“I think the way this record sounds is very much the definition of BoDeans.”
That Kurt Neumann, longtime co-frontman of the group, sums up the new BoDeans album, American Made, in those terms might surprise those who have kept up with recent events surrounding the group.
Last fall, Sam Llanas, who co-founded the band with Neumann in 1983, abruptly quit the band, announcing the release date for his new solo album, 4 A.M., the day after the release of the latest BoDeans album, Indigo Dreams.
Llanas’s raspy voice was the most immediately identifiable part of the BoDeans sound, and along with Neumann, he was a major songwriting contributor to the group.
Yet Neumann has very valid reasons for describing American Made as a prototypical BoDeans record — especially if one considers the group’s acclaimed 1986 debut album, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams the definitive album in the group’s long career.
Like that debut, American Made has a rootsy sound and a folk element that was downplayed on the five albums that followed the debut.
“I think some of the records of the ‘90s, there was a lot more focus from the record company and stuff to push us toward rock, toward rock radio,” Neumann said. “We did lose a little bit of our sound there, and I think there was definitely a conscious effort to get back to folk and Americana type music on this record.”
The more rock oriented sound worked fairly well for the BoDeans. Although Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams remains the best reviewed albums, it was a poppy rocker, “Closer To Free” (from the 1993 CD Go Slow Down) that gave the group its only bona fide hit single.
By that time, strains between Neumann and Llanas were beginning to show. “Closer To Free” got a long life when it was chosen as the theme song for the television show Party Of Five, and the band followed up that success with the 1996 album, Blend.
But when the Blend tour cycle ended, the BoDeans went on hiatus. That wasn’t Neumann’s choice.
“It was really bad timing then back in ’98, and I was really open about that.” Neumann said. “We had just come off of a big hit and Warner [Bros. Records] was making changes and we had gotten dropped from the label. And it seemed to me, if anything, that was the point where we should refocus on BoDeans and not a solo career.”
But Llanas formed his own band, Absinthe, and released the album A Good Day to Die, while Neumann made a solo CD, Shy Dog.
The group got back together again in 2004 and released the Resolution. But its comeback was stalled by a lawsuit with former manager Mark McCraw, a situation that prevented the group from releasing new albums until the dispute was settled. The band then released three albums in quick succession — Still in 2008, Mr. Sad Clown in 2010 and then Indigo Dreams a year later.
Neumann and Lllanas continued to co-front the band live, but according to Neumann, it was no longer anything close to an equal partnership in the studio.
While Llanas continued to write songs, Neumann said he produced Still, Mr. Sad Clown and Indigo Dreams and played virtually all of the guitars on those albums.
The split that was probably inevitable happened in August, but the timing caught Neumann by surprise. The band had arrived in Boulder, Co., for a key show in support of Indigo Dreams, and Llanas was a no-show. Neumann picked up the story from there.
“The band paid literally $15,000 to go out to Boulder and play for the Triple A Radio Convention, which is all the biggest radio station programmers in the country, and that’s a big expense for someone to not show up,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that at all, not when your whole band and company invests that much into moving forward and releasing a record. Then he released his press release right on top of our record and saying in the press release that his record was basically better than a BoDeans record and all of this stuff. I was like you just can’t do this.
“I think all of that just kind of came to a head where he decided he wasn’t going to come out there and then he texted me in the middle of the night that he was done and good luck going on,” Neumann said. “That was bad timing.”
The other band members, though, rallied around Neumann and the group played its show. Then Neumann went about the task of beginning a new era of the BoDeans.
Band members Michael Ramos (keyboards, accordion, backing vocals), Ryan Bowman (bass) and Noah Levy (drums) were joined by Jake Owen (guitar) and a bit later by fiddle player Warren Hood, a move that added a different dimension to the group’s sound and furthered Neumann’s intention to take the music back in the rootsier direction of the first BoDeans album.
“[Violin] works so well with the accordion in it,” Neumann said. “They’re such traditional instruments, that I thought that’s really the sound I want for this record because I wanted it to be a very American sounding record, and to touch on those elements of folk or roots type music.”
In moving ahead to make American Made, Neumann showed just how committed he was to the new BoDeans. He sold his truck and some other belongings so he could hire high-profile producer John Alagia for the project and bring the entire band to New York City to record the songs live in the studio. It was the way Neumann had wanted to make a BoDeans record for some time.
“I would propose it to Sam that let’s go and do it,” he said. “Let’s really write some live stuff and record live and his perspective was we can’t afford it. Let’s just work on it here in your studio.”
It took the band all of three days to record American Made, something that was possible because the songs had been played live — which allowed Neumann to know which songs were working — and the band was rehearsed and ready to play in the studio.
The direction of American Made is established right away on the opening track, “All The World,” a sweet deliberately paced song that’s kissed by twangy guitar. Much of the album is in the ballad or mid-tempo vein, with songs like “All Over Me” and “Chemical” among the highlights of the laid back material. But several songs pick up the energy level, including the rollicking fiddle-spiced “Shake the Fever” and the cheery fast-shuffling accordion-accented closer “Flyaway.”
Now the band is heading out on an extensive tour to support American Made. Neumann said about a half dozen of the new songs will be in the set, and while the band won’t play songs that Llanas wrote and sang, plenty of fan favorites — such as “Closer To Free,” Good Things,” “Fade Away,” “You Don’t Get Much” and “Good Work” — remain staples of the show.
“We’ve just been around playing for so many years that people just come to know a lot of [the songs], and it’s a great thing,” Neumann said. “It’s a good thing that you can go to towns and play your music after this many years and people still come out and sing with you. It’s getting rarer and rarer.”