Back when he was a sweetly naive teenager living in Minnetonka, David Beckey ventured into Minneapolis one day to go record shopping--and received a quick lesson in hipster chauvinism. Walking out of Oarfolkjokeopus, he and his pal were greeted by a shout from a passing car: "Go back to the suburbs!"
Today, Beckey is a sweetly naive thirtysomething living in north Minneapolis, and he chuckles as he relates the story from his living-room couch. The leader of garage-pop romantics the Autumn Leaves still doesn't know what gave him away: Was it the Van Halen album his friend was carrying? Thing is, he might be no cooler now than he was then, and his place in the music scene remains as lowly as ever--even as he prepares to release one of the best local albums of the year.
Beckey stretches his long limbs to fetch records from his collection in the other room, and brings back the kind of obscure psychedelia, neopsychedelia, and easy listening that obsess him now the way Rain Parade did back in the early '80s. There's the Free Design's Heaven/Earth, Felt's Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death, Scott Walker's Scott 3. No doubt his band's alternately foreboding and blissed-out swirl owes something to these oddities. It owes more still to the celestial detachment of the Byrds, from the era when Roger McGuinn suddenly realized that the world is a bummer you can't ignore.
But Beckey's optimism is anachronistic and pure, especially at a time when pop seems to have left the oohs and aahs to Mattress Giant. Awe is outré: All the drugs have been taken; UFOs are our enemy again. Meanwhile, Beckey's first album in five years arrives just when the combined chill of school, war, and your bedroom floor are, for once, too much for any jingle, jangle, or combination thereof to alleviate.
Even on a good day, I have no idea what to do with a Beckey line like "To the stars above, we will rise with love," which the singer croons near the end of The Twilight Hours of the Autumn Leaves (Dabbler Records). At times, he reminds me of the dove in Mars Attacks!--a beautiful thing offered up to outsiders in the spirit of peace, ready to be annihilated with laser precision.
Somehow, the effect is still touching. Beckey's tremulous voice and powerfully simple arrangements defy condescension. And his entirely new Autumn Leaves lineup, which appears Saturday at the Turf Club with the Hang Ups and Luke's Angels, is reason enough to forget the words. Jan frontwoman Jeaneen Gauthier plays a sort of tinted windshield to Beckey's open sunroof with her frosty harmonizing and remote Stereolab bop-bop-ing. And the restrained grooves of drummer Scott Berndt and bassist Dwight Erickson (the latter played with Beckey and Landing Gear's Jay Hurley in the Sedgwicks) give the boy-girl harmonies room to be tentative and tender.
The band's reinvigoration is good news for anyone who thought the Autumn Leaves were incinerated after 1997's Treats and Treasures (Grimsey)--a hit with Radio K and less influential critics around the globe. (London's Time Out called a major-label sequel "inevitable.") Beckey never followed friends such as Willie Wisely, Lori Wray (who cameos on Twilight), or Grimsey Records owner Andrea Troolin out of town. He gigged occasionally, popped up on compilations, hosted a few variety shows at Bryant-Lake Bowl.
What he lost during this period was momentum, a casualty of band tensions worthy of the Byrds. Leaves had been falling off the tree at a fairly constant pace for the better part of a decade, but no relationship was more volatile than that between soft boy Beckey and legendary curmudgeon Keith Patterson (bassist of the Funseekers, the Spectors, and the Conquerors). Careful and faithful readers of City Pages may remember Patterson as the letter writer who threatened physical harm to any staff member who persisted in using Faux Jean and mod in the same sentence (sorry, Keith).
"He's one of my best friends, but as soon as we tried to play in a band, there was conflict," Beckey says. "I don't mind spending five or 10 minutes playing the same chord to come up with an idea, and it drives him crazy."
The title Treats and Treasures (also the name of a store in Lake City, Minnesota) was a joke about an incident that now seems typical: Beckey spent much of a particular practice teasing Patterson with offers of candy and the phrase "Would you like a treat?" repeated in the worst imaginable British accent. The bassist just wanted to get down to rocking. (He nonetheless appears on three of Twilight's nine tracks.)
The adjective Beckey uses for the new arrangement is "comfortable," though "cozy" better describes the Autumn Leaves' practice space in Crystal. There are about eight Clash posters in Dwight Erickson's basement rec room, including one from a 1982 St. Paul Civic Center show he saw with the woman who is now his wife. His kids are doing flips onto a mattress nearby, overseen by two large stuffed dogs wearing camouflage uniforms.
In an adjoining chamber, the band rolls into an Everly Brothers-style "Love Hurts" like it's an old friend, and I worry they'll topple a stack of hat boxes next to them. But they're used to cramped quarters, and Gauthier stands almost perfectly still as the volume swells.
Outside the house, suburban Minnesota is quiet except for the rain; cold, too. Suddenly I remember something: The band's name was lifted from the jazz and pop standard by Joseph Kosma, and before the lyrics were rewritten by Johnny Mercer, the title (with lyrics by Jacques Prévert) translated as "The Dead Leaves." Mulching ain't the worst metaphor for an old band yielding new life. At any rate, Beckey has at last gone back to the suburbs.