Joe Davis' debut album--ignoring a forgotten demo from years past--sparkles with passion and craft. The Portland singer's falsetto tweaks the heartstrings, melodies resonate, and he plays the guitar just like ringing a bell, simply and remarkably. For a confessional, though, the fuzzy lyrics disappoint. As a first album, Hope Chest suggests a talent still unfocused. Nothing yet to conquer the world
But Joe has this other project, a band. Singer, songwriter, guitarist and founding member, Davis leads the Pinehurst Kids. Davis was, genuinely, a kid from Pinehurst, an Idaho town infamously contaminated by a copper mine. In the most important ways, he is the Pinehurst Kids. And everybody loves the Pinehurst Kids. (OK, nearly everybody.)
The Pinehurst Kids released their latest and best album two months ago and just completed a nationwide tour. The Kids' newest video, shot by a friend for $600, is slated to appear regularly on MTV and its smarter sister station M2. An upcoming NBC comedy licensed seven Kids songs. They might cut a single with Everclear.
All the same, this week Davis unveils his solo debut. See, Davis cares more about the sounds running through his brain than most of the rest of us care about anything. Ever.
"I'd written a bunch of songs that weren't Pinehurst Kids songs," Davis says. "I had a solo record basically done in my head, and it was driving me crazy. I could've sat on it and tried to shop it, but I had it done. And Alex wanted to put it out."
That would be Alex Steininger, the budding Portland rock magnate whose label, In Music We Trust, recently released solo albums from Sean Croghan and Luther Russell--both, like Davis, local scene stalwarts.
"I love Alex," Davis continues. "He's the kind of person who makes music still exist. Major labels want someone who wears a baseball cap backwards, or is significantly depressed."
Despite these frustrations, Davis says the Kids' flirtations with major labels continue. Meanwhile, he's written six songs for the band's next album, scheduled for May 2002. He's also written three songs for a subsequent solo album and plans to assemble a band for a West Coast jaunt in support of Hope Chest.
At first listen, the differences between the two projects seem thin. The solo album is slower and more deliberate, shorn of the Kids' blitzkrieg snottiness, but Davis admits that "it's pretty close."
"It's not like one's a dance record with electronic drums," he says. "If someone thought the Pinehurst Kids were too pop-punk, then they'd actually really like this. But if someone liked Pinehurst Kids, they'd still like this."
Hope Chest allows Davis greater freedom to deploy a guitar technique (subtly difficult chords swapped smoothly with a dexterous, distinctive agility) hidden in the Pinehurst Kids' pulsing hooks. A respected drummer for Richmond Fontaine and Bazooka Jazz back when, Davis plays all instruments on the album save bass; guest bassists include co-producer Larry Crane and Pinehurst Kid Caleb Gates.
"It's his thing, and I was happy to be a part of it," Gates recalls. "What he does as a guitarist is best appreciated acoustically."
With songs detailing private tragedies alternately poetic and irritatingly vague, Davis hints toward childhood illness and familial pains. "I could be talking to myself, for all I know," Davis says, "but it feels good to do.
"It's pretty typical of a first effort in any direction: Write what you know," he explains. "For the last year, I haven't tried to write songs at all. I wake up with a melody in my head, or I get stuck in traffic after somebody stole my stereo."
"Joe would never say it, but the songs he writes are better than the ones on the radio. A lot of songwriters do better once they've left the band. The way Elliott Smith left Heatmiser," Gates says, smiling. "Joe could do that easily."
Davis insists he'll remain a Pinehurst Kid, however successful his solo career, and argues that a good share of the songs scampering about in his consciousness demand the Kids' vibrant chaos. The only hints of potential trouble arises from the oldest question: You're not gonna stay in Portland forever, eh?
No, Davis would like to live somewhere warm, someday soon. More than understandable, but what would that mean for the band?
"Either we'd be international pop stars who could afford to hate each other and live in separate cities and still put out music, or we'd look back on a bunch of records that we believed in," he says. "Everything ends. Everything has a lifespan. I
can always see myself doing solo records. A band is much different. You can have a great run and do a reunion tour, and there's still only that certain window where everything gets done or accomplished or said. When that's over, you either quit or pull out your CDs every other year and think, 'Wow, that's fucking cool.'"
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