Who Let the 'Dogs Out?

Soldiers of fortune: The Honeydogs

"Ever had smelt before?" asks Adam Levy. The Honeydogs' singer-songwriter is scanning the Modern Cafe's menu as we wait for his younger brother Noah to arrive. I admit my intentional unfamiliarity with this traditional Minnesota delicacy (my imagination reels at the thought of oily fish served whole) and shake my head. Adam smiles wanly and replies, "I'm not feeling all that ambitious, either."

Noah, the band's drummer, enters some ten minutes later in a light jacket and a wrinkled orange Hanson T-shirt. As he stumbles into the booth next to his brother, he apologizes groggily and unnecessarily. After all, Noah isn't that late, and besides, the Honeydogs--and their fans--have grown used to waiting. The band's fourth album, Here's Luck, was originally recorded back in 1998--and was released just last week.

How can it take three years to release a record that took only three months to record? The most accurate response would be a sadly familiar one: the shrugging shoulders of major labels, the bane of any band that hopes to earn a living while still nurturing notions of creative independence. The label that had signed the Honeydogs, Debris Records, was shut down by parental unit Mercury mere months after the ink dried on their contract, leaving the Honeydogs to deal with Mercury directly.

"Everyone who had brought us on board at Debris--the president of our label, the PR people, everyone who had become an ally of the band--had been cut out of the equation," Adam explains. "We were sort of left hanging from the release of the last record onward."

Anyone who remembers the local radio saturation that greeted "Rumor Has It" might be surprised to learn that the record it's on, 1997's Seen a Ghost, actually floundered commercially outside Minnesota. But anyone familiar with the soulless business strategies of major labels in recent years might attribute the Honeydogs' low national profile to a calculated lack of label promotion. Feeling lost in the shuffle, the band opted to milk Mercury for all it was worth in the making of Luck.

"We made an unabashedly self-indulgent record," Adam says.

Finishing his brother's thought, Noah is slightly more cutthroat when discussing the band's response to Mercury's apathy: "The ax hanging over us was more of a positive than a negative. Not to sound mercenary, but we knew we were getting the money for another record, and there was no one on our backs telling us what to do. We could operate with impunity and spend their money. And we knew they were going to drop us, even though they didn't know."

Yet fate had something else in store for the Honeydogs. They may have been handed all the resources they would need to create the album of their career, yet the end product was not just an unreleased record but a journey into commercial limbo. With the colossal megafusion of media giants Universal and Polygram, Mercury Records itself was consumed and digested by the newly reconfigured Island-Def Jam label. The second crop of new faces at first accepted the finished Here's Luck. But when they refused to give the band any release date for more than four months, the Honeydogs jumped ship for Rykodisc's Palm Pictures.

That escape was preceded by an arduous year of legal wrangling. And such contract finagling was hardly the end of the band's troubles. Bassist Trent Norton lapsed into a daylong asthma-induced coma. Guitarist Tommy Borscheid parted ways with the group. The Honeydogs' career seemed to have been scripted as an abortive Behind the Music episode--all tragedy, no triumph.

Looking back, Adam Levy is quick to find an upside to this waiting game. "If the album were to have come out right away, I don't even know if we would've been as good a live band as we are now," he says. During the auditions held to replace Borscheid, the band not only rediscovered a good friend in Brian Halverson, but acquired a new keyboardist, Jeff Victor. "This is very much a studio record," adds Adam. "It would be impossible to do live as a three-piece, which is what we were when we recorded it."

Despite this sunny take on the past, the songs on the record are about as bitter as a band named the Honeydogs can get without deserving charges of felonious irony. "On this record, I definitely tried to get away from the confessional style of our past albums," Adam insists. "It's a reflection of the general mood I saw everywhere, not just our own myopic experience."

In Here's Luck, Adam Levy has brought together a collection of ragged characters ignored by the whims of fortune and left to wonder why they've been dealt from the bottom of the tarot deck. Although his hours clocked as a social worker gave him some outside inspiration, it's not hard to see the connections between the record's somber tone and the travails in the band's career. Given the series of hard knocks the Honeydogs took after the album was recorded, one could wonder if the band hadn't somehow divined its future in the studio. "It's easy to pray," Adam wails plaintively on the album's first single, "Sour Grapes," before adding, "It's the waiting that kills you."

Even more indicative of the band's sound is "Losing Transmissions," with its intricate Pet Sounds choir intro suggesting that Adam Levy is more ambitious with his arrangements than with his lunch. The deceptively jubilant melody prances about like a pop parade for the oppressed, while lyrics such as "We bruised the stars/But the world ain't ours/Anymore" recall another local band poised for national success yet handicapped by major-label mishandling.

Noah and Adam would be loath to agree that the Honeydogs are some sort of replacement Replacements--they feel as if comparisons to their local influences have been, as Noah puts it, "shoved down our throats." But songs like "Losing Transmissions" do coin Westerberg-worthy phrases ("First we rob Peter, then we suckerpunch Paul") even as the Honeydogs fill a crucial niche in the post-'Mats local scene: an honest, dedicated band who make integrity and ambition their strongest selling points. And I'm pleased to report that the riff of "Losing Transmissions" recalls, fittingly enough for a band forced to endure so many delays, "Can't Hardly Wait."

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