Through Being Cool
Gary B and the Notions plug ahead with their idiosyncratic guitar pop--no matter how unfashionable it gets
"I listen to every style of music," says Gary Barrett Jr., over a few beers one snowy night at a Charles Village bar. "I have a favorite band in each category. But the guitar band with the lead singer, and all his characteristics and all his neuroses, that's the best. Like if Woody Allen had a band, that would be my favorite band. Not playing clarinet--if he sang."
As the frontman of Gary B and the Notions, Barrett has been refining the expression of his personal quirks and neuroses with the accompaniment of jangly guitar riffs for the past five years. Like his heroes Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, Barrett may not have a voice like a songbird, but knows exactly how to project his own personality and unique way of looking at the world.
His nasal holler on record is essentially an amplified version of his speaking voice, affably amateurish in a way that makes him sound much younger than his 31 years. And no other voice would so perfectly suit his songs. In person, too, he comes off like a youthful and enthusiastic record-store clerk--which he was at one point, naturally--ready with a joke or perceptive observation about any band that comes up in conversation.
Barrett cut his teeth playing drums in "tens of bands" in high school and college throughout the '90s, including the Idea Men with future Cex star Rjyan Kidwell (an erstwhile City Paper contributor), before focusing on a solo project, Your Imaginary Friend, earlier this decade. Playing his songs acoustically, Barrett got plum gigs all over town, opening for Of Montreal, the Hold Steady, and Sufjan Stevens.
One of the local bands Your Imaginary Friend shared bills with that Barrett felt some kinship with was Callow, and he and that band's bassist Kris Heath struck up a friendship over a shared love of classic new wave and power pop. "I used to hang out with Kris at this bar called Shorty's in Canton," Barrett says. "And I'd just be like, 'Do you have this Joe Jackson album?' And he'd be like 'No, do you have this [Elvis] Costello live track?'" Soon enough, Barrett was feeling the inkling to expand from a solo act to a full band, and after Callow broke up, Gary B and the Notions were born.
The Notions have gone through several lineup changes over the past few years, but Heath has remained Barrett's one consistent sideman and, in some ways, an equal creative partner. Barrett writes and sings all the songs, but often alludes to Heath working out the band arrangements, or axing his weaker compositions. And when the band didn't have the money or the means to buy studio time for its first record, Heath produced 2007's Get Those Crazy Notions! EP himself in the band's practice space. It was originally recorded as a full-length album, but when some of the recordings didn't size up to Heath's standards, he cut it down to seven songs.
The band's current live lineup is filled out by Bryan Elliott of the Liars Academy on guitar and Rick Bowman on drums, although neither played on the Notions' latest album. Bowman, who has spent the past decade touring with various bands and currently fronts the Frauds, seems to relish his role as the newest member of Gary B and the Notions. "It's nice to play drums in a band that I really like, and all these dudes have great taste in music," Bowman says. "They work hard and they know what to do, and they don't cry about stupid stuff."
"We've kind of become painfully not cool," Heath says. And, indeed, while their earnest brand of power pop has never been particularly fashionable in Baltimore, they're beginning to feel almost like an endangered species. These days, the guitar bands are mostly skewing artier or punkier, while the indie-pop acts are twiddling nobs on drum machines and keyboards. The Notions have found a few kindred spirits in Baltimore--such as SquA¥A¥ks, the Oranges, and J-Roddy Walston and the Business--but, unsurprisingly, they have struck up more alliances with bands they've met touring out of town, such as Boston's Pretty and Nice and North Carolina's Hammer No More the Fingers.
Gary B and the Notions' first full-length album, A New Twist and Shout, was released in November by the Beechfields. And though the album, tracked at Lord Baltimore Recording, adds some welcome punch to the Notions' sound, it's remarkably similar to the self-recorded early material, suggesting that they honed in on what they wanted to sound like a long time ago, and haven't deviated from it since. Much of Twist was recorded more than a year ago, around the time the 2008 EP Let Yourself Out was released, but Barrett and Heath, unsatisfied with the initial results, kept retooling and rerecording, and brought in Jeremy Mendocino of Pretty and Nice to help produce and mix the final product.
One aspect of the Notions' music that Barrett and his bandmates have somewhat changed their minds about is song length. Only one track on A New Twist and Shout breaks the four-minute mark, whereas about half of the songs on previous releases did. In fact, one of the band's most popular early songs, the pretty, midtempo "Lori," was at one point banished from their set lists simply because it was too long.
"We didn't play it for years," Barrett says. "This five-and-a-half minute song was killing the set. So when we brought it back this year, the song's three minutes. We took a whole repeat of the song out. We took out a verse, bridge, and chorus. And it's still good. In fact it probably should've been that way originally."