The best band you never heard
Of all the bands to come out of Athens in the southern US state of Georgia, R.E.M. is probably the best known and most popular. Their jangly alternative rock quickly became world famous and their 15 albums released over a two-decade career have mostly been hits. But the list of bands that originated in that college town is impressive. Some were pioneers in their genre—such as the B-52s with their new wave sound. Others, notably The Black Crowes (blues-rock), Drive-by Truckers (southern, country-inflected rock), and the itinerant jam band Widespread Panic, also became successful acts. But besides these, there was also Elephant 6, a loose confederation of musicians and bands united by their love for retro music of the 1960s, which included Neutral Milk Hotel, The Apples in Stereo, and The Olivia Tremor Control.
Several of the Athens-born bands found wider success—r.e.m., of course, but also many of the Elephant 6 bands that went on to garner fewer but hugely dedicated fans. Yet, some gems among that city’s vibrant music scene remained largely undiscovered. The Glands is one of them. Invoking the phrase, “the best band you’ve never heard”, may seem like a worn cliché but that description fits The Glands perfectly. Formed in the mid-1990s, The Glands were founded by guitarist and singer Ross Shapiro, but they were short-lived, releasing just two albums in four years: in 1996, they self-released Double Thriller, and in 2000, a self-titled album. Although The Glands earned peer approval and steadfastly loyal local support, they never did make it big on the national or international scene, remaining for the most part an Athens phenomenon.
That is a pity. At a time when the music scene in Athens was booming, The Glands kept things low profile but singular. Shapiro, who died after a battle with lung cancer two years ago, ran a small eatery and a record store to supplement his income, and shunned the limelight that other aspiring musicians yearn for. On both their laid-back, lo-fi albums, The
Glands looked for inspiration away from what was happening in the scene immediately around them. British pop and rock was a great inspiration for them, and on
Double Thriller’s eclectic mix of songs you can discern the impact of bands such as the Kinks and the
This year, there’s an opportunity to (re)discover The Glands.
This November, a new box set, titled I Can See My House From
Here, was released. It’s a compilation of a new version of their debut album, Double Thriller, but with the addition of a new set of 23 songs that Shapiro had recorded but hitherto not released. It’s a bonanza for lo-fi loving music fans, and a great chance to delve deep into the oeuvre of a band that ought not to have slipped by under the radar. Double Thriller was made in collaboration with a bunch of local artists, an outcome of late-night recording sessions, often at Shapiro’s eatery after closing hours. The musicians playing on it vary with the only constant being Shapiro himself and drummer Joe Rowe. Each of the 15 songs sounds very different from the one preceding or following it.
That unpredictability is one of the greatest appeals of The Glands’ music. As is Shapiro’s unconventional, slightly misaligned lyrics and manner of singing. Double Thriller is a fine album with its array of styles—call Me Doctor’s folksiness; the post-punk credentials of Grey Hats; and the shoe-gaze low-fidelity of Welcome To N.J., which harks of bands such as Pavement and Yo La Tengo—but The Glands’ best album has to be their second one. All 19 songs on that 2000 album are as varied as the ones on Double Thriller but they are crafted with better arrangements that seem meticulously put together but without upsetting the indie, lo-fi attributes that the band was known for. The songs vary from being up-tempo sing-alongs (When I Laugh) to ones that are introspective and moody (Mayflower). On the latter, Shapiro sings whimsically: I was told when I was young, if you dug a hole straight down you’d go all the way to China/ You have many noble features, and the roots that run so deep they go all the way to China.
The new album of 23 unreleased songs that came with the recently released box set is called Double Coda and it’s actually like a brand new album by the band. After their first two records, The Glands went into hibernation and never released anything else although Shapiro had a cache of recordings that were ready. Before he died in 2016, he gave permission to drummer Rowe to release them and Double Coda is the outcome. In the same vein as the first two albums, Double Coda’s songs are like a roller-coaster ride. There’s some electronica (Electricity); some guitar-led stoner sadness (So High); some folk-style ballads (Clover); and even jazz (Piano Jazz). And that’s just a tiny peek into how different each of their songs can be. It’s as difficult to get tired of an album by The Glands as it is to figure out why they didn’t get wider recognition earlier. The new box set will, hopefully, make amends. Better late than never.
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‘I Can See My House From Here’ album cover featuring The Glands’ lead singer Ross Shapiro who died of lung cancer in 2016.