Thursday, May 07, 2020

Dramarama - Color TV

It feels strange but truly wonderful to be reviewing a new album from one of my all-time favorite bands for the first time in my life. By the time I got into this racket 25 years ago, Dramarama had already broken up after an incredible run in the '80s and early '90s that was never fully appreciated outside of the diehard fan base. I would be hard-pressed to name a single songwriter of the last 35 years that I would put above John Easdale. And while the band's legacy is often closely associated with the "alternative rock" movement, to me Dramarama is just a great American rock and roll band. Notice my use of the present tense. While fans have had to wait a long 15 years for a new Dramarama album, Color TV easily rates as one of the band's finest releases.

Minus any pressure from outside influences to push out a "product", Dramarama has had the luxury of working on Color TV at its own pace over a great number of years. Some of these songs go back a couple decades, and overall this album feels particularly autobiographical. It traces Easdale's journey from childhood to present-day, chronicling his battles with addiction and bad decisions and culminating with his finding inner peace. It's almost certainly an album he would not have been able to write in his 20s or 30s. He and has band-mates (two of which, guitarists Peter Wood and Mark Englert, are original members) did not make the mistake of trying to recreate the "classic" Dramarama sound. Color TV is the work of true masters of the rock and roll craft - who are aging like the proverbial fine wine.

Especially on the back half of Color TV, Easdale favors ballads and quiet, intensely personal numbers. But Dramarama can still rock with the best of 'em, as evidenced on the soaring opener "Beneath The Zenith", the furiously brooding "Up To Here", the bluesy "Swamp Song", and the hard-driving "What's Your Sign". There's something for everyone on this album, which is pretty typical for Dramarama. And it wouldn't be a Dramarama record without a couple of truly remarkable ballads. "The Cassette" is gorgeous and powerful in its simplicity. It's a tribute to Greg Dwinnell, Easdale's best friend whose death inspired much of 2005's Everybody Dies. Complemented by Billy Siegel's beautiful piano riff, Easdale's words and voice give me chills. "You You You", the album's penultimate track, is haunting & atmospheric in a way no Dramarama song has quite ever been. Another hallmark of a great Dramarama record are inspired cover songs (Mott The Hoople's "I Wish I Was Your Mother" never moved me to tears until I heard Easdale sing it). For this release, the band chose relatively unknown songs by Bob Dylan ("Abandoned Love") and Elliott Smith ("Half Right", the album closer). I'm always intrigued by which artists a great songwriter admires, and here Easdale honors a pair of kindred spirits with stunning interpretations of their work. "Abandoned Love" is literally and figuratively a centerpiece of this album, and it blends seamlessly into the story Easdale is telling.

Color TV certainly has its moments of on-point social commentary. In the first two tracks alone, Easdale laments the power that technology, commercialism, and organized religion hold over us. But on the whole, this album cuts deep into the soul of John Easdale. It's the kind of record that great songwriters spend their lives striving to complete. But this was a true group effort - not just a one man show. Dramarama as a rock band has never sounded stronger. Long suffering fans who eagerly awaited this release will not be disappointed. And if you've never heard Dramarama before, it's not necessary to absorb the back catalog before you can appreciate Color TV. This album is an absolute tour de force, and let us hope that we won't have to wait another 15 years for the next one!


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