Two-Faced and Proud
John Eller is trying his best to convince Chris Lynch to try the pizza with white sauce, but to no avail; the thought of it makes Lynch grimace. It's an illustrative moment. The two local musicians are as alike as night and day: Eller carps, Lynch shrugs; Eller is outgoing, Lynch is reserved; one fronted a band steeped in the boozy rock of the Faces and the Stones, the other is a crooner weaned on pop radio.
So how did these two wind up in a band together? Good question. Both have been knocking around on the scene for years: Eller with his band the DTs, Lynch as former frontman of the Picadors. When Lynch bailed out of his band, he called up Eller to ask him about the possibility of collaborating. At the time, Eller deferred (telling Lynch that he "would be bored just playing keyboards on my songs"). But eventually, when the DTs disbanded, the two found themselves working on demos together. The result of their cooperative efforts is Dog Day Afternoon, a sunny acoustic pop debut that's one of the most outstanding local music releases in years.
Despite Eller and Lynch's differences, Dog Day Afternoon reveals a shared pop culture history. Instead of taking the roots-rock road of so many local songsmiths, the duo put a '90s spin on the soundtrack of their urban childhoods. Growing up in south Minneapolis, Lynch was immersed in a multicultural stew. "I have a very different take on what 'Americana' is," Lynch says, referring to the current proliferation of wide-eyed, rural-spirited country-rock. "It seems this 'small town' thing is very exclusive to very few people; it's a very white Americana." Lynch grew up on the music of Bootsy Collins, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Joni Mitchell, and both he and Eller draw on a variety of styles to make their music.
As things turned out, their unlikely demos ended up getting them an unlikely deal with the locally based East Side Digital label. A small upstart with national distribution, ESD has an eclectic roster that includes San Francisco art-rock weirdos The Residents and young roots-rock bands like Go to Blazes. ESD had been in the market for a local band; Mary Retzlaff, now the label's director of sales and marketing and a longtime supporter of Eller's music, put the bug in owner Steve Daly's ear about the singer long before she even worked at the label. Her efforts paid off.
"We didn't want to go after someone who was a flavor of the month, playing at the Uptown for three or four months and then going away," Daly says. "And they were easy to work with-- really cooperative in letting us know what they were up to and what their goals were. There was no pretension." Even Eller was surprised at Daly's interest. "I think when we originally gave him the demo, he might have been a little disappointed at first glance. I think he was expecting that sort of roots-rock thing that everybody was doing, but it wasn't," Eller says. The signing complements both sides: ESD gets to bring its hometown to a national audience, and Eller Lynch gets a label that should offer them broad support.
That's appropriate, because Dog Day Afternoon is a record that should easily find an audience beyond the Twin Cities. It represents a conscious effort to strip their song styles down to the bare minimum. And while the acoustic detour may seem a leap for some of Eller and Lynch's old fans, it was a necessary evolution for both songwriters. "I felt like a dinosaur playing the Entry and the Uptown, playing the big hard rock numbers with the DTs," Eller says. "Not that I didn't like it, but at times it just didn't feel right anymore. I always wrote songs on my acoustic guitar; it was very natural when I started doing demos in the basement with Chris." Lynch chimes in: "I couldn't write a rock song to save my life. You get to the songcraft when you strip things down to just acoustic elements. And I had a lot more in common with [Eller] than I thought, like we could draw on some of the same stuff that we listened to."
This common ground is evident in Dog Day Afternoon, whether they are re-reading old chestnuts like George Harrison's "For You Blue" (giving the song a better treatment than even Harrison did) or Patti Page's "Old Cape Cod." The duo also found comfort in working on each other's songs, alternating the album with tunes penned by each. Eller works on fleshing out Lynch's R&B pop stylings with a rock sensibility, while Lynch brings a lighter touch to the more muscular material.
And Dog Day Afternoon reveals interesting new developments for both artists, the most noticeable of which are Eller's vocals, which take a softer approach that serves his songs well. "Away From the Heart," for example, is a plaintive wail of heartache that is among Eller's most affecting songs. Lynch's tribute to a friend, "Human Dignity (For William)," speaks just as honestly to a future cut short, while "Just a Memory" reflects on a dissolved relationship. Eller's "Maybe I'm Amused" and Lynch's "Don't Cross Me Off" both pop with a giddy tunefulness that recalls both Elton John and the Monkees. The music gets additional mileage from Eller's harmonica turns, and the warm groove of Dan Bergstrom and Tommy Alsides, the DTs' old rhythm section.
Onstage, the band dishes out covers as disparate as Cher's "Dark Lady," Prince's "Sign o' the Times," and Led Zeppelin's "Custard Pie." They've played Patrick's Cabaret (for the annual Queer Boyz Nite) as well as the 7th Street Entry. Eller, who is gay, has never hidden his sexuality, but he struggles with the issue of broadcasting it. "I wouldn't want it to be a big issue, like carrying a big banner, or being some kind of spokesperson," Eller says. "So you have to decide: You're either going to anger people by not addressing it, and they'll say, 'Oh, you're closeted, you're not being yourself, you're not a true artist.' Or it becomes political, where people have to sit and talk about it." Meanwhile, Lynch's stage costumes and mannerisms (which include chiffon blouses and enthusiastic butt-shaking) have prompted many to mistakenly assume he's also gay. "I always have to tell people that he's the straight one," Eller says, laughing.
The nature of Eller Lynch, both musically and personally, is contradictory. They blur the lines that divide pop and rock, pain and pleasure, gay and straight. In bridging these opposites, Eller and Lynch have established themselves as songwriters of the highest order. After all, a world without contrasts is a very dull world indeed.
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