At some point, the ever-revolving cast of typical band members becomes a predictable yawn: There's the poor rich kid, the art-school dropout, the sporto turned aggressor, the total wet-blanket wimp. The list could go on and on, but remembering a particular wet-blanket singer-songwriter with a dead-fish handshake has put the damper on my little stereotype party. But for the local five-piece pop outfit Landing Gear there are only two types of band members: the vibe guy and the anal-retentive perfectionist.
Drummer Dave West points out a three-inch black smudge on his pale yellow-painted living-room wall. "That's from [Landing Gear keyboardist and occasional City Pages contributor] Jon Hunt," he says, shaking his head. "He leans against the wall with his foot, and he leaves marks everywhere." The dirty-soled Hunt is a vibe guy, or a VG. "It's really pretty messy in here," the bespectacled West continues, looking for dirt in a near-spotless room. "Look, the table's dirty," he says pointing at a wood table with a gleaming reflection and a stack of mail placed perfectly in the corner. West would be the anal-retentive perfectionist, or ARP, in the band.
When the group went into the studio nearly four years ago to begin recording the heavily Brit-rock influenced Break-Up Songs for Relationships That Never Happened, there was a tug-of-war between the VGs (singer-guitarist Jay Hurley, guitarist Mykl Westbrooks, and Hunt) and the ARPs (West, bassist Robbie Robello). It took eight days to record the song "Surprise, Surprise," a sweet, nostalgia-fueled love flashback. The song ascends into an atmospheric ending that feels like the swirls that a major crush produces in the center of your chest, spinning color wheels that could burst from your throat at any second. It's nowhere near mawkish, but the tune could provide the soundtrack to that montage moment in a John Hughes flick when the sporto realizes he's in love with the art-school dropout.
Because it took eight days to record a single song, the band members realized it wasn't cost-effective to spend weeks on end in a studio obsessing over vocal overdubs or guitar parts. In early 2002, they decided to build a studio in West's basement and bring their infighting home. The members haven't talked about their problems this openly till now, so there are a few questions that remain unanswered.
As if finally realizing that four years is excessive, Hurley asks, "Why did it take so long? Why didn't we just record it and put it out?" One of the ARPs has an answer, and it has something to do with never being quite satisfied with the production.
Hurley remembers a time a couple of years ago when he was unemployed and he'd spend his days at the band's new basement studio. "I thought a bunch of times I'd come up with the greatest thing in the world, a vocal or a guitar part or whatever," he says. "And these guys would come back down...mostly it was Dave," he says, laughing. And as if on cue, he and Westbrooks imitate West's skepticism: "Ehhhhh, yeah," they say, adding an exasperated exhale. "It's not exactly right." Everyone laughs at this apparently dead-on impersonation.
West is silent for a second, slumping in a leather chair and staring at the organized stack of home magazines on the coffee table. "I'm sorry, you guys," he says. "I can't help it. I think I'm going to cry now." Even with the pressures from the vibe guys to feel instead of overanalyze, West couldn't muffle his need for perfection. "I understand the whole concept of 'the vibe,'" he says. "But I think we were at the point where we were trying to force a vibe, and it didn't seem right." In other words, it wasn't a perfect vibe.
Though he's a vibe guy in the band, Hurley's songs are steeped in perfected bliss. "Take the Ride" is layered in Duran Duran-inspired handclaps, spacey keyboards, and sex-strut basslines, making neo-new romanticism sound, well, new again. "Atmosphere" is hooky radio rock for shoe-gazers, with background oooohs and sweet melodies that could turn Hurley into this town's next Dan Wilson. Yes, the song is as good as "Singing in My Sleep," which, love the Sonic or not, is undeniably a great song. (Come on!) And of course a pop record wouldn't be pure pop without some rave-up verses and Pet Sounds-inspired wall-of-sound tympani.
The lyrics, too, are about idealized moments in love--those perfect snippets that can blind us to darker truths. "Yeah, idealized," Hurley says. "That's a good word. I kinda do that." He stops to reflect for a second. "That's kind of scary. I didn't know that I thought about it like that at the time. You think you're making progress, but subconsciously you're still idealizing those situations."
After all the hand wringing, the hours of criticism, the days spent spiraling into a fit of self-hatred, West does concede one thing about the end result: "If Jay doesn't get recognized as a great songwriter, it will be really disappointing."
Hurley raises his eyebrows as if this is the first time he's ever heard this come from West's mouth. And for a moment, the room is filled with a feel-good love vibe. Yes, maybe you could even say an almost perfect vibe.