Feature: Reid Paley

It is a Monday evening, and somewhere in Brooklyn a band is rehearsing. Looking at the instrumentation of upright bass, minimalist trap kit and a mid-50s archtop electric guitar, you might assume this is a rockabilly band. If you were to see their stage attire of black tuxedos (albeit wrinkled, dusty tuxedos), you may assume jazz is their genre. If it was simply a lyric sheet in front of you, with tales of lives soaked with booze, you might presume this is a country act. And if the timbre of the vocals was all you could hear, you’d put your money on this being a blues band.

You would be wrong.

Photo by Butch Belair

The Reid Paley Trio is simply rock and roll distilled to its purest form – a form that harkens back to when parents feared it, before Disney marketed it to pre-pubescents, before more people bought video games simulating playing a guitar than actually picked up a recording of someone playing a guitar. But, Paley (guitar/vocals) and co. are not a nostalgia act – they make a dirty, raw and LOUD sound that is every bit as relevant today as ever before.

“Reid is a very economical songwriter,” says Charles Thompson, a.k.a. Frank Black/Black Francis, a long-time friend, admirer and occasional songwriting collaborator. “Lyrically, he works with (what seems like) a 100 word vocabulary. If you can get away with that, and not sound cliché ridden, it is very cool. I think Reid does a fine job of that. I’ve learned a lot from Reid Paley.”

Paley is a Brooklyn native who first came to musical prominence as a member of The Five, a Pittsburgh-then-Boston band that developed a reputation as one of the great bands of the 80s that never got theirdue. Since moving back to Brooklyn in the 90s, Paley has put out some self-released cassettes, a Sub Pop single, and three full-length records, culminating in 2007’s Approximate Hellhound, a self-produced effort that captures the trio at its stripped-down best.  There are no guitar solos, no backing vocals, and so few overdubs that it would not be inconceivable to assume it was recorded live.

The music and its presentation are straightforward and direct, two things that describe Paley as well. A man after my own heart, Paley has something to say on just about every subject from which Kinks record is the best (Muswell Hillbillies) to recording technology (“I’m not a luddite, but analog just sounds better.”) to Williamsburg (“It looks like a junior college campus threw up all over my neighborhood”). What you see is what you get with Paley (both onstage and off), which is refreshing in today’s era of overly conscious political correctness. He is a smart guy with a biting sense of humor and a muse he refuses to ignore, compromise or dilute.

“Sometimes I drink it in / and sometimes I just drink.” This lyric, from Paley’s “If I Knew Then (What I Know Now),” nicely describes an unseasonably warm afternoon we shared on Bedford Ave, sitting at the window of a bar, people-watching, conversing and imbibing the day away. “Do you realize we are sitting in ‘the coolest neighborhood in the world’ right now?,” Paley asked me. I said that I did, and that unfortunately so did everyone else on the street.  It is easy to see why Paley feels like an outsider in his native Brooklyn – more people passing by appear to be leaving a photo shoot for what “Young Brooklyn” is supposed to look like than not. These people do not go to shows for bands not over-hyped by the blogosphere, these people do not appreciate the hard work that goes into getting a trio tight, and these people just don’t buy records anymore.

Whereas musicians like Lars Ulrich may bitch and moan about people downloading their records, guys like Paley are the ones who really suffer from the commercial drought in record stores. “If I had my way, I would put out a record every 9 months, one a year at least,” says Paley. But that would be impossible in today’s musical climate. With illegal downloads up, and live show attendance down, it can be a hard road for a truly independent musician to till. And that is a damn shame – the world could only benefit from more Paley songs. Like a good friend, the songs are clever, memorable and don’t overstay their welcome. It is our responsibility to get out there and support Paley and those of his ilk. To quote Webb Wilder, “Real music is out there, and real people are making it.” Let us do our part to make sure that quote does not end up an epitaph to a by-gone era where musicians didn’t exist simply behind a computer screen or as a glossy pin-up.

by Brian Salvatore



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