By Adam McGrath
Who said music has to be polished to be good? Quality songwriting rises above fancy production or slick marketing, which is why the world took notice when Scotsman Gary McClure released a low fidelity but impressive collection of 8-track recordings online late last year as American Wrestlers.
Formerly of Working for a Nuclear Free City, McClure’s personal and professional lives have taken a series of detours in recent years. The band formed with Philip Kay drifted apart, a solo album fell mostly flat, and love brought McClure across the sea to settle in St. Louis, MO. Freshly married and working a day job, McClure was still driven to write music, even though his gear was back in the UK.
Embracing and exploiting the limits of the instruments and recording equipment he had on hand, McClure managed to build songs that blend hooks with noise and observation with introspection. “I Can Do No Wrong” shines with a sparkly, staticky guitar line and melodic falsetto, and “Kelly” plays with stereo balance and a plucky bass line. The lyrics can be hard to decipher at times, but seeking them out rewards the listener with a deeper story than comes across at first blush.
Originally releasing the album anonymously, McClure soon ’fessed up and was pleasantly surprised to hear Fat Possum wanted to release the album in all its lo-fi glory. Now, the question became how to take this one-man project to a live setting. That was one of the questions I asked Gary by email earlier this week.
“It’s impossible to make it sound like the record on stage,” McClure wryly admitted. “Like it’s on a cassette that’s been recorded at too high a level and left in a puddle. Instead it’s the live take of great songs by a great band, which I feel is the best way to go.”
McClure’s touring band includes his wife, Bridgette Imperial, plus Ian Reitz and Josh Van Hoorebeke. “I truly couldn’t have hoped for better musicians who completely got it right very quickly,” he said.
The biggest difference for McClure this time around wasn’t the low-rent equipment; it was working without his longtime partner. “There’s no Philip Kay,” McClure states candidly. “That’s why it sounds so ugly. I really missed him on this one. In fact, these recordings were originally intended as demos that I was going to send to him to work his magic on. Fat Possum intercepted the package and etched them straight to vinyl. I think it worked out.”
Part of the charm of this album is that the songs sound a little unfinished from a technical standpoint, but still have enough depth to connect with the listener’s heart and mind. McClure channeled inspiration from the recent change in his surroundings, and inevitably put plenty of himself into songs that are ostensibly about something else.
“It’s all hidden in there somewhere,” McClure says. “Unintentionally. I wrote these songs about all kinds of situations and perspectives and ideas that I took to be so far removed from my own life, but on reflection, you could look at parts and lines and say, ‘wait a minute. That’s so obviously reflective of…’ But, I guess it’s impossible to make art otherwise.”
Philly music fans will have the chance to see how this lo-fi bedroom project translates to a proper live venue when American Wrestlers opens for Canadian indie pop band Alvvays on Friday, June 12 at Union Transfer.