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By Reed Fischer
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The other night, some guy generously offered to rearrange Nate Greely's face. It's a good face, wholesome and earnest, and so the Arlo singer/guitarist politely declined. "There's just something about me that makes people want to beat me up," he says thoughtfully, calling from a friend's house in Cape Cod, where he and the rest of the band are spending a mid-tour day off.
It seems odd that anyone would want to punch Greely out. He's affable enough; it's only when he starts talking politics with strangers that he gets himself in trouble. "I'm a communist," he admits, "and that makes people mad. I don't believe in a violent revolution, but I think everything should be nationalized and everyone should have health care and everyone should share in the profits of the business at which they work."
Greely is really the last one you'd figure for a pinko. In fact, judging from Arlo's apolitical songs--which feature big shimmering hooks, driving rhythms, and achingly sweet four-part harmonies--you'd never assume the quartet to hold any philosophies that deviate from the usual summery, Californian mentality. Stab the Unstoppable Hero (Sub Pop), the followup to their 2001 debut, Up High in the Night, is chock full of hummable pop songs about relationships, things that fall apart in the shower, relationships, girls that give you "the runaround," silkworms, bus stops--and did we mention relationships? Seems Greely would rather use his politics to get his ass whupped than to pen a tune.
"Writing a song with a real obvious political statement seems a little pompous to me," he says. More than anything, I want the songs to be honest." And so Greely and the band (guitarist/vocalist Sean Spillane, bassist Schmed, and drummer Tom Sanford) write about what they know--which, according to Greely, is "girls and being in love."
But Greely's angst might go a little deeper than the boy-girl stuff he so frequently references. A year and a half ago his mom died of cancer. His father, renowned Cajun fiddle player David Greely, lives in Louisiana and is constantly on tour, so Greely and his four younger siblings moved into a house together. Since 27-year-old Greely is the oldest, many of the parenting responsibilities have fallen on him. (Though he's the first to admit that his sister Rebecca, who's the next oldest, handles much of the "crappy" day-to-day stuff like driving the youngest sister to school.) And yes, Greely has heard the Party of Five thing a zillion times and, in case you're wondering, he says A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is pretty accurate.
Should he wish to write dramatic, heart-wrenching songs, he could. And yet he seems to avoid that particular pitch, instead filling his ambitiously arranged music with images that are innocent and escapist. "Waiting, on the edge of the knife/Tiny and white/Stab the unstoppable hero," he sings on the strangely beautiful title track. Greely claims not to know quite what he wrote the bizarre lullaby about: "I was a huge Pixies fan when I was younger, and I really love those songs that are impressionistic," he says. "There were some images and words and ideas in my mind that sounded good together and seemed to make sense in a way--but not in any way that I could explain." And yet the song resonates, particularly when a tired Greely vows to "get through this somehow."
"[Losing a parent] is something you wouldn't think you can handle. And then when it happens, you don't just die. You carry on. And in the end, it's not quite as overwhelming as it seems," he says.
"I'm still dealing with it and working it out and figuring it out," he surmises. "I guess I do have more of a sense of independence now and a sense of responsibility. After going through that, handling a bunch of guys on tour is a breeze."