After a generation of singer-songwriters taking their cues from John Mayer, with all the cheese-ball romanticism and casually aloof vulnerability that implies, it's nice to hear someone getting back to basics. Colorado Springs trio Rough Age harkens back to that moment in the late '70s when the genre was alive with keenly incisive and cleverly biting pop craftsmen like Warren Zevon, Nick Lowe and Graham Parker, to name a few.
Rough Age frontman Nathan Archer isn't in that class yet, but the band's debut album, Before It Comes Apart, has those aspirations. Its 11 tracks are inspired by a sympathetic blend of soul-tinged pub rock and punchy power pop.
They're also shaped by the personnel. Archer doesn't claim to be a great guitarist, generally playing rhythm guitar and ceding most of the arrangements to drummer Michael Salkind and bassist Tracy Santa. (When not backing Archer, Santa and Salkind have their own rock duo, Wild Hares.)
"I was afraid if I tried to do too much guitar stuff, it would take my focus off the vocals. So that allowed there to be a lot of space for Tracy and Michael to play," says the singer. As a result, the band's pliant sound is informed more by Santa's bass melodies and Salkind's colorful rhythmic accents than it is by Archer's guitar strum.
There's a crisp straightforwardness to arrangements that evoke power-pop progenitor Buddy Holly, with the frontman's lithe tenor flipping from plaintiveness to sneering at a moment's notice. His vocals also evoke the stylized deliveries of bespectacled new wavers Elvis Costello and Marshall Crenshaw.
"I want to be good at creating an interesting vocal sound, conveying emotion, and really putting everything you have into that," Archer says. And while such statements may suggest contorted-face Springsteen-ian melodramas, the band actually demonstrates a lot of finesse and adventure.
Rough Age's repertoire includes the shadowy organ-driven cabaret-garage of "Flammable Parts," the pretty "Summer Skies" (which has a dreamy '70s radio pop/rock vibe), and the pealing pedal steel and Bakersfield shitkick of "San Gabriel."
The songs for Before It Comes Apart resulted from a 2011 New Year's resolution to write a new song every month. While Archer didn't completely stay on track, he did eventually pull together a dozen tunes. Back then, he was still playing with Broadcast Storm (ex-bandmate Jamie Howze lends pedal steel on three tracks), who performed more covers than originals.
"It's very hard for a band to exist in both worlds," says Archer, who grew tired of covering other people's songs. "I really enjoyed the people I was playing with, but it was kind of boring."
A few jaded broadsides also find their way onto Rough Ages' debut, chief among them "Al Jazeera," which was inspired by Elvis Costello's Armed Forces. "You painted black and white over shades of gray" sings Archer before promising "you'll be replaced tomorrow with a new regime."
"I discovered that Armed Forces was styled as a metaphoric treatment of personal relationships, as represented by societal relationships in politics and military conflict," he says. "So the demise of a fairly serious relationship and ugly breakup that I was going through — and a struggle over a house that I owned in Pueblo — turned into 'Al Jazeera' and 'Tumbling Down.' You have to get all you can out of those, because it's too painful to go through a nasty breakup for every song."