Four-fifths of Robin Lane and the Chartbusters have joined me at a restaurant in Somerville to talk about their first album in 22 years. As they poke into plates of pad Thai, they describe Piece of Mind (Windjam) as their revenge on corporate rock, a reclamation of their band’s spirit, a Zen-like progression, the album they’ve always wanted to make, and the work of an evil necromancer.
If the cartoon inside the CD’s sleeve is to be believed, it’s the latter. And that evil necromancer is Pat Wallace, the guitarist who replaced original Chartbuster Leroy Radcliffe. But Wallace doesn’t seem particularly evil as he quietly devours his food sans raw meat and with the proper utensils. He’s amiable and polite, as are all the Chartbusters. Actually, he’s more polite than his bandmates, who, after the 24 years they’ve known one another, talk over and interrupt each others’ conversations. Which makes their assertions that they consider themselves family thoroughly believable.
Four of the original Chartbusters — Lane, guitarist Asa Brebner, drummer Tim Jackson, and bassist Scott Baerenwald — have stayed in touch over the years. They’ve met for Thanksgiving at Jackson’s home and teamed up occasionally in various configurations to collaborate on music. But they haven’t recorded as Robin Lane and the Chartbusters since 1981’s Imitation Life (Warner Bros.). And because their previous albums were made in the days of vinyl, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters will play their first CD-release gig ever on Saturday, February 15, at the Middle East Café. They’ll be joined by fellow Boston rock veterans Willie Alexander & the Boom Boom Band, and the token pups of the night will be openers the Red Chord.
The Chartbusters’ reunion happened this way. The band minus original guitarist Radcliffe regrouped for a couple of special shows in 2001, after Lane returned from a head-clearing six-month trip to her native California. One gig was a benefit; the other marked the release of guitarist Asa Brebner’s latest solo album. And things started to click.
"The shows were so good, I kind of talked them into playing more shows and making a new record," says Lane.
"We were doing so much hanging out together that it just seemed natural," says Brebner.
"It was so much fun to play, and the band sounded great immediately," Jackson adds.
"Plus, we always felt shortchanged by the Warner Brothers albums," Brebner continues. "We always wanted to go back and do it right — to make the record that we really wanted to make. We were one of the great number of bands who thought the day we signed to a major label was the best day of our lives, but we were wrong."
"We blew our shot," says Jackson. "Now we know how to texture and craft our music better than we ever did. When we got signed and met with [producer] Richard Perry, he defined our sound as a jangly guitar band. We should have told Joe Wissert [who ultimately produced their 1980 debut], ‘Here’s what we want: we want to feature the guitars.’"
"But we were young," says Brebner, "and I was drunk out of my mind and high on cocaine."
"I was a nervous wreck in the studio," Lane offers. "At one point, I thought I was singing pretty well and Asa — I didn’t realize he was a Jekyll/Hyde personality yet — goes, ‘Who do you think you are? Astrid Gilberto?’
"Before we recorded our first album, people really loved us," she continues. "After the album came out, people who followed the band said the way we played the songs live before was much better than the way they sounded on that album. It kind of let people down in a certain way."
Well, the truth is that their debut album, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, had plenty of fans and genuine merit, even if the group’s members and hard-core followers were too close to the music to hear it. The heartbreak ballad "When Things Go Wrong" took the band to national radio and out on the road, defining Lane’s emotional songwriting and touching alto voice as group signatures. That tune and "Why Do You Tell Lies," also from the first LP, stand among the better dark-hued, pure-pop numbers of the new-wave era. A harder, more guitar-driven version of "When Things Go Wrong" was the centerpiece of an indie EP the group had released earlier, but the album version supplanted rawness with beauty and precision.
Twenty years ago, "Cellars by Starlight" correspondent Joyce Millman wrote that Robin Lane and the Chartbusters and Imitation Life "ring with electric rusticity, end-of-the-world fear, and Lane’s tender Christian compassion, [and] fall comfortably into synch with the music and messages of new-wave/folk-rock commentators like U2, the Alarm, R.E.M., and Big Country." That still holds, but because Robin Lane and the Chartbusters was finally issued on CD, in September, by the Collectors’ Choice Music label, fans can today make their own reassessments.
Robin Lane and the Chartbusters split up in 1983 after they were dropped by Warner Bros. Lane and Brebner went on to solo careers and both have released albums and appeared on compilations. Today Lane lives in Western Massachusetts and teaches songwriting to troubled teens. Brebner has a painting business, fronts his own group, plays in plenty of others, and has earned a local reputation as a visual artist. Likewise, Jackson and Baerenwald have remained busy players, and Jackson teaches filmmaking and communications at the New England Institute of Art and Communications, in Brookline. Baerenwald was absent from our interview, but it’s Radcliffe who was truly MIA. He slipped from his bandmates' lives as he struggled with addiction, and they don’t know his whereabouts.
Over their Thai food, Lane, Brebner, and Jackson downplay their expectations for Piece of Mind even as they trumpet its merits. (Wallace remains oddly silent, adding credence to the necromancer theory.)
"I doubt that we’ll get on the radio," says Jackson.
"And everybody knows the major labels aren’t interested in 49-year-olds," says Brebner. "So now that any hopes for the brass ring have been dashed, it really purifies your goal. We’re not doing this for another stab at fame. We’re doing this because we love music, which eliminated any psychic noise from making this record."
Nonetheless, Piece of Mind does fit comfortably within the current tide of albums from singer-songwriters, so Robin Lane and the Chartbusters might find themselves unintentionally riding a trend. A consistent preference for electric guitars is the only difference in the basic musical chemistry between Piece of Mind and, say, Canadian newcomer Kathleen Edwards’s heralded debut, Failer (Zoë). Throughout Piece of Mind, the Chartbusters’ playing has a well-balanced economy that cushions the warm tones of Lane’s voice until it’s time for small eruptions of dizzy wah-wah or high-pitched, anarchic outbursts from Brebner’s and Wallace’s guitars.
Lane’s voice remains the band’s defining sound, and rightly so. Her singing has retained its soft edges and low purr — and she uses both to make the CD’s first four songs, which amount to a suite about emotional obsession, dark and powerful. Her strong, shaded tones enhance the minor-chord structures she’s always applied to her pop songwriting. That aspect of Lane’s craftsmanship still gives the Chartbusters’ best material the moody, somewhat brooding sensibility that set them apart in the ’80s.
Then there’s "Little Bird," a spare, folk-based, sad love story that’s Lane’s best vocal performance on Piece of Mind. She swaps her low range on the tune for rich middle tones and arching, airy high phrases offset by guest Robin Batteau’s violin. Things get grittier as the disc progresses, culminating in the buzzing, tongue-in-cheek unease of "Psychotic Disorders." But through it all, melody rules.
"I think that around the time we were making the first album, I was trying to obliterate melody," Lane remarks, allowing that she was caught up in the ethos of the then-flourishing punk-rock spirit. "Even though I was writing songs that were pretty, I was still trying to, you know, ‘grrrrrr.’"
"We all know to honor Robin’s range as a songwriter and let the songs breathe now," Jackson joins in. "I don’t think our textures are much different, but we’re allowing the songs to sound how they were written."
"After all these years, I think we’ve learned we don’t have to play excruciatingly loud," Brebner adds.
Then the conversation veers.
"The age thing," Jackson announces. "That’s just show business. When the Rolling Stones are out there looking like they’re ready to drop into a coffin and everybody calls them the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band, the world has changed."
"What are you saying?" asks Lane.
"The Rolling Stones, Chrissie Hynde, Mary Chapin Carpenter — they’re all over 40, and it’s some of the best music," Jackson replies. "The younger music is show business. That idea of ‘too old to rock and roll’ doesn’t mean anything anymore. When it’s show business, you want fresh meat out there — good-looking bodies and fresh faces ..."
"It’s like porno," Brebner interjects.
"... Like in the movies," Jackson continues. "We’re part of one of the first generations that made a living playing rock and roll, and we’ve got to define that like the old blues and jazz guys did."
"Well, Robin’s a great songwriter," Brebner offers. "The stuff she wrote 20 years ago is great; the stuff she writes now is great."
"Yeah," Jackson says, "you can’t tell the difference between the old and new songs at all."
"Besides," says Brebner, "I’d quit, but why bother?"
Robin Lane and the Chartbusters play with Willie Alexander & the Boom Boom Band and the Red Chord this Saturday, February 15, Downstairs at the Middle East. Call (617) 864-EAST.