Songs We Love: The Glands, 'Straight Down'
On Saturday, The Glands frontman Ross Shapiro died from an undisclosed illness at 52. We remember the musician with one of our favorite songs.
Ross Shapiro was that record store clerk. Walk up to the counter at Schoolkids Records and he'd sigh or scoff at your stack of vinyl or CDs — without fail. (He also owned the store until its closure in 2011.) Some folks (myself included) took as it as a sign to shop elsewhere; others saw it as an Athens, Ga., rite of passage and were delighted by his righteous eye-roll. In time, the latter often learned a lot about music by merely showing up — and that even at his most curmudgeonly, Shapiro was just a prickly sweetheart. But the guy who judged you silently also happened to front The Glands, one of the great Athens rock bands of the late '90s, when that Southern town experienced a wild flowering of creativity.
Like the band's cohorts in The Olivia Tremor Control and The Gerbils, The Glands made weird, fun and adventurous music. But where those Elephant 6 bands gleefully and outwardly dismantled pop, The Glands rarely showed its hand. The willfully spaced-out album Double Thriller, released in 1998, is worth tracking down, but The Glands' self-titled effort from 2000 is a record whose seeming accessibility makes less sense the more you pull it apart. Take, for instance, "Work It Out," where '60s Merseybeat butts up against Rolling Stones licks but stretches in and out like taffy slapped on a snare. Or "I Can See My House From Here," which should roll on end credits for every cool movie ever made; its layers of backwards guitar and Shapiro's double-tracked close harmonies transform into a boogie-rock jam The Flaming Lips probably wished it had recorded first.
The Glands' self-titled sophomore album should have been a game-changer. Signed to one of the few major labels based in the South, Capricorn Records — home to The Allman Brothers Band and Marshall Tucker Band in the '70s, and later Cake and 311 in the '90s — the band was very much on its way. That is, until Capricorn folded (a second time) at the end of 2000, the year The Glands was released. Barely promoted and never re-pressed, boxes of the album are still stocked in Shapiro's home in Athens.
The song that always sticks out was the record's most deceptively straightforward. For a moody bunch of record nerds, "Straight Down" is a helluva rock 'n' roll dance song, albeit a perfectly perverse one. In his Ray Davies-like quiver, Ross Shapiro sings, "I wanna shake all over again," again and again, emphasizing "shake" like a command. And while it seems like a silly and surreal throwaway line, the fact that he sings "See a lady with the poodle / It's the color of tomato" twice is strangely satisfying. The chorus' picked chord progression descends down a shaky staircase as the drums hit a four-on-the-floor pattern, giving way to the short bridge where the guitarist runs through the speed settings on his tremelo pedal like an engine revving. It's all par for the course until the guitar solo, which — likely as a wink to Capricorn's 1970s origin — launches into some dirty Southern rock rage, all bent strings and whisky-soaked distortion. It's a great example of what made The Glands so unique: making music that was simultaneously gentle and vicious, but also ambitiously soulful.
The Glands never really broke up, but was inactive until 2011, when it toured up and down the East Coast opening for Yo La Tengo. When the band played a headlining gig sans YLT at the Black Cat in Washington, D.C., it was a reminder that every single song in its brief catalog was a hit, with an unpinnable quality that just felt a little off. Shapiro told Athens alt-weekly Flagpole in 2014 that new music was in the works, but for now, do whatever you can to hear these records — they're ripe for re-discovery.
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