Dead Rock West deliver a healing prescription with their John Doe-produced album “More Love”

By Bliss Bowen

Dead Rock West heads to Roots on the Rails after their Santa Monica gig
Photo by Patrick Dennis

Each of Dead Rock West’s four albums is conceptually distinctive, and “More Love,” out this week, glows with a melodic conviction that distinguishes it from its predecessors. Frank Lee Drennen and Cindy Wasserman’s trademark shadow-and-silk harmonies are robustly braided throughout a dozen variations on the titular theme, from the anthemic title track through a celebratory cover of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me.” Songs like the snappy pop-rocker “Boundless Fearless Love” convey a resolute hopefulness (“Though desolation has no secrets/ I still believe the loser stands a chance”) that many listeners crave, which prompts the question: Is the album a conscious attempt to counter bleak current events?

“No, no politics,” Drennen insists, with such adamant force that Wasserman and this writer laugh; his comments are otherwise measured and thoughtful. “Zero politics, zero government, zero all of that, and I mean a big, fat, giant, f**king zero. I have a deep interest in relationships and how people interact with each other.

“The world really is in a world of hurt. I don’t care what your religion or politics are, but I think everybody would agree they need more love. Minus politics, minus economics and social standings, all that stuff, we all just need more love. If there was more love in our hearts, there would be less fear, and if there was less fear, we would help each other more easily.”

Wasserman cheerily recalls her late brother Rob encouraging her to tag along when he was making his 1994 album “Trios” with friends including blues legend Willie Dixon, who dropped a bit of wisdom that’s particularly resonant now.

“He would spew out all these cool lines, and the one that stuck with me was ‘All songs are about love,’ because I realized it’s true,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what you think the content is, everything is about love. Whether it’s about hurt or about a happy love connection, the core of it is all about love. It really applies to these songs — they’re all about love. Frank’s an amazing songwriter.”

Drennen’s songs dig deeper than past releases, reflecting life challenges that have buffeted the duo, and they’re studded with poetic metaphors and imagery: “Radio Silence,” “Nail Gun,” “Stereo” (“Are you one of those who runs from love like a dove from a gun”). His “Singing on the Telephone” and Wasserman’s poignant “Tell Me Goodbye” — the latter co-written with Gregg Stewart and movingly sung by Drennen — offer examples of the intuitive way the two connect musically.

“We can approach relationship stuff within songs in a way that I never have been able to do with guys,” Drennen observes. “I wrote ‘Singing on the Telephone’ about a breakup for myself. But then our producer John said, ‘I want to hear Cindy sing it.’ Cindy found her own way to connect with it emotionally, as far as who she’s singing it to. She was able to bounce off what I had written from a perspective of my own life, and related it to herself in a feminine way that I just never could have.”

That intuitive connection extends to producer John Doe, for whom Wasserman has been singing harmony since 2003 (four years after Dead Rock West passed out cassette tapes of their first demo during a gig at the Mint). Duo dynamics are obviously in Doe’s wheelhouse, courtesy of his tenure fronting X with ex-wife Exene Cervenka.

“Of anybody who’s gonna produce a vocal duo, who better than John Doe?” Drennen asks rhetorically. “His sensibility with that and nudging us in certain ways while respecting what we really are was valuable. … When John would say, ‘That’s a good take,’ I would believe him.

“He would go, ‘You know that one line you guys are doing? You should do that twice.’ And all of a sudden the song would be totally different. Or ‘Just pull back a little there on the singing’ — little things that would shift enough that the next take would be the keeper.”

“You’d think it would be such a slight change, but it made the whole difference,” Wasserman agrees.

Like Doe, Dave Alvin and Peter Case have consistently championed Dead Rock West, and Alvin invited them to join the upcoming Roots on the Rails musical caravan (rootsontherails.com). The love is mutual.

“You look up to these people and then all of us a sudden they’re our friends, and they’ve been so amazing,” Wasserman enthuses. “I was so excited ’cause Frank and I are doing a songwriters-in-the-round on the train with Dave and John. I left Frank a message yesterday: ‘Who would have thought so many years ago that we would get to do that?’ It’s really a cool journey.”

 

Dead Rock West celebrate the release of “More Love” with an 8 p.m. show at McCabe’s Guitar Shop (3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica) on Friday, Aug. 11. Tickets are $20. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit mccabes.com for venue info.

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