Detroit's Waxwings work out the kinks and get a new deal.

Waxwings Over America 

Detroit's Waxwings work out the kinks and get a new deal.

Let's say some well-intentioned, music-loving asshole (maybe he's your former-college-radio-DJ friend; maybe he's Steve Albini) has come to your house and said, "Sorry, you got too many CDs. Hand over 10 percent of 'em." You protest -- your collection is a finely calibrated expression of self, an index to your moods and history. There's no ballast here.

But preference has a funny way of demanding more of what it, you know, prefers. And that means you have ballast: the emo band that's one emo band too many, the garage band that's one garage band too many -- and the fuzzed-out, Kinks-loving, Nuggets-eating band that's 1 gallon of electric Kool-Aid too much.

Inevitably, Detroit's Waxwings will be that spare gallon for some people. Which is too bad. Though they're hardly unique, the group's three albums (the latest, Let's Make Our Descent, arrived last month from the band's new label, revivalist clearinghouse Rainbow Quartz) aren't self-conscious homages that sound like some Sundazed Records homework assignment. It's not fair to heap the band with the rest of indie rock's New Class of '66, either. Its songs, made with Mom's bleached-white sugar (shelf life: forever), not trendy turbinado or lab-derived aspartame, are just plain tastier.

"We want to be current and not doing something people might perceive as contrived," the group's primary songwriter and singer, Dean Fertita, tells the Pitch. "For me, it isn't. I don't go in with that kind of intent, to duplicate. My favorite things happen to be from, say, '57 to '77 ... but the last thing we want to be is this revisionist-type thing."

Of course, the references that must not be named are the White Stripes and the Kinks. The former because Jack and Meg White represent a colossal Detroit success story, whereas the Waxwings (who sound nothing like the White Stripes) do not. And the latter because Descent and its two predecessors hit on Ray Davies like Richard Dawson asking the three teenage Brubaker daughters to name things you keep in a nightstand. But there's no feud going on between the Waxwings and the White Stripes, though the groups' bill-sharing days are long gone. And keeping the Kinks' Face to Face handy doesn't make anyone an apeman (yeah, yeah -- different eras); sounding like mid-'60s Kinks is something few bands actually do well. On Descent, the Waxwings do it very well. It's traditionalist pop, but the tradition it embraces is one that's loose, loud and literal.

It's also late. Descent lands more than 2 years after a pair of events that should have generated momentum rather than inertia. The first was the release of Shadows of the Waxwings, the strong follow-up to the band's debut, Low to the Ground, itself a keeper. The second was the groundswell of online publicity that followed the publication of a bizarre philippic from the head of the band's then-label.

In his 1,700-word e-mail to the Waxwings, Bobsled Records founder Bob Salerno complains that the group imploded at its own record-release party, a show at Detroit's Magic Stick in honor of Shadows. Highlights of the correspondence are numerous: drunken syntax, bellicose accusations, hyperactive typography. And Salerno is careful to make the White Stripes both touchstone and specter. "There IS A FUCKIN' REASON why the White Stripes are exploding!" he writes. "Cause they are a fuckin' great Rock 'n Roll band. They pay great attention to ALL of these details! ... Oh, by the way ... that was real pro of you to use the word FUCK about 12 times in 3 sentences on that pathetic thing you would have called an encore. "

After signing the e-mail "Aste Del a Vomit, Bob," Salerno adds a Joe Pesciesque postscript: "YOU BETTER NOT FUCKIN' EMBARRASS ME AND YOURSELVES AGAIN in MY home town!!!"

The e-mail soon found its way to the Web. On one music site, the gossipy discussion group, Salerno's froth got more than 10,000 hits in just a couple of months and yielded hundreds of responses, most defending the Waxwings.

The Pitch could not reach Salerno. Months after his April 2002 e-mail to the band, however, he told the Chicago Reader that he regretted none of what he'd written but still liked the band's music.

But Bobsled was already in decline, and whether short funding or hostility was to blame, darkness soon fell on Shadows.

"He [Salerno] pressed only about 1,000 copies, including promotional stuff," Fertita says. The band toured, then slipped into limbo. "Contractually we were still bound, because he never officially declared the label was gone, never filed for bankruptcy," Fertita says. "Bob made it abundantly clear that he was going to make it difficult for us if we tried to move on."

Eventually, a loophole in the band's contract -- Fertita says Salerno wasn't providing royalty statements -- freed the Waxwings. By the time Rainbow Quartz signed the group, Fertita had a backlog of material. The band spent most of 2003 making Descent, recording whenever popular hired gun and Detroit pop hero Brendan Benson, who produced Descent, had a gap in his schedule. (Fertita's day job is helping to design window displays for Neiman Marcus' art department.)

Salerno may be right about one thing, though: The Waxwings could hardly seem less concerned about self-promotion. Other than first-name-only songwriting credits for Fertita and guitarist Dominic Romano, the band members aren't named in Descent's spartan liner notes. (Kevin Peyok plays bass, James Edmunds is the drummer, and Benson is subbing for Romano on the road this summer. "He just got married and got into a lot of financial stuff, so he couldn't be a broke musician now," Fertita says of Romano.) And instead of aligning itself with a big-name act for this tour, the band is hooking up with local acts at each stop. Fertita says the idea is for him and his bandmates to wet their own feet again rather than whet appetites for their sound.

"I'm confident in our ability and in the records we make," Fertita says. "But there's also the other side of things where you want to make sure you're taking advantage of the situations you're in and making the right decisions, and I'm just learning that."


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