Continuing with our series of notable rock star breakdowns/conversions…
It was one of those priceless record store moments that the Internet has made so obsolete. Late 2000 and I was doing what I did every Tuesday in college: browsing the new releases at Olson’s in DC (now closed). “You’ll swear you’re hearing Carl Wilson (of The Beach Boys) fronting The Replacements” read the sticker on one CD. …Say what?! Two of my favorite things in the whole wide world, expressed in the sort of High Fidelity shorthand that spoke straight to my heart. The record in question was In the Valley of Dying Stars by Superdrag, and needless to say, I picked it up. The band vaguely rang a bell – MTV’s Buzz Bin had given them the kiss of death a few years before and although I had liked that song (“Sucked Out”), I had consigned them to the wasteland of 90s one-hit wonders. Marcy’s Playground, anyone?
I soon found out how mistaken I had been. Dying Stars more than lived up to the billing; in fact, it’s one of the great American rock n roll records of the Y2K era. The more natural Minneapolis touchstone is probably Husker Du, (lead singer John Davis could sound uncannily like Bob Mould at times), and while The Beach Boys influence was immediately apparent, the visual reference point was more Liverpudlian. But Superdrag was their own thing, through and through, lead singer John Davis being one of the absolute top songwriters of his generation, possessing a ridiculously good ear for melody. “Power-pop” is how folks normally refer to their kind of music, and despite the affinities with a certain other Tennessee band, the label doesn’t really do them justice. The lyrical vision is too eccentric and cynical, the vocals too raw, the harder edges too hard.
I soon worked my way backwards and found that, while Dying Stars was clearly the masterpiece, Superdrag hadn’t put out a bad record. In 2002, they released Last Call For Vitriol and it was announced that it would be their swansong. A tour followed, as did rumors of serious substance abuse, and then silence. Another great band bites the dust. Or so I thought.
True believer that I am, I would occasionally check their website to see what Davis was up to. In 2004, paydirt! A solo EP was on the horizon, with the extremely curious title of “Jesus Gonna Build Me A Home.” A few Google searches later and sure enough, it turned out Davis had undergone, in his own words, “a radical conversion,” that the new record might not fly with people who object to words like “Jesus” and “God” (which likely encompassed a good deal of the Superdrag audience). Music to my ears! And so I waited with baited breath, praying that the change of heart would be just that, and not a change of aesthetic as well.
“Jesus Gonna Build Me A Home” did indeed represent a new direction for Davis, musically as well as lyrically, but man, what a direction! Channeling his inner (and outer!) Leon Russell, he delivered a note-perfect Southern-fried Gospel anthem. Nothing remotely CCM about it, thank God. The rest of the self-titled record arrived in 2005, and it did not disappoint. In fact, it may go down as the highwater mark of Davis’ songwriting: soulful, smart, aggressive, honest, and hooky as all get out. The musical palette was considerably broader than that of Superdrag. His Beach Boys obsession reached new heights on “I Hear Your Voice,” “Me and My Girl” hit all the right Rubber Soul notes (indeed, the very fact that he included a ‘secular’ love song on a Gospel record is worth noting), “Stained Glass Window” is the prettiest thing he’s ever done, and “Do You Know How Much You’ve Been Loved?” made a strong case for Davis as a country singer. Thankfully, the guitars got cranked up a couple of times – to great effect – on “Too Far Out” and “Nothing Gets Me Down.” In one fell swoop, Davis totally obliterated any preconceptions I might have had about white guys singing about Jesus (I had yet to discover The Smoking Popes). In fact, if there was a market for non-lame Christian rock – which there isn’t – I would strongly encourage him and Josh Caterer to form a label.
Arigato! appeared a year later, a much leaner and louder record, and while slightly less consistent than his debut, it has more bite than anything else he’s done. “Tell Me I’m Not Free,” “Chant Down Babylon,” “Watch Me Walk Away,” and “Lamentation vs. Laughter” stand out as some of the most convincing and hard-charging Jesus-rock ever recorded.
As if tied to The Popes by some invisible tether (hmmm…), Superdrag reformed in 2007 and released a new album, Industry Giants. Yours truly even got to see them play. Asked about the possible cognitive dissonance surrounding the reunion, Davis replied:
A few years ago you found God. How did your faith play a role on the new album?
Redemption and thanksgiving are two of the major themes… along with vigilance. And for the record, God found me.
Using religion in music is a way of both attracting and repelling an audience. Is it important for your listeners to share the same faith and/or values as you?
No, I just have to say what I have to say, and I stand or fall with it. That’s how art works, I think. According to my understanding, Jesus did not come to institute a new religion; he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. I believe he did that. The reason my solo records were solo records and not Superdrag records, though, jives perfectly with what you suggest; the last thing I wanted to do was sucker somebody into buying something they didn’t want (i.e. an unabashed Gospel record) by doing a bait-and-switch with the name “Superdrag.”
Amen! A perfect distillation of what makes Superdrag that rare example of Christianity done right in rock. They kept their teeth. They assimilated their negativity/humanity. They stayed honest. Nothing changed… and everything changed. John Davis found in the Gospel the permission to go deeper, rock harder, sing prettier – freedom in other words – and we’re all the better for it. Here’s to hoping they remain (yer strange) non-regretfully ours for many years to come.