Originally a live project where friends played cover tunes and numbers from their respective catalogues as a way of letting off steam, The Needy Sons is a Boston supergroup of sorts. Mike Gent has recorded several albums with power pop/rock outfit The Figgs, Ed Valuskas has associations with Gravel Pit and the legendary Bill Janovitz has recorded various solo albums as well as being a member of Buffalo Tom (whose ‘Big Red Letter Day’ is one of the finest albums in the history of recorded music). Augmented by Eric Anderson and with their debut album ‘Vis a Vis’ mixed in part by Mike Viola’s matey Ducky Carlisle, you could say this band got off to a good start.
Given the range of talents involved, their music too can be varied and doesn’t always present itself in the way you might expect – especially if approached chiefly as a Buffalo Tom fan. With a cheeky nod to Phil Spector in the drum department, ‘Lost Against The Twighlight’ starts with a hefty beat and quickly morphs into a really upbeat slab of jangling rock, with not even a hint of the Boston alum. An ideal album opener, though; the pace is incessant throughout and the kitchen sink production makes everything sound as if being swamped by about six guitars. Somehow, the band have created a distinctive sound that combines 80s college rock – plenty of chiming guitars – with the mechanised structure of New Order. Added to this is a slightly downbeat, deep vocal that doesn’t uplift as much as add to the feeling of a claustrophobic and busy arrangement. It may be dense, but there are some great touches: a harmonious backing vocal that almost seems too shy to come forth and a clean 50s guitar twang really lift things. As a first impression of a band of brothers and familiar faces within a new set up, it’s quite wearing, but once attuned, can also seem utterly thrilling. It’s one of those tracks that doesn’t click straight off – a little patience is definitely necessary.
Taking things down a notch, the Mike Gent penned ‘Superficial Kid’ hits with a Stones-ish mood, taken by way of a 90s alternative sound from Boston. The Keef and Ronnie styled swagger in the guitar department is unsurprising given Janovitz’s love of the Rolling Stones (he’s written a book about their seminal ‘Exile on Main Street’). It may not be as imaginative as ‘Twighlight’, but in many ways, this is where The Needy Sons excel, cranking out a tune that combines the sounds of Watts with a nod to The Replacements‘ Slim Dunlap. Also written by Gent, ‘Too Thin’ possesses the kind of woozy attitude present on some of the early 70s Stones records, but re-imagined by Pete Droge. This, too, really brings out the natural talents of this gathering of friends, as overdriven guitars crank a pleasingly retro riff set against a slack vocal. It could be argued that The Stones were never the same following the departure of Mick Taylor, but listening to bar-room rock in the hands of these guys, there’s no denying that ‘Goats Head Soup’ and ‘Exile On Main St.’ retain a timeless appeal.
For Buffalo Tom fans, the punchy ‘Red Line’ is an instant highlight, introducing a familiar voice. With the band stepping up to more of a sweaty pace, the jangling guitars dominate, while an unfussy guitar solo really captures the spirit of the Sons’ unpolished style. Like a hybrid of BT and major label Replacements there’s a carefree air in the performance, while Janovitz appears in very good voice. Also essential listening, ‘The Wheels Are Taking Care of The Road’ does something a little more unexpected by placing choppy indie-rock riffs against a very mechanised beat. The tune finds its feet almost instantly and from then on, the hard rhythm never wavers. This is a great musical device, giving a great platform to build from and, as such, various shimmering guitars drop in and out, while an equally intermittent vocal sounds like an old friend in unfamiliar surroundings. A couple of spins and ‘Wheels’ asserts its place as an album highlight.
Released as a single long before the album, mid-paced rocker ‘The Swimmer’ presents a strong vocal against a more pedestrian tune. The guitars retain a sizeable presence but aren’t always too exciting, while underneath everything an old-fashioned swirling organ adds colour. In terms of standard alt-rock with a 70s bent, you’ve heard this kind of thing time and again, but placed within the framework of this varied album, it still has some appeal for Jano-fans, especially as the track’s best melodies come from the vocal itself. It may sound like a sagging Buffalo Tom b-side in places, but that’s probably preferable to the samba-ish ‘White Spider Blues’, a mish-mash of a tune that suffers from having a Casio rhythm drive its verses. Luckily, things pick up tenfold for a very 70s chorus where Gent’s wistful voice is well suited to the change in style, but in honesty, this track doesn’t sound as professional as it might. Maybe they were trying to get the fun and all friends together nature of The Needy Sons sessions across with something more lightweight, but it probably isn’t a track you’ll return to again and again.
Another standout placing Bill at the mic, ‘Roll Call’ brings Stones-meets-Watts-meets-Tommy Stinson knockabout fun where the whole band sound particularly energised (a tune best heard with the volume cranked), while ‘Chopped Down’ occasionally sounds like a dirty cousin to the earliest Cheap Trick. With a full compliment of guitars and a heady rhythm, this is the kind of music that sounds great live and even on this studio recording comes across with gusto. Both tracks embody the spirit of The Sons and perhaps should have been placed earlier in the running order. As suggested by the title, ‘Majoring In Slow’ is a little more sedate, with the riffs adopting a mid-paced chug as their main concern which combined with a natural vocal (sounding a bit like an out of sorts Mike Viola) taking the reins provides solid entertainment. The drum sound on this track is particularly big – an interesting choice, given that the rhythms are so basic – but it’s never leaden. There are various additions to this number that ensure it doesn’t flag; Janovitz’s backing vocals are enthusiastic, the extended lead guitars during the play-out add a much welcome Stones-y flair and an unexpected new wave keyboard occasionally makes everything feel as if Bill’s brother Scott has wandered into the studio and waved a hand of influence. Everything considered, this is one of ‘Vis-a-Vis’s four or five best tracks.
Supergroups – for the want of a word – don’t always work, but it’s always interesting to hear different talents bouncing ideas from each other. Some of ‘Vis a Vis’ isn’t particularly polished and not all of it works, but it constantly gives the impression that these guys had fun in the studio. It’s very much a rough diamond of a disc – almost coming with a gleeful guarantee you won’t like all of it. However, when The Needy Sons hit the mark – as they very much do on most of Bill Janovitz’s contributions – they do so with style.