You can usually count on the Shods to open an album with something rousing and anthemic. But "A Drink to Forget" — the opening track on their new Tippy (Poorhouse) — is a little different: "I have seen the horror, I have felt the pain," announces singer/guitarist Kevin Stevenson at the outset, as the song slides into a reggae/Middle Eastern groove that’s far spookier and more ambitious than one would expect from this fun-loving outfit. For all that, the song’s chorus — "Let’s have a drink!" — has a celebratory feel; it’s about gritting your teeth and getting on with it.
Which is exactly what the Shods are doing, after a few years that may qualify them as the unluckiest band in Boston. First they went through every familiar hassle in the book — losing a major-label deal when Fort Apache/MCA went belly-up, having to shelve an album they’d worked on for a year (Stop Crying was eventually issued on their own Acme label five years after the fact, in 2001), parting company with two management teams, losing a key member (co-singer/guitarist Dave Aaronoff, now fronting the Details) in the wake of a no-glory tour. Then the real problems started.
Just when the Shods were at the peak of their local popularity three years ago — after they’d been named "Best Live Band" in the Phoenix’s Best Music Poll, finished second in the Rumble, and worked their way to headline status — Stevenson announced he was quitting. Fans probably thought he was nuts, but it turned out he was just sick. He’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which was starting to make him forget lyrics, fall down on stage, and mess up guitar parts. Not wanting to go public about his condition, he played a sold-out, farewell Shods show at T.T. the Bear’s Place, and spent most of that evening brushing off questions about what was going on.
"Man, that was horrible," he said last week over beers at the Middle East — an O’Doul’s in his case, since his meds can’t mix with alcohol. "The problem with my dreaded disease is that it’s tough to find a time when I’d feel good enough to go on the road, so that’s a new problem thrown into the mix — not that we didn’t have problems already. I think that’s why we lost the managers we were working with. They didn’t want our bad luck to rub off on them."
Of course, the Shods were full of that kind of self-effacing humor long before Stevenson got sick. And lately his health has been looking up. He even took most of the guitar solos when the Shods played a hot mini-set at Hi-Fi records owner Deb Klein’s going-away party at the Milky Way a couple of weeks ago. They’re doing a CD-release show at T.T.’s this Saturday and are tentatively starting to book gigs through the summer. "I knew one thing; I wasn’t gonna let that shit wreck my life," Stevenson notes in a more serious moment. "Most people would lie down and do nothing. No matter how bad I felt, I didn’t want to do that. Right now I’m doing better, and I just hope that everything comes through for me, and we’re able to keep playing out. Besides," he notes, figuring it’s time to stop getting serious, "If [name of prominent local musician withheld] can go onstage junked out of his mind, why can’t I?"
The Shods, who now include bassist Dave Livingston and guitarist Micah Blue Smaldone, along with charter drummer Scott Pittman, didn’t stay completely broken up: they played some gigs last year to celebrate the belated release of Stop Crying. Still, they started work on the new album without deciding whether they were really reuniting or not. "I just kept writing songs," Stevenson notes. "First Scott heard them and said, ‘Hey, we gotta record these!’ Then Micah heard them and he said, ‘Hey, we gotta record these!’ So we were back to the same old same old." With a stack of guitar overdubs and everyone throwing in some keyboards, the result is somewhere between the homemade production of 1997’s Bamboozled (the album that broke in the Shods in town) and the wide-screen sound of the Fort Apache album. "Believe me, this one started at my house with a horrible little digital recorder," Stevenson admits. "Then we had to mix it in the studio and make it sound like a real record."
Named for Stevenson’s grandfather, Tippy is, for the Shods, a darker-than-usual album in terms of lyrics. There are no explicit references to Stevenson’s condition ("A Drink to Forget" is actually about a Vietnam vet), but he airs plenty of heavier moods, blasting fair-weather drinking buddies on "Seven & Seven" and the lack of role models on "Give Me One Person" (a fitting sentiment for a guy whose musical hero was Joe Strummer), and throwing cusswords into some of the most air-playable tracks. "That’s how I deal with things, by telling stories. It is a pretty dark record, and I like to think it’s more mature," he says. "There ain’t a happy lyric on it except ‘Go-Go Dancing.’ But the first review we get [in the current issue of The Noise] says it’s a fun record, and I’m thinking, ‘Whaaat? Are you fuckin’ kidding?’ "
That reviewer was right, however: the Shods are pretty much incapable of not making a fun record. Like all their discs, Tippy fits the London Calling template of punk rock with a strong sense of musical history. They throw in plenty of in-jokes for their fellow vinyl junkies; sticking a Bowie lyric into "Give Me One Person" and the riff of Gary Numan’s "Are Friends Electric" into "Black Cloud." The standout, "Let Me Go Now," sounds like a great Cheap Trick song, with its falsetto chorus ("a total bastard to sing," Stevenson admits). And even with its dour lyric, Van Morrison’s "Here Comes the Night" joins their list of party-ready cover tunes. Recorded a few years before the rest of the disc, the track features Dave Aaronoff, who recently mended fences and joined the Shods onstage at that Milky Way show. "He’s always been a close friend, so it really hurt me when we had a falling-out," Stevenson says. "That’s what happens when you have to go on the road and play hellholes like New Jersey."
Whatever you may be drinking, raise one to the Shods.
IF YOU HAPPENED TO SEE BELLY in 1996, or L7 a year later, you just had to notice the bass player: Gail Greenwood was a heavy-metal vision in leather, and even on Belly’s most ethereal numbers you could catch her dropping to her knees and shaking her hair, which was then dyed a tasteful shade of aquamarine.
Greenwood was a Providence punk rocker before Tanya Donelly brought her into Belly, and she’s lately gone back to where she once belonged. She and her boyfriend, singer/bassist Chil Mott (from the ’80s punk band One Ton Shotgun), have formed a new band, Benny Sizzler; bringing along drummer Gene Severens (Greenwood’s pre-Belly bandmate from Boneyard) and guitarist Terry Linehan (who’s done some fill-in work with Green Day). Greenwood’s put down the bass and picked up the guitar, and the results are pretty much what you’d expect from this crew: fast and fun, old-school punk with big hooks, plus one tune ("Don’t Fuck Up My Buzz") that would get them red-carpeted at the Abbey Lounge or on the Warped Tour. That song and three others can be downloaded free off the band’s website, bennysizzler.com.
Greenwood’s last major-label gig happened last year, playing bass with Canadian alt-rock star Bif Naked, and she’s not sure if she’ll be going down that route again. "I always think I’m gonna retire, but I always wind up in another band," she says from her home in Middletown, RI. "I know that Courtney Love is looking for people so maybe her management will give me a call; they did last time but I was busy with Bif. Right now I feel like devoting myself to this band and seeing if we can keep playing for awhile. But of course, we’ll see what happens when they get rid of the kid they’ve got playing bass in Metallica."
Even in her major-label days, Greenwood never gave up her Providence address. And she’s got no complaints about starting up in the small clubs again. "I’ve played every size venue. Even in the Belly days we might be opening for U2 one week, then we’d get to Morgantown, West Virginia, and be back in the clubs. We haven’t even sent a Benny Sizzler demo to any labels — we’re not sure if we want to be dancing with the record-label man again. It might pollute the experience of having fun playing stupid rock music."
Benny Sizzler have no Boston dates scheduled yet, but they’re playing the Met in Providence June 28. And Greenwood admits that her stage presence hasn’t changed much: "I can only do that ’80s metal schtick, I don’t know anything else. Really, when I was touring with Bif Naked I decided I’d try to be prettier and nice. So I’m thinking I look all girly and feminine; then I go into the bathroom and hear some chick saying, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that ’80s dude they’ve got playing bass.’ "
On to the really important question: what color is Greenwood’s hair nowadays? "Let’s see — I already did red, white, and blue in Belly; that’s when I was crazy for freedom. Right now it’s brown and stripey, with some white in it; it looks like Sebastian Bach as an old guy. I’m really a cross between Sebastian Bach and Zakk Wylde, and that’s pretty scary."