IT'S ONLY A TWO-HOUR drive from Washington, D.C., to Charlottesville, Va. But for Aden's Jeff Gramm, tonight it feels like eternity. Perhaps it's because instead of staring idly out the window, he's been roped into doing an interview on a staticky cell phone. Or maybe it's due to the fact that this particular car ride is just the initial leg of a 30-dates-in-31-days whirlwind tour. Either way, he seems more than a little unsettled by the proceedings.
Gramm has every reason to be nervous. Last summer, the D.C.-based quartet's attempts to tour in support of their third full-length, Hey 19, seemed altogether doomed. First, a production glitch delayed the arrival of the new CDs. Then, the band's label, Teen Beat, had to push the record's release date back by nearly a month. In the end, Aden ended up doing two full outings in support of a record that wasn't available in stores or even on the merchandise table.
Perhaps as a result, Gramm and drummer Matt Datesman are the only permanent Aden members participating in the tour this time around. Bassist Fred Kovey and guitarist Kevin Barker opted to remain behind, leaving longtime Aden collaborator Andy Creighton to fill in on guitar, while Jeff Grosfeld handles bass.
Gramm sighs dejectedly as he relates the details, but careful ears can detect a hint of childish anticipation underlying his gloomy tone. Aden's music is his brainchild, and despite the setbacks, he loves the challenge. "I'm kind of excited about [this tour]," he says. "I feel like it's a good album. It deserves some support from us, and we're finally doing it now."
Recorded by Dave Trumfio of Chicago's King Size Sound Labs, Hey 19 seamlessly blends winding Chicago post-rock and D.C. power pop. (Until a few months ago, the band's members split time between the two cities.) Like Chicagoans Seam, whose Fortune 4 label released Aden's 1997 self-titled debut, the songs hinge on guitar interplay; Gramm and Barker exchange melodies like kisses, while Kovey and Datesman add a subtle rhythmic layer underneath. As on 1999's Black Cow—both of the last two discs were named after Steely Dan songs, half- jokingly—occasional licks of organ or keyboard add texture and depth.
Unlike other guitar-rock bands, however, Aden steer clear of the angst-filled, overpowering chorus. Tracks like "Home Repair" and "Dear John" run at a pleasant, steady pace, never quite following through on their threats to erupt into chaos. Barker's fingerpicked guitar is crystal clear throughout, and there's nary a hint of distortion.
This restraint seems to transfer through to Gramm's vocals as well. Rather than shouting or screaming, he carries melodies like fine china—as if at any moment they might slip from his grasp and shatter into fragments. Lyrics that would sound awkward coming from any other mouth take on a lustrous singsong quality on Hey 19. On "Gulf Coast League," when he sings, "Two, three, five, nine, everyday, OK, OK," it has the soothing drone of a lullaby. And on "(Everything's Fine at the) House of Klein," he is able to turn a simple description of the home furnishings of former Aden drummer and Onion music critic Josh Klein into a love song.
Lyrically, Gramm's songwriting depends on phrasing and phonetics rather than complex wordplay. Abstract themes of love, loss, and comfort overpower any heady intellectual concepts. "I'm definitely a music guy," he explains. "Lyrics only jump out at me if they're really bad. There are many lyrics I just love, but I never really disqualify bands whose lyrics don't move me. For example, I don't really like Tom Verlaine's lyrics but I love Television."
Even so, Gramm did make a deliberate attempt to improve his songwriting on Hey 19. Rather than working exclusively from a first-person perspective, much of the record is written in third person. "We wanted to try something new with the lyrics," he says. "We sort of abused the depressing first-person approach on our first two records."
With less emphasis on "depressing first-person" lyrics, Aden have taken another step closer toward an identity that Gramm deplores—that of a pop band. "In my head, I think that [Hey 19] is a rock album," he confesses. "I guess that I'm deluded. At the studio, we thought at times, 'Whoa! This rocks!' Dave [Trumfio] would turn to us and say, 'No it doesn't. It doesn't rock!'"
He pauses, then adds, "I feel like I'm setting myself up for an extremely embarrassing quotation. It's going to be a headline, 'Aden think that they rock!'"
As his voice begins to dissolve into an unruly tangle of cell phone noise, Gramm's tone once again belies his words. It's obvious that he doesn't exactly mind being the leader of a pop band, just as he doesn't mind touring or driving or anything else. It's all just another obstacle to be overcome, no more of a nuisance than the long, darkened road that still lies ahead.