramatic vocal style that came across more like Morrissey than, say, Michael Stipe. There are a few decent tracks: the upbeat single Hats Off was a respectable introduction to the band, and Seven sounded like an American take on the Smiths, while Huntley’s 1934 highlighted his way with a hummable hook. And the omnipresent Byrdsy jangle (courtesy of era go-to producer Don Dixon) made it fit in well with the college radio vibe of the time. Still, there was little here to set the Connells apart from countless other bands making a stab at post-R.E.M. (or post-Smiths) indie rock.

That changed on the 1987 follow-up, Boylan Heights, to this day one of the most enchanting records of the genre. The artistic leap forward is immense: Michael Connell crafts a collection of memorable, melodic tunes; MacMillan finds a more natural vocal timbre as an impassioned, distinctive crooner; and the sound (this time with Dixon’s sometime-partner and equally legendary wunderkind Mitch Easter behind the board) is immaculate. The songs are relentlessly pretty, all of a consistent piece, though a few rise above even that high bar. Lead-off track Scotty’s Lament, with its almost bagpipe-like chiming guitar intro (shades of Big Country?), is the band’s first big anthem (of many), a jangle-pop calling card; but others, like the cryptic poetry of Pawns and the anti-war Over There, are no less stunning. There’s not a bum note on the record (even the instrumental, OT², is captivating), and while the band would continue to grow and broaden their sound, Boylan Heights remains their most endearing work.

1989’s Fun & Games was no less fantastic, retaining the trademark jangle while infusing the songs with a jolt of electricity. Lead-off track Something To Say sets the tone, weaving a bit more distortion into the mix but without sacrificing the band’s knack for melody. Even better is the title track (co-written by MacMillan, who begins to take on a more active songwriting role on this album), the introductory acoustic guitars giving way to a blast of power pop fury with a wonderful fist-pumping sing-along chorus. A personal favorite is the lower-key but absolutely enthralling Hey Wow, augmenting the darkly mysterious lyrics hinting at mental illness with gorgeous, reverb-laden harmonies. The album also sees Huntley developing as a songwriter, songs like Sal and Motel adding bubblegum-sweet pop accents to the blend.

The following year’s One Simple Word stuck to the same template, again commingling some rousing electric numbers with the quieter, melodic pieces. It’s less consistent than the two preceding records, with a few weaker songs, though it doesn’t lack for stand-outs. Opening track Stone Cold Yesterday takes them closer to rousing power pop glory, arguably the most winningly infectious tune of their career, providing another soaring sing-along chorus and some unusually ferocious guitars. All Sinks In and Get A Gun are nearly as captivating, perfect balances of jangle and buzz. But I give a slight edge to The Joke, one of Huntley’s finest moments, which features some delightful harmonies in the chorus.

The band took a little more time before the next release, and it shows: 1993’s Ring holds up as a band peak, a solid batch of songs aided by a bit more studio polish and sonic fullness (with the addition of keyboardist Steve Potak rounding out the sound). As noted above, ’74–’75 was the left-field hit, a wistful, folk-tinged acoustic ballad that earned the band some belated attention (albeit more in Europe than the US). But it’s matched by Slackjawed, holding down the Stone Cold Yesterday guitar-driven power-pop slot. Of course, you could put this one on shuffle play and still keep bumping into fantastic, catchy tunes—Carry My Picture and Hey You replicate the rollicking rock of Slackjawed, with Doin’ You and Running Mary holding up the mellower, melodic side of the equation. Meanwhile, songs like New Boy split the difference, with big, booming guitar lines interwoven with wispy melodicism.

 

Alas, after the triumph of Ring, the band had something of a misfire with 1996’s Weird Food And Devastation. The noisiest of the band’s records, it rocks a distortion-heavy, almost grunge-inspired alt.rock sound, and while one can commend the band for stepping out of their comfort zone, the album lacks the usual melodic pop hooks, leaving a lot of sound and fury with little payoff. Still, there are moments that almost work; opener Maybe has the electric feel of another Slackjawed, though lacks the band’s trademark chorus; Fifth Fret and Hang On are better, the closest the album comes to catchy pop tunes. And the closing track, On Your Honor, is rather pretty. MacMillan’s vocals and the Connell/Huntley guitar interplay are hard not to like even on a weaker effort, but this one is mostly for diehards.

Fortunately, 1998’s Still Life was a return to form, replicating Ring’s balance of ballads and mid-tempo rockers. The Leper confirms they could still craft a charming power pop tune; Bruised reprises New Boy’s distinctive balladry sandwiched in between wailing guitars; the title track and Crown are the sort of infectious mid-tempo tracks fans had come to expect from the band; and Gauntlet is simply gorgeous. Huntley also provides some amiable faux Americana with the bouncy Curly’s Train.

Still Life ended up being a swan song of sorts. Wimberley departed after the album, and the band parted ways with their record company. They managed to self-release a final record, 2001’s Old School Dropouts, but it was pieced together from rough cuts, sounding for the most part more like a collection of demos than a proper album. That said, the underrated and largely overlooked album includes a few numbers that deserve inclusion in the band’s canon. Back In Blighty is a true joy, an emotional musical jaunt through Ireland that sounds more polished than other tracks on the record; and Washington rocks out nicely. But it feels more like a quiet coda than a proper send-off for the band. (The album doesn’t stream, but it’s available on the band’s Bandcamp page, where you can check out Blighty.)

Huntley left the band shortly thereafter, but MacMillan, Potak, and the Connell brothers, joined by new guitarist Mike Ayers and a few different drummers, have performed live intermittently over the intervening decades. Their only recorded output during this period was 2016’s greatest hits collection, Stone Cold Yesterday, a relatively thorough compilation that snags most of the band’s highlights. Completists may bemoan the absence of anything from Darker Days or Dropouts, and I might have swapped out a few tracks per my Top 10 above, but it’s a pretty solid primer for newbies.

While the story might have ended there, the band returned to the studio a couple years ago and started work on their first album in 20 years. Steadman’s Wake is due to arrive in October 2021, and the band has previewed a few songs online, surprisingly solid tunes that show the band picking up as though no time had passed since Still Life. (The tracklist also includes a few Old School Dropouts tunes finally getting proper studio treatment.) The singles issued to date have a bit of a dark undercurrent, telltale signs of so many Covid-era releases, but the rousing (and presumably tongue-in-cheek) Really Great in particular confirms the band is none the worse for wear.

Beyond their music, the band members have earned a reputation as all-around good guys. When I was in college in the mid-80s, the band, just getting started, would play at parties, and were one of the few acts that would hang out and talk with students afterwards. They’ve managed to carve out humble careers outside the music business (Mike Connell is a practicing lawyer; Huntley went into real estate, sadly opting to go full-time rather than returning to the band). And they’ve played various benefits for progressive causes over the years – among other things, they contributed a faithful yet still dynamite cover of Split Enz’s I Got You to a 1992 album that raised funds to support reproductive choice.

As they kick-off some post-Covid touring in support of Steadman’s Wake, try to catch a show when they hit your town. They’re not the flashiest of live acts, but the songs (and the members’ down-home charisma) carry them a long way.

 

 

The Connells photo 2

 

The Connells poster

 

The Connells photo 3

 

Official band website

One Simple Band: Connells fansite

The Connells (Wikipedia)

2019 Mike Connell interview (North State Journal)

Steadman’s Wake press release 2021

David Connell facebook

Peele Wimberley official website

The Connells biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a semi-retired securities lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter.

Marc’s previous posts include Big Audio Dynamite, Sleater-Kinney, Liz Phair, Elephant 6, Apples in Stereo, Sweet, The Bats, Matthew Sweet, Badfinger, New Pornographers, Bettie Serveert, Flaming Lips, Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson, Brian Eno

TopperPost #985

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Sep 20, 2021

    Thanks for this fine piece Marc. Knew ’74-75′ but this fills out the picture. Am still trying to figure out, though, how a song with ‘Blighty’ in the title can be about Ireland.

    • Marc Fagel
      Sep 21, 2021

      You’re right; that was a misunderstanding of the slang on my part. (We Americans still can’t figure out how stuff works in the UK!)

  2. Jim
    Sep 23, 2021

    When I think of late ’80s/early 90s indie rock these guys are near the top of the list. Great band that deserved more success/acclaim.

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