"Dreams, they seem to cost money," The Hold Steady recently observed, "but money costs some dreams."
It's a sentiment The Dexateens are familiar with as a part-time endeavor, but while many musicians share the day-job affliction, few have as strong a catalog or the longevity to be prepping their sixth release in as many years. The Alabama quintet drink deep from the same Southern-fried punk 'n' roll well as early Verbena, Lucero and the Drive-By Truckers, delivering a rugged mix of rawk raunch and simmering twang keyed by a three-guitar attack.
"There's something that happens when there are three guitars onstage," says singer/guitarist Elliott McPherson. "It's a weird overall volume and tone thing that happens, and even when it's just three guitars playing the same chord, it sounds like a mountain coming down. That's what our sound is about, especially live."
Of course, playing live is something The Dexateens don't have the fortune of doing very much lately. McPherson spends his days making cabinets just outside Tuscaloosa, while fellow songwriter/guitarist John Smith taught for years at Ohio's Antioch College before it closed in June and his family relocated to Nashville. These days, bands make their money touring, not with record sales, so The Dexateens' ambitious release regimen makes things that much more difficult. This year's release, Lost & Found, paid the price.
Recorded over a couple of weekends and mixed in a day-and-a-half by David Barbe (The Hold Steady, Bettye LaVette), the quick and dirty approach suits the album, which crackles with unstudied warmth. The nine tracks, all written by Smith, mine a mellower, acoustic-driven Muscle Shoals country-soul vibe, highlighted by "Out on Your Own" and the politically charged "Slender Thread," which are among the prettiest songs the band's ever written. Lacking the funds to press and distribute the album, and having already begun recording their next one, Singlewide (due in the spring), the band decided to make Lost & Found available for free from their website, dexateens.net.
"It's not as easy as you would think to give something like that away and put it in somebody's hands," McPherson notes a little glumly. "It's pretty poppy and strong lyrically. I just think it was a special record, and I hate that we didn't give it a proper release, but we just didn't have any money."
The seeds of Lost & Found are scattered in the last half of their third full-length, last year's Hardwire Healing, which closed with the somber acoustic elegy "Nadine" and the harmonica-fueled country-blues of "Fingertips." The greater melodicism and more supple twang is the culmination of a continuing evolution since their 2004 self-titled debut.
When The Dexateens formed while students at the University of Alabama a decade ago, they were particularly taken with the trashy three-guitar roar of the Quadrets (featuring future members of the Immortal Lee County Killers) and that band's 1998 disc Pay the Deuce. The 'Teens would open for the Auburn quintet whenever they'd come to town, and sought out Tim Kerr, who had produced the Quadrets, to record their first album. But Kerr had little interest in making the same album again and steered The Dexateens in a different direction.
"We had written all this punk stuff like Pay the Deuce, but we watched him get really excited about the stuff that was more melodic. We were seeing him get more hands-on when there was some sort of twang," McPherson says. "I still wouldn't consider ourselves singers, especially me, but he felt like that was one of our strong suits."
Each subsequent release has tempered the guitar squall with more hooks and lope, as will the forthcoming Singlewide, which McPherson compares to CCR. Recorded in Nashville with Mark Nevers, the basic tracks were laid down with acoustic guitar and vocals. Everything else was overdubbed. It's alien to the live-to-tape manner they're accustomed to, but resulted in what McPherson feels is their finest album yet.
"People who really love us for the rock 'n' roll stuff may pooh-pooh this, but we feel really proud of it," he says, but holds out hope for converting those who love the louder, faster, older days. "I wanted to make an album like Singlewide for a long time. Now that it's finally been done, it's time to get back to the fast punk stuff you know. I'm 32, so if I've got another couple rock albums in me, I better get them out now."
They're already working on the next release, as they maintain their album-a-year pace.
"That doesn't mean we're always able to get it put out, but we can have an album written every year. That's our idea of success," McPherson says. "Our situation, as crazy and unorthodox as it is, we make it work because we want to. It's important to us. You can make reasons up why you can't do something, or you can find reasons why you can. We just sort of try to stick to the positive route."