One and done, The Grays

One and done...

The Grays – Ro Sham Bo (1994)
An album can mean much more to me for numerous inane reasons than the average music listener. The album of course must be good and resonate on some level, but there’s sometimes a wrinkle that makes it that much more special. It goes as follows….
1. Solo artist or frontman/songwriter of group passes away during the making of or after the release of an album (J Dilla – Donuts, Joy Division – Closer, Aaliyah – Aaliyah, Dennis Wilson – Pacific Ocean Blue)
2. Artist receives little to no attention during their prime and quietly release an album only known by a small group of music geeks that keep the word alive (Shuggie Otis – Inspiration Information , Bobb Trimble – Iron Curtain of Innocence, Gary Wilson – You Think You Really know me, Emitt Rhodes – Emitt Rhodes).
3. The “here’s all of my problems/issues album that I and you, because your listening to this must come to grips with, lets begin” album (Beck – Sea Change, Robert Wyatt – Rock Bottom, Marvin Gaye – Here My Dear).
4.  Group breaks up after release/non release of  acclaimed album before they can make due on their promise album (Lucy Pearl – Lucy Pearl, InI- Center of Attention).

There’s a variety of other reasons that I could list (albums recorded under massive amounts of coke abuse, im going to jail so let me put out something really quick album, and my favorite “I owe my record label one more album as part of my contract screw them, I’m going to make a stinkbomb” album).
The album “Ro Sham Bo” pictured above by the group “The Grays” would fall under reasons 2 and 4. An insanely talented group comprised of songwriters and producers who hated being in bands, the band was created as a utopia from the typical world that each member could not deal with in past situations of common band drama/issues. Each member contributed songs. They shared instrumentation and production duties as well as taking turns with lead vocals. Comprising of members Jon Brion, Jason Falkner (former Jellyfish member), Buddy Judge, and Dan McCarroll, The Gray’s were constructed to encourage artistry amongst members, quell ego’s, and ensure that the group would be sucessful and last.
After one tour and one album on Epic records the experiment was over as they packed it in figuring out that no matter how perfect the situation, working with people is working with people. I adquate it to having the perfect roommate then figuring out nothing’s still better then living on your own. Sure he makes a great lasagna and has great taste in movies, but having your own place to yourself is just the best look right?
Due to their breakup and little promotion from Epic/Sony the album didn’t make that much of a splash in the 90’s rock alternative universes. Reviewing the landscape at that time the group was too mature for the lame radio powerballad set and not as alt edgey as the 90’s underground at the time, placing them in relative obscurity within the rock band order. Ro Sham Bo has shades of the typical “90’s” sound of overblown production values, but what sets it apart is that although it has the sound of the era, you can listen to this album today as opposed to most of the popular artists at that time (“Far Behind” by candlebox was a great song, but I can’t imagine it popping up on my shuffle playlist and me being excited for more then the first minute…diminishing returns would set in quick by the 5th chorus). The problem with most 90’s commercial records is that they were so caught up  in popular music culture at the time, which encouraged exuberance in all facets of songwriting, production, instrumentation that they all sound dated (in a bad way) today. The Gray’s were affected by the times that they were in no doubt, but they transcended that sound (re: not obnoxious) and created their own thread which to most listeners at the time was confusing.
Brion, Falkner, and Judge split the vocal duties making for a diverse distinct sound within a general context that the band establishes on Ro Sham Bo. Falkner’s songs stand out initially due to their energy and well crafted hooks (“Very Best Year’s”, “Friend of Mine”), but Brion’s and Judge’s songs (Nothing Between Us, All You Wanted) with their brooding structures are slow burners that are beautiful after a couple listens. The Gray’s made an album that worked within their era’s framework while producing works that would be appreciated no matter the contemporary sounds of today and tomorrow. Timeless in a sense.
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4 Responses to One and done, The Grays

  1. Jimmy2times says:

    Nice! My cousin was the drummer. Big up on posting this.

  2. Rob says:

    I didn’t know a soul who listened to the Grays when I was in college in the mid-1990s, but I found that your comments really resonated with me. The Grays were difficult to categorize, and the album cover really captures that paradox of connection and simultaneous fragmentation. I don’t think I understood that until I read your post. (I also really liked your comment about Beck’s “Sea Change.”)

    I’m listening to “Ro Sham Bo” as I type, trying to place how it makes me feel. Without a single, unified vocal expression or clearly recognizable sound that allows for quick categorization, they were destined to be overlooked. The album always made me feel good, even now, but not in a reductive or simply nostalgic way. Their song writing, collectively and separately, is really solid, and at the end of the day that has always been the most important for me.

    By the way, any ideas about the title? I’ve always been puzzled by it. I understand that it can be read as the Asian equivalent of rock, paper, scissors, or as a game to settle disputes where two men pummel each other in the groin until someone relents, thereby settling the dispute. Thoughts?

    Well, good post. I enjoyed reading your entry.

  3. Joe Casimir says:

    Another accurate review of this amazing band but once again nothing mentioned about the Beatles connection. These guys all shared one common thread, an obvious reverence for the Fab Four. Of any recording I have ever heard this one is most heavily influenced by Lennon(Buddy Judge) McCartney and Harrison(Jason Falkner) Jon Brion (all three). I would also include George Martin as their greatest production instructor. The songs are not only great but recorded in that classic English style brought up to date by today’s technology. This is one of my most beloved recordings. When listened to at high volume levels through a pair of Bose 901s it is truly a religious experience. Would the Beatles have continued on into the 90s, they would have become The Grays.

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