The brief hand-scrawled note accompanying Rob Fetters’ latest solo missive, the patently excellent Saint Ain’t, contained a demand and a threat from the veteran Cincinnati vocalist/multi-instrumentalist/songwriter, talented tongue jammed firmly into accommodating cheek.
“Call me when you have every note and word memorized,” Fetters instructs. “Then the lying shall begin in earnest.”
Fetters has never relied on hyperbole to make his musical point. In 1983, he established his unassailable Pop credentials with the first Raisins album; he’s spent three decades proving that initial blast of melodic brilliance was no mere fluke. With a rotating and consistently gifted cast of collaborators (Adrian Belew, Bob Nyswonger, Chris Arduser, Bam Powell and Ricky Nye, among many others), Fetters has helped create one of Power Pop’s most perfect bodies of work with The Raisins, The Bears, psychodots and a trio of incredible full-length releases under his own name.
Fetters’ solo jaunts have been fairly infrequent; 1998’s Lefty Loose, Righty Tight was followed by Musician seven years later, both sterling examples of his solid songcraft, guitar mastery and sweetly cynical and slightly smartass perspective. And while Fetters’ latest solo entry follows a similar release pattern, the hyper-scheduled wunderkind, who also records music for commercial purposes, offers a defense for the long span between albums.
“When I look at this decade, there’s a lot of studio output,” Fetters says over coffee. “There were two Bears studio albums, a psychodots album, a Rob Fetters album and … a thousand pieces of music written on command so that I can feed the family and break away and write my own music.”
“The other thing is I keep wanting to write some kind of masterwork. They say your first album is your best because you’ve had 20 years to write it; I just figured you could cheat on that if you take more time later on.”
Fetters admits to having a perfectionist streak, a quality he doesn’t indulge on his band-by-committee projects and that he works around as a freelance commercial composer/performer (he left his commercial music position in 2008, enduring a year without a paycheck due to a contractual non-compete clause before starting his own studio). He notes that he’ll create an abundance of solo work, let it ferment, then dumpster the whole shebang and start again.
For Saint Ain’t, Fetters began just after The Bears’ Eureka! in 2007, ultimately crafting the 11 Pop gems comprising one of the best albums in his catalog.
“I read about the creation of art for other artists and it takes a long time to revise and reconsider,” Fetters says. “That’s not to say everything here was done, redone and redone, but stuff sat there for awhile. A few songs are five years old and a few songs are five months old. That’s how it works.”
“And I really didn’t want to make the same thing again,” he continues. “It takes awhile to learn new things and to unlearn. I just realized in the last couple of days that I don’t have anything on this album that’s psychedelic. There’s no flanging or, ‘Hey, this is what it sounds like when you’re tripping,’ which is one of my favorite things. I’m so happy when I hear ‘Itchykoo Park,’ or its variation on a million albums, but I didn’t do it on this record.”
Although there are no phase-shifting flashbacks on Saint Ain’t, a number of other sounds dominate the album. From the swinging Pop/Blues of “Life & Death Boogie” to the baroque Chamber Pop of the pointed “Nero,” Saint Ain’t finds Fetters in new but not unexpected territory. For Fetters, the challenge isn’t new musical translation — he’ll never stray far from his Beatlesque wheelhouse — but finding unique aural vibrations.
“I try to take my tools and do something I haven’t heard yet,” Fetters says. “I think I only accomplished that once or twice on this album. On the song ‘What You Do’ there’s a talking slide guitar — it’s not a talkbox, it’s a secret device — and I don’t think I’ve heard that. I want to do something that has some cool novelty to it, but I also didn’t want to overwork it and show off because I’m more interested in the content.”
A detailed accounting of Saint Ain’t is available at robfetters.net, particularly the background behind each song on the album. There is gratitude extended to the players who dot the album’s soundscape, including old pals (Nyswonger, Arduser), longtime contributors (Clyde Brown, Belinda Lipscomb, Krystal Peterson), family (Fetters’ son Noah drums on “Famous Last Words”) and former Counting Crows bassist Matt Malley. The most interesting story concerns Bee Haskins, daughter of Fetters’ longtime friend, film/audio creative Andy Haskins, who provides the mesmerizing lead vocal on “Famous Last Words.” She sang the parts when she was 13 and freshly rejected from middle school choir because her cloth-eared teacher didn’t recognize her talent.
All of the guests significantly contributed to one of the best collections of songs Fetters has ever written.
“(Longtime bandmate) Chris Arduser told me that and I was afraid to believe it, but it may be true; I’ll know in about five years,” Fetters says to the compliment with a laugh. “I know I worked hard enough.”
The new album bristles with enough Power Pop quality to impress the finely tuned sensibilities of legendary engineer Richard Dodd, who mastered albums by George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, as well as the digitally-recorded Saint Ain’t, and paid Fetters a supreme compliment. “I totally thought he was going to take it back into the analog realm,” Fetters says, “(but) he said, ‘I’m not touching it, it sounds great.’ That’s very high praise.”
Still, after 30 years of brass-ring attempts that left him empty handed, Fetters is happy to appreciate Saint Ain’t on its merits without entertaining breakthrough notions.
“It’ll be interesting to see if I even break even on this record,” Fetters says. “I’m two-thirds of the way there, so it could really happen. God forbid I should have any success. I get to do what I love and it’s nice to keep my head above water. It’s a moving experience for me, and then I make it good enough so somebody can have that same moving experience. People who like my stuff speak to me the same way I speak to Todd Rundgren. That’s the cosmic anchovy.”
For more on ROB FETTERS and his latest album, visit robfetters.net.