If The Shazam's new full-length Meteor isn't quite a masterpiece, it comes close enough to the kind of statement Hans Rotenberry had in mind. And anyway, who cares about masterpieces? Meteor is an unabashed pastiche—classic-rock tricks strung together by people who care as much about the moves as they do the meaning. Rotenberry's songs aren't shallow, but they're so genial as to be almost unreadable, which makes this Nashville band an anomaly in a garrulous era. In case you care about significance, it's hidden under the shell of Reinhold Mack's luxurious hard-candy production.
The record turned out well, but Meteor almost didn't get made at all. The Shazam's last collection, 2002's Tomorrow the World, continued the British-American pop sound of their early efforts, and was cut with Nashville producer Brad Jones. Tomorrow garnered the band plenty of attention, and they toured extensively to support it. Still, they were tagged as a power-pop group—a designation that was accurate enough, but somehow lacking.
For Rotenberry, who was born in Kingsport, Tenn., in 1967, Meteor represents both a musical apotheosis and a temporary victory over record-industry forces beyond his control. After the release of Tomorrow, Rotenberry began thinking about the production of the next Shazam record. "I wanted to make a classic-rock record," he says. "I'm a dinosaur, and kinda had this eye toward grandiosity."
The first attempts at recording what would become Meteor happened with producer R.S. Field in Nashville. "Around 2003, Field and I had started bumpin' into each other, talking about records we liked—there was this incredible Move and Mott the Hoople connection," Rotenberry says. Three years later The Shazam—rounded out to a quartet with new bassist Mike Vargo and second guitarist Jeremy Asbrock—began cutting with Field.
Rotenberry is loath to call it by name, but a well-known label financed the Field recordings with an eye to vetting the final product. "They'd give us the money and we'd go and record, and we'd give 'em a progress report, and in theory they'd approve it and give us the rest of the money to finish the project," Rotenberry says. Sure enough, the band spent the money to finish four songs, but the label passed.
"We sent it to them, and they didn't know what to do with it," Rotenberry says. The group tried to finish the project in their home studios, a method that didn't work very well. "Next thing you know, there's three versions of the album, and it's a big mess. Now we just blew a wad of money and the record ain't done and we don't even have a label."
Eventually they raised enough cash to record an album's worth of songs with Field. In the meantime, Rotenberry had gotten in touch with Mack, a German producer and engineer who had worked on any number of famed '70s and '80s records by Queen, Billy Squier and the Electric Light Orchestra. Impressed by Mack's résumé, and desperate to put the finishing touches on the record, Rotenberry sent Mack the Field tracks.
Mack worked up a radical remix of "So Awesome," the song that would lead off Meteor. "It was visionary, plus it sounded like fucking Queen," Rotenberry says. "He blew it all to smithereens and put it back together." Doing the math, Rotenberry realized it would cost as much to remix the Field tracks as it would to simply re-record everything with Mack.
"So I spent a year with the band doing nothing while I tried to raise money," Rotenberry says. They finally cut Meteor in early 2008 at Los Angeles' Sage & Sound Recording. Rotenberry says they kept many first and second takes, and you can hear it: The band sounds sharp, with Scott Ballew's drumming particularly inspired.
Mack's perfectionism turns Rotenberry's songs into dense operettas. The band rocks, but Meteor colors outside the lines brilliantly. "After the initial sessions, I spent six weeks or so fixing it up at home," Mack says. "There's about 5,000 edits in each song. Each item has been cleaned up in a way that's still dirty."
Every song works, with cinematic interludes and comic backing vocals. Perhaps the record's most addictive moment is "NFU," which suggests Marc Bolan after years of illegal steroids. Rotenberry's lyrics address failure and success without making a big deal out of it— appropriate for a band making their best record after more than a decade in the music business.
For Rotenberry, it's a validation of his ambition. "My band, we're not made up of seasoned veterans from wherever. We were from nowhere. And we only played in The Shazam," he says. "This is what you live for, OK? If you're not rich and famous, at least do it right, you know?"