Bart Davenport: I am not embarrassed of any music.
Rock music is supposed to be dangerous. It's supposed to make you feel dirty and sexy and in need of a shower. It's supposed to leave you with weird bruises on your legs and lipstick on your pillow and dented fenders on your T-bird. It's not supposed to make you want to tuck in your shirt. Right? Wrong.
"I remember crashing over at the Beachwood Sparks' house like five or six years ago after a shared bill in L.A.," says Eric Shea of local hard-rockers Parchman Farm. "[The Sparks'] Brent Rademaker and I were smoking a joint and listening to records in his room, and he put on the Bread anthology, and he said that he liked Bread because it made him want to tuck in his shirt and wear a belt. And he totally meant it. He wasn't being sarcastic at all. That just blew me away."
Watch out, people, the soft-rock revival has arrived. After gorging ourselves on '80s new wave and post-punk, you'd think we'd be setting our retro-music machines to 1991 and the flannel-flying grunge era, but think again. Suddenly it's 1974, and the feeling is breezy.
"When I put on Hall & Oates -- you know, 'Sara Smile' or something -- at [Oakland hipster bar] Radio, the girls just melt," says KALX DJ Roscoe 2000.
That's right, Hall & Oates. Or the Little River Band, Air Supply, the Eagles. All those formerly unhip, ultra-sincere, super-produced, hella-wimpy groups are back in vogue. For recent examples, check out the Autumn Defense's Circles, on which two members of Wilco re-create Paul McCartney's piano-driven smoothness; Josh Rouse's aptly titled 1972, which starts off by name-checking singer/songwriter Carole King; or Matthew Sweet's new group the Thorns, which attempts to duplicate the honeyed harmonies of Crosby, Stills, & Nash.
"To play this kind of music well," says Shea, "you already have to be coming from a life-after-jaded place. You have to live the post-jaded life and you have to live it confidently enough to not give a shit about the negative things that other people can say about it when they're trying to be smart."
This description fits East Bay musician Bart Davenport so perfectly it should be tattooed on his skinny behind.
During the '90s, Davenport co-founded the '60s-styled mod group the Loved Ones and the '70s soul-funk revival outfits the Kinetics and the Supernaturals. While these acts were certainly fun to watch, their rigid blues and R&B styles allowed Davenport little room for personal expression beyond "my baby done me wrong" themes.
"Bart was an extremely talented performer doing stuff that required the suspension of sincerity," says Paul Koehler, longtime local musician and co-owner of Antenna Farm Records.
But when the Kinetics broke up in 1998, Davenport took to writing different kinds of songs -- ones with increased emotional candor and musical experimentation. In a January 2002 interview in East Bay Express, he explained that he "really needed to get out of this lazy retro bubble and listen to more modern sounds and try and be more risk-taking in what I do musically."
Davenport's first solo effort, a self-titled 2002 release on Paris Caramel Records, was a giant step forward. The tunes moved from the quiet solo-acoustic "New Cool Shoes" to the bossa nova shuffle of "Sugar Pie 1 & 2" to the synthy spaced-out ballad "A Clever Girl," while the lyrics told of single mothers, thrifty lifestyles, and love developing fast like a Polaroid. As Davenport sang on "Miami Afternoon," "subtlety's gonna be my best friend."
But while the album showed off Davenport's increased vision, it was something of a scattershot affair. "I'm amazed it sounds coherent at all," he says during an interview at Berkeley's People's Park. "The tracks were recorded all over, in bedrooms and studios, on four-tracks and bigger equipment."
For his new Antenna Farm CD, Game Preserve, Davenport wanted a more cohesive vibe, one built around mid-'70s soft rock. "It's from being a little kid when those records were hits," says Davenport. "That drum sound, that weird mellow rock sound -- it's always felt like home to me. It's the first music I can remember."
In order to replicate the sound of artists like Steely Dan, Al Stewart, and Fleetwood Mac, Davenport and producer Jon Erickson recorded all the sessions with vintage analog equipment. Thanks to the warm production, the record has a remarkable consistency, even with the wide variety of musicians playing on it (including country-rock guitarist Dave Gleason, avant-folkies the Moore Brothers, indie-soul sister Nedelle, and the members of sunshine-pop band Call and Response). Whether it be the countrified twang of "Bar-code Trees," the piano balladry of "Nowhere Left to Go," or a spot-on cover of the Free Design's "My Brother Woody," the tunes sound drawn from the heyday of '70s AM radio, without coming off cloying or dated.
This is not to suggest that all the songs blend together in one gooey lump. There's also the sax-accented boogie-rock sing-along "Euphoria or Everyone on Earth Is So Beautiful, Even You" and the effervescent soul-folk of "Sideways Findways."
As Antenna Farm's Koehler says of the songwriter, "Bart is like the most sincere chameleon you ever saw, pulling off all of these styles and letting his talent take the place of irony."
This refreshing lack of snark is also apparent in the lyrics. It takes gumption to name a track "When You're Sad," let alone suggest to hypercritical indie audiences that you hope "the day will come again when we see more than what you wore last night at a show." It also takes guts to write a love ballad as delicately wussy as "Sweetest Game."
"That was a breakthrough song for me," Davenport admits. "I wrote it in Madrid [on tour with the Kings of Convenience]. I was watching TV and flipping back and forth between bullfights and a football match. I decided to incorporate that stuff into it: 'I'm not being much of a sportsman or competitor; I guess I'd just rather win your heart than beat you at soccer.' Initially I thought it was too conventional, but then I played it for some friends, and they said they loved it."
"A good love song shouldn't try and be too clever or too witty or heady unless that love song was written for some kind of sexy professor," says Shea (whose Friends & Lovers: Songs of Bread tribute album is scheduled for release next spring).
Davenport may not be a professor, but he's created something pretty brilliant with Game Preserve. While Matthew Sweet's Thorns supergroup comes off like a Traveling Wilburys-type hack job and Josh Rouse sounds like an indie rocker trying on his dad's fringe jacket, Davenport hits the soft-rock nail on the head. Much like his forebears -- and unlike many of his contemporaries -- he places a high premium on well-honed instrumental chops and a rich, soulful voice. And, along with his accomplished collaborators, Davenport makes the most complex parts seem simple -- something that Steely Dan and other '70s acts excelled at.
But perhaps most important, Game Preserve doesn't sound as though it was made by a musical trend-jumper. Davenport's appreciation for the style comes through in every falsetto vocal, every intricate string section, every warm piano flourish. This stuff seems to come naturally to the Bay Area native. You can almost see him back in 1974 with his ear pressed to a handheld radio, singing along to "Rikki Don't Lose That Number."
This soft-rock revival may not last long -- hell, it'll probably be gone by spring the way trends move these days -- but hopefully Game Preserve will be remembered as its finest hour. Or at least an album that'll make you tuck in your shirt and put on a belt.