Five years ago, The Greenhornes were ready for a break. The Southeastern Indiana Garage Rock quintet had stormed Cincinnati after forming in 1996, a march that continued with their 1999 debut, Gun for You. They notched several notable benchmarks, including nearly stealing the spotlight from The Strokes at the New York band’s Southgate House debut.
By 2003, The Greenhornes had shrunk to a trio with the departures of keyboardist Jared McKinney, guitarist Brian Olive and multi-instrumentalist Eric Stein (who had been around for 2002’s Dual Mono). But the remaining members — guitarist/vocalist Craig Fox, bassist Jack Lawrence, drummer Patrick Keeler — were still one of the city’s most potent and nationally acclaimed bands.
With the 2005 release of the Sewed Soles compilation and the East Grand Blues EP, The Greenhornes decided to kick back. The band had befriended White Stripes guitarist Jack White; he subsequently used Lawrence and Keeler as the rhythm section when he produced Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose. The duo was in Detroit to record with White comrade Brendan Benson, who had engineered the Lynn record and produced East Grand Blues, when the session took a turn.
“Brendan and I were going to make a demo together for a new record of his,” Keeler says by phone from his Nashville home. “Jack Lawrence and I were in Detroit and Jack (White) was like, ‘We’ve got some songs, you want to play them?’ Two weeks later, we made a record, then it was, ‘We’ve got to call it something.’ It was all very spontaneous.”
They called it The Raconteurs. With Keeler and Lawrence occupied with that band for two albums and subsequent touring cycles (Lawrence was also tapped for White’s Dead Weather project, and he plays banjo with Blanche, a Detroit Garageabilly outfit), Fox help start The Cincinnati Suds and then Oxford Cotton to scorch the Tristate landscape.
Although The Greenhornes seemed inactive, over the past three years the trio was reassembling as time allowed to record (pronounced “Four Stars”), their first full album of new material in eight years.
“I think the timing was right — not that the timing wasn’t right before,” Keeler says of The Greenhornes’ return. “We were trying to take a break. It just kind of got away from us, as far as other people’s projects. When we said, ‘Let’s take a break,’ we could have meant two weeks, we could have meant two months. It just turned into a lot longer.”
Time wasn’t the only constraint as The Greenhornes chipped away at the new record. Without label support and separated by the highway between here and Tennessee, the trio was truly on its own.
“Between Raconteurs records, we started recording The Greenhornes’ record, and the timing was limited to our budget,” Keeler says.
“We were producing it ourselves, and we were geographically screwed in one way, because Craig’s in Cincinnati and we’re in Nashville.”
With a few new songs left from its last tour, the trio wrote the remainder of during sporadic studio visits.
“We recorded it with John (Curley) down at Ultrasuede,” Keeler says. “We spent about a month and a half in there over the course of six months. Cut to a year later, Craig came down and we worked on vocals down (in Nashville), then we had to find time to mix it and do artwork and everything else. All told, it was probably only two months total, just spread out.”
The new album is classic Greenhornes, a Garage Rock/Soul rave-up of the first order, particularly on fuse-blowers like “Need Your Love” and “Underestimator.” But there’s a slight twist. Fox, Lawrence and Keeler paint with slightly subtler shades — the Beatles-tinged melodicism of “My Sparrow,” the Kinksian beer-hall Pop/Rock of “Get Me Out of Here,” the Guided By Voices-channels-early-Who burn of “Saying Goodbye.” Even at their most melodic, The Greenhornes are blistering with an intensity that matches their earliest work.
“That unspoken language that we’d had for years from playing together immediately came back,” Keeler says. “There wasn’t a lot of talking going on, it was just instinct. I don’t know that this album is so much different as it is a natural progression. To date, it’s my favorite.”
The album also features the keyboard talents of Andrew Higley, known locally for his work with The Chocolate Horse. Although everyone lent a hand, Higley got keyboard billing.
“He got a blanket credit, but Jack and I played keys on some and Craig played keys on some,” Keeler says. “Andrew played on the ones that sound like someone knows what they’re doing.”
For all of the high-profile projects that Keeler has been involved with over the past few years, he still has the greatest love for The Greenhornes.
“This is the band that got me anything else that I’ve done, the band that was going outside of Cincinnati,” Keeler says. “I went to high school with Craig; we go back a long ways. Jack and I formed a rhythm section alliance from this band, so I hold it very dearly. (The break) never changed anything with our friendship. We were all just waiting to get back together.”
In the same vein, after the immense profile of The Raconteurs, Keeler feels like this just might be both a new beginning and the break that The Greenhornes deserved from the start.
“I don’t think we could have planned it: ‘Let’s take a break, when we come back, we’re gonna want it,’ ” Keeler says. “But it seems that way a little bit, like people missed it. Plus the exposure the band got from Jack and I being in The Raconteurs and Jack being in Dead Weather — every article mentions our band and Cincinnati. It gave us a lot of press and made a lot of people want to hear (The Greenhornes). It’s good to get it rolling again.”
Although Keeler says the title of came from the fact that it’s The Greenhornes’ fourth album, it could easily be construed as a record review rating. And Keeler wryly observes the ultimate upside of getting a review in Rolling Stone, which uses a star system.
“Could be a ‘9,’ ” he says.
From The Greenhornes’ mouths to Jann Wenner’s ear.
THE GREENHORNES celebrate the release of their new album by performing Thursday at Shake It Records (7 p.m.) and Friday at the Southgate House with Leopard Messiah.