Around the same time that REM was making rapid movement in Athens, Georgia, in the mid-’80s, The Connells were whipping up jangly, southern-style pop songs just north in Raleigh, North Carolina. REM climbed aboard the money train, first class. The Connells couldn’t find a seat.
14 years, seven albums later, The Connells are still waiting on that train – searching for that elusive hit song that they believe they’re writing with each release. Famous for not being famous, The Connells threaten that each album will be their last. Remarkably, another Connells CD was recorded, and titled Still Life. Not remarkable because of their threat to end it (we know they’re bluffing), but because of difficult times outside of the studio. Bass player David Connell’s wife suffered a three-year battle with brain cancer and died in April. Earlier in the year, singer Doug MacMillan was sidelined with diverticulitis, and needed intestinal surgery.
Driven by the befuddling international success of “’74, ’75,” (off of 1993’s Ring) which topped the charts in a dozen countries including Germany, Norway, Sweden and Israel, The Connells kept chugging along, driven by a wavering optimism that this would be the big one.
Still Life has an exuberance and creativity that we haven’t seen in a while from The Connells. It’s loaded with catchy, honestly written tunes and is perhaps their best since Fun and Games. MacMillan and guitarist George Huntley’s harmonies are as wispy and warm as ever.
What’s nice about this record is that each band member contributed by writing at least one song. This gives Still Life various perspectives and a glimpse inside their collective heads. For instance, “Pedro Says,” a drifting melancholy instrumental piece written by David Connell, has a grieving yet peaceful feel to it. It was interesting to learn that the one song that I felt was the most adventurous on the album was written by the newest addition to the band, keyboardist Steve Potak. “Glade,” a song that really grooves on you, is just downright silly. With lazy sliding guitars and low-tech flying saucer-sounding whistle effects, “Glade” shows a playfulness we haven’t heard on previous albums.
Other songs that I can’t get enough of are “Dull, Brown and Gray,” which is anything but, “Crown,” “Gonna Take a Lie” and the toe-tappin’, country two-steppin’ “Curly’s Train.”
With matured songwriting, longevity and the ability to persevere over some pretty steep hurdles, The Connells have proven that they’re ready to peel off the “college band” label that has been stuck to them for so many years. And who knows, maybe Still Life will be the one that catapults them into the stardom they’ve been searching for.
If not, there’s always Mozambique.