Catchy 1960s-style rock music built on the foundations of Phil Spector and the Beatles doesn't have much to do with the classic New Orleans sound.
But for the Generationals, reaching back in time to weave threads of different musical traditions together into their own new and exciting entity is exactly how the Crescent City has always functioned.
With a set of demos that had slowly been building since the 2007 breakup of their previous band, the Eames Era, singer-songwriters Grant Widmer and Ted Joyner formed the Generationals, now a four-piece band that mines the glory of sunny '60s pop. But even though they start with a Beatles/Kinks/Byrds-loving throwback sound, the Generationals' three-minute pop songs are a little jammier and a little quirkier, bedding down with some 1980s synth and even soulful horns.
"There aren't a lot of other rock bands in New Orleans. There are maybe three or four others that consistently play shows in the kind of genre we're dealing with," Widmer says. "It's strange to be based in a city that has such a strong musical history and be on the outer edge of any of it. But people in New Orleans do appreciate that, and people are thirsty for music that's not the traditional music in New Orleans."
Well aware of the fact that they're a throwback rock band in the city of jazz, blues and funk, Widmer and Joyner sought to play up the old by recording in the Washington, D.C., studio of producer Daniel Black.
"We definitely wanted most of it to sound pretty old, and we took some pains to get the sounds that we were trying to reference, using tape machines and archaic recording techniques," Widmer says. "The demos we cooked up for this record just wanted to be produced that way, so we ran with it."
Recording over six months, the band had time to tinker and experiment.
"We're kind of all over the map, and the thing with Dan is we have a lot of options, and he's good at nailing a lot of different sounds," says Widmer during a phone interview as the band made its way from St. Louis to Denver. "Some of it is definitely Phil Spector, '60s-influenced; some of it was Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, '70s-sounding stuff. We draw from different precedents and mess it up just enough to make our own kind of thing out of it."
Recorded on a 24-track 2-inch tape machine, Con Law manages to sound both as fresh as a debut record and familiar in its styles.
"Faces in the Dark" has a distinct Kinks feel, with shakers and bass doubling up on the bouncy vibe. "Our Time (2 Shine)" could've been a pre-new wave surf single, with a flighty organ riff, quickly strummed upstrokes from a chiming guitar and—of course—a horn-driven hook.
"When They Fight, They Fight" begins with a groovy guitar riff and handclaps, then gives way to its slinky soul bassline and bright horns. The vocals swing from quirky to irresistible sing-along. In the 1960s, this song could have been a huge hit; now, it's the blog download the band hopes sends music-seekers back to check out the whole album.
"Exterior-Street-Day" is a 1980s post-punk homage, starting with a detached sense of cool that fades as the big drums, squeaky synth and shouted "oh-way-oh" chorus coalesce into a dance-floor shaker.
For this summer's release of Con Law, the Generationals found the perfect partner in Park the Van Records, a label that returned to its founding city of New Orleans at the end of 2008 after three years in Philadelphia.
"They're a label that is full of other bands that seem focused on songcraft a lot, and less on virtuosity," Widmer says. "Mostly, the focus seems to be on shorter songs, more traditionally structured songs, and songs that are often recalling more of a '60s sound. It's a great place for us to land, especially with this record."
Joining a roster of similarly idiosyncratic and skewed pop bands—including Dr. Dog, the Spinto Band and Tucson's Golden Boots—the Generationals had plenty of tourmates for a year of criss-crossing the country. Widmer says they were glad for the opening slots that allowed them to play to bigger crowds and quickly build a positive reputation. (The band first played Tucson in August on a Park the Van showcase and is anticipating the return: "It's an unexpectedly weird, offbeat city. We took a liking to it last time," Widmer says.)
Currently touring as a four-piece, the band is reworking songs on the fly, covering horn parts with keyboards and jumping between instruments song by song.
"We had to basically rewrite the songs to make them work live, and pick and choose what sounds and instruments we are able to play with," Widmer says. "A lot of the songs have horns and a lot of textures and different instruments, and we had to redo everything and tailor to the live set. It's a challenge, but I love to re-imagine things like that."
Widmer says the touring experience will push them in the direction of sounding more like a live band for the Generationals' next record. Friends since high school and musical collaborators for roughly a decade, Widmer and Joyner are working on their next batch of songs.
"We're each trying to cook up a handful of demos and work them to a point where even though they're still pretty raw, the main piano or guitar riff is there, and the lyrics are mostly there," Widmer says. "Then we'll shuffle the deck and try to finish off the other one's songs. We certainly have that shorthand to know where the other one is going to go and where to challenge each other to do something unexpected."