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An old soul
Tony McNaboe proves he's heading in the right direction with Destination
BY SAM PFEIFLE
Near the end of High Fidelity (the movie), John Cusack’s character Rob is in a frenzy. His buddy, played by Jack Black, has got a band named Sonic Death Monkey, and he’s scheduled to open Rob’s CD-release show, which is populated by a bunch of thirtysomething trendsters.
"Okay everybody, please don’t leave," he says by way of introduction. "Here’s Sonic Death Monkey."
Black promptly steps up to the mic and starts belting out a soulful rendition of Marvin Gaye’s "Let’s Get it On."
This scene was nearly reproduced two years ago when Tony McNaboe made his debut as a lead singer, fronting Inside Straight. The man who had spent a decade behind the drum kit playing for the often fire-breathing Rustic Overtones was now on stage at the Big Easy every Monday crooning out Motown favorites by Al Green and smooth numbers by Stevie Wonder, backed by a 10-piece band populated with cool-gal backup singers and a horn section.
It took some getting used to, but McNaboe’s initially raspy delivery became clearer and more refined. The band started to pepper in McNaboe originals amongst the Motown covers. Their lead singer started to consistently be able to make it through the whole set without losing his voice. It became difficult to get in the door on Monday nights.
But there was more to come. McNaboe disbanded Inside Straight to begin working on his own material exclusively. Then, about a year ago, he had lunch with Big Sound producer/engineer Jon Wyman. Listening to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, McNaboe told Wyman that was the sound he was looking for, and they went into the studio soon after.
But you can’t sound like Stevie without learning to really belt out those vocals. And so McNaboe packed up his bags, complete with the two-inch tape containing all the instrumental parts to his songs, and traveled out to Minneapolis to work with the Steele brothers, JD, Billy, and Frank.
"What JD does for a living is arrange vocals," McNaboe says. "I had met him when I played drums with the Steeles the first couple of times they came to Portland. And we developed a deep friendship and so I just wanted to take advantage of that relationship when I could."
"We worked for two weeks, and we spent most of that time working through vocals and arrangements, and we spent a lot of time building harmony and texture, even just through some ooohs and ahhs."
JD, as gospel singer, arranger, and performer, is a master of perfect pitch, and can pick chords and harmonies out like he’s playing "Name that Tune." He’s also a perfectionist.
"I’d get frustrated," says McNaboe, "and he would just say ‘Trust me,’ and I had to learn to trust him. He’s a great friend and he was a great coach that whole week, and I just learned more than I could have imagined by going out there and working with him.
"For the first time in my life, I was really getting serious about singing and working on the subtle aspects of it: pitch and delivery and breath control, and everything that goes into it."
He compares it to his 15 years of drumming. There’s always something new to learn, a finer point to make. Those who think singing doesn’t take practice and skill have never had to work at it.
"You have to stay on top of it and stay in shape," says McNaboe. "I still have a hard time taking myself seriously as a singer. It still is taking some getting used to, but I’m getting to the point where I can enjoy it a little more. The trick is to entertain and at the same time to be good at singing, and it’s two separate things."
McNaboe excels at both on Destination, a record he’ll be unveiling with a CD-release party at the Big Easy on Friday. This time around, no one should be surprised when his sultry voice starts caressing the mic. McNaboe has evolved into an accomplished soul singer and songwriter, able to both borrow adeptly from pioneers like Al Green and Earth, Wind & Fire and mesh these sounds with contemporary touches as simple as the beats generated by a Play Station video game.
That’s right, Music Generator was instrumental in the production of two of Destination’s best tunes: the swinging "Old Sweet Songs" and the introspective "Departure." It’s kind of strange for a guy who’s previously made his living as a drummer to regale himself in digitalia, but the songs are the results of long nights of experimentation, and there’s no arguing with his success.
"Old Sweet Songs" is a standout party anthem, and McNaboe knows it. He leads with some party-chatter background noise, and then lays down a groove that can’t help but entice juiced-up guys in white T-shirts and gals in tight pants into hip-locked grind. It’s simultaneously a throwback to dance-hall days and a nod to Snoop Dogg, Schlitz tall boys and gin and juice.
Or, as McNaboe sums things up, "Never mind O-Town, I’d rather have Motown." The singalong chorus of "Old soul music on my radio" will wedge itself into your head for a solid week with the first listen, and there’s a list of good records to go pick up at Enterprise if you listen closely. The kicker, though, is a rapped break by Bread (giving you a flavor of what you’re missing now that it looks like kNOw Complex’s Machigonne will never see the light of day).
"When I was writing that," says McNaboe, "I just left that whole space in the middle and I knew that eventually I’d bring in Bread. Because it’s a name-dropping song, and I knew that he’d love it . . . And he got real obscure on it. There’s a whole lot of stuff in there where people will really have to work to figure some stuff out."
What’s crazy is that this song almost didn’t even make it onto the album. It was set to go to the printer the next day and McNaboe had to call in Bread to get the song down just at the last minute. It winds up being a great counterpart to the title track (featured on the most-recent Area Code 207 compilation), which opens the disc, providing upbeat bookends to an album that puts plenty of emphasis on songs to makeout to.
Like "Brighter Days," which features to great effect some falsetto background vocals from JD Steele. Here the listener gets to hear McNaboe using his voice as the lead instrument, with the bass and guitar (provided by members of the Minneapolis band Mint Condition) pretty subdued, until the solo, which is smooth like a jazz guitar, Grover Washington–style. It’s representative of the very urban feel to the whole record. In some ways, it doesn’t feel like a Maine record at all, and yet it has a very Maine–musician feel and retains a local flavor that is identifiable in the Big Sound production values.
Contributions by old Inside Straight and Rustic bandmates are all over the record, including guitar work from Ryan McCalmon — an early McNaboe collaborator and influencer — bass from Pat Hodgkins (now of Rocktopus), Jon Roods, and Pete Dugas; and horns from the old Rustic trio of Ryan Zoidis, Jay Ward, and Dave Noyes (who all have their own new exciting projects you’ll be hearing about sooner than later).
It’s easy to think about these collaborations further once you’ve heard "Departure," which is basically the Dear John letter McNaboe wrote when he left Rustic to go his own way.
"It’s funny how things can change," McNaboe sings over an interesting wash of new-agey sounds in the background. It is funny, but a record like this reminds you that change can be a very good thing.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at spfeifle[a]phx.com
Tony McNaboe plays a CD-release show, with Raycharles Lamontagne, at the Big Easy, in Portland, March 7. Call (207) 871-8817. The album will be available in stores March 10.