Flying High

Nothing, it seems, can keep the Waxwings grounded.



Graceland, 381-3094, $7

9 p.m. Wed., July 3

Dean Fertita wants to scream.

Even through a crackling phone connection, you can hear it in his voice—as soon as he’s asked about “the letter.” But among the many things Fertita is—singer, guitarist, and leader of Detroit’s Waxwings—he’s also a polite and understanding soul. So, he doesn’t yell, hang up, or put a fist through the line. He merely sighs.

“The whole letter thing was obviously really disappointing to us,” he offers flatly. “It really came out of left field.”

The notorious missive in question is a now-legendary e-mail sent to the band by its label head, Bobsled Records chief Bob Salerno. His sprawling, profanity-laced diatribe—chastising the group for a lackluster CD-release-party performance—quickly made it onto an Internet chat room and has since become required reading, passed between journalists, publicists, and all manner of bemused industry types.

Admittedly, it is a funny screed. Salerno’s use of the word “fuck”—which he deploys with the frequency of a mobster in a Scorcese flick—is itself a thing of disturbing comic beauty.

Fertita feels less than frivolous when the subject is raised. “We thought we were really good friends with the guy. So now our relationship is obviously, uh, strained,” he says, proceeding to relate the whole pained saga.

Of course, none of this curious sideshow would matter if the Waxwings weren’t an amazing rock band to begin with. Exhibit A in the group’s defense: their 2000 debut, Low to the Ground—an album brimming with airy anthems and sun-kissed sing-alongs. In short, the kind of record that only the hardest-hearted cynic could resist.

Fifteen hard months of touring followed Low‘s release, a period that would test the band’s mettle while defining its musical identity. The results of those trials are evident on their newly released sophomore disc, Shadows of the Waxwings. Again recorded with Minneapolis sound supremo Bryan Hanna (the Hang Us, Golden Smog), Shadows finds the group’s feathery jangle weighted with heftier guitars and riding newly added layers of feedback.

“We wanted it be a little more representative of what the band has become since the last album. To me, it’s more of a rock ‘n’ roll record,” offers Fertita.

This toughened approach is evident in the opening troika of “Blistered,” “Wired That Way,” and “Clouded Over”—a three-song suite that seesaws between blissed-out rock and cutting, corrosive pop.

Despite the new album’s more angular approach, the band still allows its innately folkish charm (check the Simon and Garfunkel-isms of “Look Down Darkly”) to seep through to the surface.

That sort of stylistic alchemy—running furious riffs headlong into flowery chorals—has placed the Waxwings in the unfortunate position of being musical ‘tweeners; too poppy for garage acolytes, yet too rocking for the effete candy- floss corps.

“Yeah, we’re still trying to find our audience,” Fertita says. “We’re not probably committed enough to either side. We’re kind of stuck in the middle.”

As for their own tastes, Fertita cites Dylan, The Band, and the Stones as tour van perennials. Yet the group’s music seems to vibe more off the mellifluous mid-’60s catalogs of the Byrds, Beach Boys, and Zombies. Listening to Waxwings cuts like “Fractured”—which comes on like time-warp treasure before morphing into a more modern buzz-saw breakout—the band’s m鴩er becomes clear; retro-rock played with a post-punk sensibility, Odyssey and Oracle as interpreted by the Clash, yet never a poor pastiche of either.

More than the sum of their influences, though, the Waxwings’ sound is imbued with a strong sense of fraternity and rich, genetic harmonies to match. The group’s roots do, indeed, run deep: Fertita and drummer Jim Edmunds have known each other since elementary school, while bassist Kevin Peyok and guitarist/vocalist Dominic Romano played in shoegaze combo Glider for eight years. And for the past year, all four have been living together in old A-frame on the fringes of the Motor City.

It turns out that the communal approach has yielded a batch of fresh material, enough for a new album. One which Fertita says will—even after all the recent contentiousness—still likely be released on Bobsled.

As for Salerno’s e-mail, which at one point bizarrely castigates the Waxwings for sounding “like a half-ass cover band,” Fertita finally sees a silver lining.

“Well,” he says, joking, “at least people won’t have super high expectations when they come out to see us.”