Digger Phelps is a musical oddity, combining the best of jangly pop with old school rock, experimental and alternative in one compact band. From their strange name, apparently taken from a Notre Dame Basketball coach, to their viewpoint on the mainstream music machine, this band follows no cloned puppets to the altar of destiny.
Their latest record, Falling Over Backwards hails from the Main Man Records team. That alone should tell me that it is not going to be the same old song and dance, but this 10-song disc steps up on its own merit, bouncing off the four corners of exploratory space in an effort to tell the world that there is more to music than pre-packaged image and media impressions.
Digger Phelps is also one of those bands that take a couple of listens before understanding where they are coming from. They are complex and stylishly isolated. Like an unruly horse, Falling Over Backwards is exciting and unbridled, and I am glad to have the interesting job of running it down the proverbial track.
Falling Over Backwards is not a fancy production. It does not hide behind walls of unnecessary studio trickery. Its beauty is in the rough-hewn songs that show truth rather than hype, putting more thought into the art and promoting much more than just feel good, car sunroof dancing, and more blood and guts than the lace doilies turned out by Pro Tools Svengali’s in every basement of America.
Singer-guitarist Charlie Woodley’s voice is oddly satisfying as it fits into each song in a unique and original way. Sometimes on the brink of being out of key, Woodley grows on you with each passing listen. Like Bon Scott or Robert Smith, Woodley is a singer that succeeds through his own style, and that believability always wins out in the end. Absorbing these tracks was an interesting process and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Songs like “Nightingale” hone in from outer space. Dropping guitar feedback effects straight out of the Andromeda galaxy, “Nightingale” explodes into a cacophony of fuzz-laden drones and off-beat drum patterns. The riff is an alien delight as the band chugs down and dirty underneath Woodley’s weird, Curtis Ian meets Kurt Cobain crooning. Woodley climbs to a comfortable elevation and by chorus time, he is cruising in a great vocal zone. Guitars signal the pre-chorus with single, high-end down strokes of treble before the band fades to the single strummed electric that dances a call and respond with the Nightingale itself.
The melancholy, dissonant chords on “Radio City” are delightful and completely fresh. This is one of my favorite songs on the disc. It is bold, spatial and different from anything else I am hearing today. Woodley waxes poetic on loneliness, regret and the age altering magic of time passage. Moreover, while its use of open voiced chords puts it far out to alternative sea, it still makes a wide turn to land, putting it on a pre-destined pattern of radio friendly flight.
“Friends I Wish I Never Knew” comes off with old school Replacements style. Melodic and jangly instrumentation complements Woodley’s voice well. The puzzle piece details on the compositional sections interlock and make this song another stand out on the CD.
“B-Movie Queen” sounds like the robots from Mystery Science 3000 might have taken a shot at this simple and elegant number on their show. Not that it is a cheesy, mechanized wonder—it is just a superb pop gem in the influential style of My Morning Jacket or Brian Ferry. Guitars shimmer in the vein of James Honeyman-Scott (The Pretenders) and bass and drums lock Joe Jackson sharp. The bridge vamps in a British mod throw down that would make any Brooklyn hipster tap is Converse All-Star all the way to mommy and daddy’s ATM. Before you can blink, the song heads back to the marching, down stroke guitar fest that meters hard under Woodley’s smooth pleas of the bankrupt and baffling language of love.
“House Lights” is another song that sounds like it is from a different era. But unlike “B-Movie Queen,” which succeeds in lighting up the imagination, “House Lights” dims in comparison. The verses are geeky and Weezer sunny, but the chorus takes a long time getting there. It would not matter as much if the chorus did not actually make the song, but it does. Once the chorus comes into play, the song focuses, allowing the listener to sing along with Woodley as he hits the melodic mark.
“Plastic” redirects and brings the band back into a clearer direction. Guitar harmonics ping and riffs growl as the offbeat progressive rhythm section of Clint Gascoyne and Brian Dougherty pound this tune all the way to the barn. This song has a dark, atmospheric feel that once again works as part of the whole in this bands interlocking approach to writing logic. Think good REM and you would be shaving real close.
“Know” is the disc winner with its groovy, The Guess Who intro and hard slam of The Pretenders. Woodley’s voice is full of snarl on this one and he shines with uninhibited passion of a man on a mission. Single line guitars growl out of overheated tube amps and into your head without fanfare or fancy fret board tricks. Badfinger and Nirvana come to mind when listening to this irresistible gem.
Another memorable song is “Comfort.” This song lodges in your mind, commanding repeat listens and interpretations. Understated and sonically beautiful, the band hypnotize with simple melody and stark instrumentation. Influential ghosts of Band Of Horses come to mind at times. Woodley’s vocals warble, teetering at times on that off-key Neal Young edge as Michael Martin steers the song into sonic lanes of the distorted, glimmering guitar freeway while bass and drums lob bombastic shots down from the overpass.
“A Safer Hiding Place” roars out of the gates with all the finesse of Social Distortion meets The Breeders before breaking down into its ‘50s styled verse progression. Raw and time resistant, the tag minor chord at the end of the chorus works like magic before the lead kicks in. Jangly two-note runs crash into string bends, dissonance and harmonic overtones of glory. “A Safer Hiding Place” is a radio friendly winner that is bound to get plenty of college play.
“The Stars Of Mendocino” is the final song on the disc and seems to be the lynchpin for Woodley’s persona. Harmonies are charming and jagged as they flow around the bands light-handed approach. Once again, guitars are understated and perfect for this song. Woodley and Martin do not stray outside of their perfectly constructed boxes in their six-string approach. Country bends mix amicably with two-note pedal steel emulations like sporadic wildflowers, winding around each other with multitudes of color and complex direction within the field of the song.
Falling Over Backwards is a great foray into melodic and left field pop exploration. There are several songs on this disc that should see Digger Phelps move towards their goals and it’s worth checking out for the listener that is more concerned with uninhibited, artistic expression than music biz glitz. Digger Phelps is Charlie Woodley, Michael Martin, Clint Gascoyne and Brian Dougherty. For more information on Digger Phelps, head over to mainmanrecords.com