Friday, March 21, 2014

The Samples - No Room - 1992

Back in 1993, I was just a junior in high school, and my life was starting to get particularly complicated. The month was January, and I'd just gotten into my first real relationship, with a girl named Julie, who was a year younger than me. I'm not exactly sure how we met, but I think it was as part of one of the student plays. Before the school year ended, the relationship would be over and we would both go our separate ways. We wouldn't really talk much afterwards, and I've still been a bit unclear as to why the relationship ended, other than she wasn't happy. (To be fair, I was going through a number of personal problems myself, so it's entirely possible I was partially or even totally at fault. It was twenty years ago. I don't really know.) The last time I saw her was at my good friends' Chris and Kate's wedding a dozen or so years ago. I think we said all of a handful of words to each other. But Julie left three contributions in my life before we parted ways, and I want to talk about the first of them today. It's a band called The Samples.

The Samples are from Boulder, CO, and they've often been described as "the best band you've never heard of," but I like to think of them as the Midwestern band that just never moved much past the Midwest. Every region's got them - bands that are fantastic, but just never seem to gain a foothold in areas outside of their neck of the woods. West coast bands. East coast bands. Midwest bands. The Samples really are a sort of grass-roots band, not signing to a major label until they were on their fifth album (and they were summarily dropped from said label after that album). They've been compared to people like The Police, Blues Traveler and Phish, mostly because The Samples incorporate world beat and reggae influences into their folky guitar-pop.

In 1993, I was in the middle of listening to just about anything I could get my hands on, trying to find new things that I'd never heard of that I liked. It meant everything was fair game, and nothing should be discounted. Julie and I had been dating a few weeks when she handed me a CD and told me it was her favorite album. That album was "No Room." I asked her what she knew about the band, which wasn't a whole lot. They were from Colorado, she thought, and she loved the album. They were a pretty big eco-friendly band, and they toured endlessly. She wanted me to listen to it and see what I thought, so I did. It was definitely a different sound than much of what I'd heard before. I could see why people were making Police comparisons - the drumming was more jazz influenced, and the bass hopped along to beats that were akin to (but not derivative of) Sting's work in The Police. The lead singer was a bit more high pitched and nasally than I cared for, but there were a number of great standout songs on the album. I copied the whole thing to a tape then gave Julie back her CD. She was glad I liked it, although I think I tried to keep my criticisms to myself about the weaker songs on the CD, of which there were a few.

My favorite song on the album (and hers) was a song called "Nothing Lasts For Long," which I suppose should've been foreshadowing about her and I, but when you're young and in love, you don't tend to see that kind of writing on the wall. It's not a depressing song, more of a pensive one, asking about the value of holding onto things when there are no guarantees in life.

Of course, that wasn't the only great song on the CD. There were several others, like the much more energetic "When It's Raining," or "Taking Us Home," which always makes me think of a car ride home on a summer afternoon. The most rockish songs on the album are the kiss-off "Won't Be Back Again" or the borderline temper tantrum of "Seany Boy (Drop Out)."

The Samples have gone through some hard times as a band, with singer/guitarist Sean Kelly as the only member of the band who's been in every incarnation, losing members to solo projects, creative differences or even heroin addiction. There were a number of reports of bad financial troubles hitting Sean Kelly, who at one point was offering to play basically anywhere, as long as people were paying. For a long while, it looked like 2005's "Rehearsing For Life" was going to be the band's last album, which would've been a shame, because it wasn't a particularly strong album, certainly not compared to "No Room," the great follow ups "The Last Drag" and "Autopilot" or even their big label album "Outpost."  In fact, when people sort of want a "best of," I generally recommend they pick up "Transmissions From The Sea of Tranquility," which is mostly a live concert recording. The Samples have always been a jam band, and so the live versions of songs often have more room to breathe, and let the musicians develop the songs a bit more. (There is an official best-of, but it only goes up to 1994, and neglects a lot of the great songs they did later.) Thankfully, this story does have a happy ending. When I was researching this article (getting dates right and finding links for the albums on iTunes), I found out that The Samples had put out a brand new album on New Year's Day this year called "America." It's too early for me to pass a verdict on it (I've literally only listened to the first three songs as I write this), but it's good to see the band's still going. Maybe someday they'll be back to their hayday of the early 90s. (One of their opening bands from that time period? The Dave Matthews Band.) Until then, you should pick up some of their stuff. Start with either "No Room" or "Transmissions From The Sea of Tranquility," although really, you'll find stuff to love on pretty much any of their albums.

No comments: