I want Rock n’ Roll but, I don’t wanna deal with the hassle…. front man John Davis laments behind a slightly distorted guitar. Never has a simple opening line in a song summed up the highs and lows of being in the music business so perfectly like that one. Behind the glitz and glamour of being the flavor of the week in the mainstream, there is usually band or artist fighting tooth and nail to express themselves or put out a product that they have no problem standing behind. While it’s true that being successful in the music industry, one must forfeit a few chunks of artistry and heart in order to move product, but Superdrag could write a book on the woes of being on a major recording label in the late 1990s.
After Electra Records dropped the ball on marketing Superdrag’s sophomore release Head Trip In Every Key, an album of Beatles-meets-Big Star epics, deemed un-radio friendly, Superdrag found themselves back to basics writing and demoing songs that focused less on studio experimentation and more on standard guitar-bass-drum-vocals songs like earlier in their career. The only problem was the fact the label demanded on hearing them as they were worked on, instead of taking their word for it as they did on the previous album. It’s been debated whether the label was playing hardball with the band as some sort of revenge for the ambition of Head Trip In Every Key or simply the music scene was in a transitional period, but the higher ups were not happy with what they were hearing and demanded the band to work harder at creating radio ready singles.
After demoing nearly two albums worth of songs, Davis realized he was part of the infamous ‘label vs artist’ battle so many bands of the era had fought (and mostly lost) so he decided to buy the band out of the contract, and take the nearly completely album elsewhere for an eventual release on the indie label Arena Rock Recording Co. While not being as buzzy and summer-esque as their major label release Regretfully Yours or as experimental as Head Trip In Every Key, this album In The Valley Of Dying Stars remains one of the most interesting, heartfelt, and hard hitting records of their career.
Starting off with the already mentioned Keep It Close To Me, the band is in complete form. While sounding a bit weathered and emotionally seasoned, we are greeted with a much darker, Superdrag than we’ve previous experienced. I’m gonna figure out what’s mine, and keep it close to me he screams in the chorus, as if taking back the artistry back from cold clutches of studio suits. This new found confidence, vitriol and determination is what fuels the album’s fire.
Even with songs like Gimme Animosity and Some Kind Of Tragedy being Superdrag at their most angsty, there is still room for the power-pop greatness that fans have come to expect, like Lighting The Way, Baby’s Waiting, and Goin’ Out. But where the album really shines is during the most vulnerable moments, like the soul searching, southern rock ballad Ambulance Driver, or the album’s stand out track Unprepared. Starting out with a sing-song piano riff reminiscent of Jim Croce’s Time In A Bottle, working it’s way into a Beatles-esque drive that would’ve fit in well on their previous record, all the way into an emotional roar that seems to go on and on like someone crying their heart out. One of the complaints was from Electra Records claimed Superdrag weren’t capable of recording anything emotional. It’s pretty obvious they didn’t hear Unprepared as it is by far the emotional piece John Davis has written before or since.
With so much diversity in a single album, In The Valley Of Dying Stars plays much like a sampling of what Superdrag were capable of. Power pop, snotty punk, sonic experimentation, and even gut wrenching emotion. Even with being the most emotionally heavy and featuring some of the more darker themes of life, death, and hurt, the album remains the best introduction to band for someone who has never listened to them. Each of the brighter songs would be top ten hits in a perfect world including True Believer which is the best song Dave Grohl never wrote. It hurts me to my very soul that this record is so underrated. There is much emotional weight to every single track on the album, it’s painful to think it’s not in everyone’s record collection.
Despite the line up changes during production, label battle, personal drama and the alternative rock scene going to hell in a handbasket, In The Valley Of Dying Stars just may be the crowing achievement in Superdrag’s career. Their previous record is still my favorite record of all time by any artist, but this one is my favorite Superdrag album. If that even makes sense. If you haven’t had the chance to listen to this record, you are truly missing out on the greatest rock album of the 2000s and a strong contender of greatest rock albums period.