After nearly a decade of acoustic guitar strumming and soul-baring on the local scene, Martin Devaney had had enough. The time for hushed introspection was over—and an urge to kick out feel-good rock jams was just beginning.
"I had kind of reached my quota on writing confessional songs for a while," explains the 29-year-old St. Paul singer-songwriter of the inspiration for his rock-in-the-name-of-fun band Crossing Guards. "I started writing tunes that had a different feel to them, with the idea that it would be a band and not my own name. Writing from that perspective felt very different. All of a sudden I felt like I could speak in a new way. The songs didn't have to be about my deal with some girl."
The songs on Crossing Guards' debut album, Revenge of the Tall Boys, particularly on its rollicking Guided By Voices-reminiscent first half, are about just how much fun it is to play music cranked up to 11 with a backing group of good friends. Devaney's reedy voice will never be his strongest asset, but the emphatic fervor with which he sings atop ringing hooks on top-flight power-pop tunes like "Echo" constitute his finest vocal hour. "We recorded the bulk of the record in the dead of winter during a time where I was reading a book all about the Beatles' recording sessions and listening to a ton of Oasis," says Devaney. "In my head that's where I was at; I was Oasis in my mind." The power of rock has clearly energized Devaney, as anyone who caught one of his beer-swilling, karate-kick friendly gigs with the five-piece band can attest.
"A lot of these tunes I couldn't actually sing very well if I was having to play guitar live at the same time," explains Devaney, who performs sans six-string with his latest band (which includes bassist Sean Hoffman, guitarists Eric Kassel and Steve McPherson, plus drummer Judd Hildreth). "I've surprised myself with what I'm able to belt out when I can just focus on the singing. It's fun being up there without a guitar. You do have to think a lot more about stage presence. I always make sure to have a couple of 'stage beers' up there as support just so I can sneak off to a corner and drink while a guitar solo's happening if I don't have any other ideas. It's fun getting to exploit the whole frontman thing."
The primary catalyst in aiding Devaney's big rock makeover is scene veteran Sean Hoffman, who has played with everyone from Mark Mallman to Faux Jean, and initially linked up with Devaney playing bass to support his folkier material. "I remember when he first came to me and was playing some of the Crossing Guards songs and gently strumming. I was like, 'No! All down strokes—and faster!'" recalls Hoffman, while Devaney sits alongside him, struggling to suppress a grin.
"The band started with just the two of us as a recording project," recalls Hoffman, who produced Revenge of the Tall Boys and played most of its musical parts. "I wasn't working at the time, so I was just obsessive about it. I would tinker with it all night—throwing in church bells, whatever—and then Martin would come back the next night and listen to it. Usually his first reaction was to make a face like he smelled something bad, but then he would live with it for a while and end up liking it."
Hoffman's tinkering, especially on the album's slower-paced but more sonically ambitious second half, elevates Revenge of the Tall Boys from a shamelessly fun rock romp to a truly special record. Tunes like "Another Paper Breakdown" showcase Devaney at his witty best ("You say I'll eat my words, well there's a lot to digest") while supplementing his homespun melodies with elements new to his music (washes of ambient keyboard, snippets of sampled orchestration, heavy harmony overdubs) that hit just right.
"This was the first time where I was working with a more collaborative approach and having to really think about making a record as opposed to just being a singer-songwriter banging something out," admits Devaney. "I had never felt comfortable enough before to try and play some guitar licks, to do harmony vocals. Getting outside the comfort zone was the whole point."
CROSSING GUARDS play a CD-release show with Farewell Milwaukee and the Small Cities on FRIDAY, OCTOBER 23, at the TURF CLUB; 651.647.0486