New Beginnings: Baby Ray
The Boston Phoenix, Auguest 31, 2001
Cellars by Starlight: Brett Milano
You can't buy Baby Ray's new CD anywhere, and the band won't be making a penny off the disc. That's because the local popsters arent selling the new disc, called Demonstration and released on their own label (and burned on their own home computers). They're giving it away. Instead of doing the common thing and making all the tracks available as mp3s, they're handing over a CD to anyone who asks for one. They'll have copies available at their shows (the next one is September 21 at the Lizard Lounge [nope: it's at Toad...]); or you can contact the band via their Web site and they'll send you one.
"Let's face it, a lot of records don't make a lot of money anyway," explains drummer Nathan Logus when we meet up at the Middle East. "It's harder for people to part with the precious 12 bucks these days, and I don't want them to have to think about whether they want to buy our album instead of somebody else's. What's important is that people get to hear it." "So the album isn't completely free, because there's one stipulation: they have to promise us that they're going to go home and play it." Adds singer/guitarist Erich Groat, "And if they don't like it, they have to come to another one of our shows and give it back. That's where well make the money."
The free CD also gives the band an easy way to reconnect with their audience after falling off the radar in the past year. Prior to that, Baby Ray had been on a tear, releasing two CDs (the album Monkeypuzzle and the EP Do I Love America, both on Thirsty Ear), writing hundreds of songs, and generally endearing themselves to fans of pop with a twist. And they truly were prolific: when I remarked, in a review of their first album, that its catchiest songs included the word "f__k," they responded by sending me a 45-minute tape of Baby Ray songs with that word in the lyric. They even learned an entire set of oddball cover tunes (ranging from Genesis's "Squonk" to Chaka Khan's "Tell Me Something Good" to Steely Dans "Reelin' in the Years") for a gig at the Lizard Lounge last year, for which they billed themselves as the Ray Babies. Last summer the band went off to record with Logus's brother Paul a hotshot engineer/producer on Puff Daddy's payroll and there was talk of their signing to Universal or another major. And then, nothing for a long while.
"We heard all sorts of encouraging signals from a number of places, and then nothing panned out," Groat says. "There was so much going on, and so much not going on at the same time. I really needed to stop playing for a while. "As for the major-label rumors, everything's a rumor until it actually happens. Nothing happened, so everythings a rumor," is how Logus puts it. Most of Baby Rays members popped up in other places during the layoff: Logus in Francine; Logus and guitarist Ken Lafler in the Weisstronauts; all three members in the Willard Grant Conspiracy. When Baby Ray finally reconvened, bassist Paul Simonoff opted to stay on hiatus, so his place is now being taken by Willard Grant member Pete Sutton, who also played in Trona and in Logus's old band the Barnies.
A lot of Baby Ray's most upbeat, between-the-eyes pop songs went into the unreleased album, whose contents are still sitting on Paul Logus's hard drive (he swears it will all come out someday). Meanwhile, the Demonstration CD shows a more esoteric side of the band and, in some ways, a more rewarding one. Its not strictly a Baby Ray recording, since the songs were tracked separately as home demos by Groat and Lafler. Each writer then overdubbed his own percussion, so the bands rhythm section doesn't appear. But it reminds you why bands make lo-fi records: to show off the melodies that might get lost behind bigger arrangements. In that respect, "Boom Chicks" is the best thing here, and one of the best in the band's catalogue. Performed by Groat with just a couple of acoustics and a drum machine, it conveys a sense of loss and yearning that doesn't always come through in Baby Ray's more exuberant, full-band incarnation.
As the set list for that all-covers gig revealed, Baby Ray's members are pretty serious music heads. And they're the first to admit to being fans of some of the bands they've been compared with in the past, notably Guided by Voices, XTC, and Radiohead. "I actually write the most songs when I spend the most time listening to music," Groat explains. "Radiohead have proven to be a huge inspiration, but I wouldnt say I've done anything that sounds like them. And the fact is, I had no idea they were so popular. When I heard Kid A, I decided I wanted to contact them, because I was wondering if they'd read a certain book I was reading. So I went to see if I could reach them on-line, and that's when I found out that they were #1 when that record came out. So that's how far out of the loop I am."
Neither does he feel that the cards are particularly stacked against a band like Baby Rays signing to a major. "The heyday of the well-constructed pop song was over before we were even born. That's why we struck out in that direction, and there were other bands in Boston that felt the same way. So we don't feel like the ground dropped out from under us, because it was never there in the first place."