House of Freaks: Remember them well

houseoffreaksWhen I lay down my head
Bound for heaven or hell
When it’s all said and done
Please remember me well

Those words from House of Freaks’ “Remember Me Well” could serve as an epitaph for many an obscure rock band. But anybody who heard the three great records, one fine EP and one so-so album featuring guitarist/vocalist Bryan Harvey and drummer/percussionist Johnny Hott would remember their music fondly.

Before the White Stripes made the guitarist-drummer duo cool and opened the doors for the likes of the Black Keys, Shovels & Rope and Little Hurricane, House of Freaks and the Flat Duo Jets were the 1980s pioneers of the genre. And while the Flat Duo Jets were affably zany, House of Freaks had some true mainstream appeal — they scored three hits on the Billboard rock chart despite sounding like very little on the radio at the time.

Their debut, 1987’s Monkey on a Chain Gang, was a breath of fresh air at a time where most of the radio music outside the nascent college rock genre was less than inspiring. With driving guitar riffs by Harvey and big beats by Hott, it introduced a duo that sounded much larger yet was more literate than loud. Harvey’s smart lyrics and the band’s groove on tracks like “Crack in the Sidewalk,” “40 Years” and “Long Black Train” effortlessly melded influences including folk, rock, pop, blues, rockabilly and world beat, and gave a distinctive sound that no doubt made them difficult to pigeonhole within the rigid confines of the airwaves.

The album earned great critical acclaim and earned fans that included George Wendt of “Cheers” fame, who performed their “Dark and Light in New Mexico” on what appears to be some bizarre Japanese talk show. No really, it happened …

They kept rolling with what most consider their masterpiece, Tantilla, in 1989. While not quite a concept album, Tantilla trafficked heavily in the lore, legend, hypocrisy and culture of the South as absorbed by the Richmond twosome. Two of their best and most popular singles — “Sun Gone Down” and “When the Hammer Came Down” — reached #23 and #27, respectively, on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart. The former is a captivating pop song darker than it seems; the latter opened the record and presaged the kind of Old Testament fire and brimstone that consistently (and catchily) ran through other tracks like “The Righteous Will Fall,” “White Folk’s Blood” and “King of Kings.”

But perhaps the most masterful song, on this or any of their albums, is “Big Houses,” which on the surface sounds like a wistful Civil War remembrance from the losing side. Yet set against Harvey’s throwback strumming and Hott’s martial drumming, it tells what seems a false story — the family and its slaves standing and singing of love and peace as their big house burns to the ground. It’s the kind of folkloric invented memory that more than 25 years later remains a subtext in the conversation as their home state discusses the legacy of the Confederate flag.

The All My Friends EP also came out in 1989, showing not only their trademark roots sound among its five tracks but also tastes of swing jazz in “You Can’t Change the World Anymore” and spaghetti Western soundtrack with “You’ll Never See the Light of Day.” The EP and other demos wound up on the Rhino Records Tantilla reissue, making it a great entry point for those looking to explore the band.

Their 1989 album Cakewalk featured their highest-charting single — “Rocking Chair,” which reached #11 on the Modern Rock Charts — and a more laidback sound. Some critics have faulted Cakewalk for smoothing out some of the edgier elements of the band, but just because it’s more a mass-market page-turner than Tantilla‘s Southern Gothic novel by no means invalidates its appeal or merit. Still, it’s interesting that different demo versions of songs on the album, like a more jangly “I Confess” and a minor-key “Remember Me Well,” appear as extra tracks on the Tantilla rerelease, hinting Cakewalk could have gone in a different, compelling direction.

Their last album, 1994’s Invisible Jewel, came in between recordings the duo had as part of the Steve Wynn-led underground supergroup Gutterball, and represent a musical departure. Alternately sunny and sloppy, it feels somewhat rushed but the duo’s unmistakable wit and skill shine through from time to time.

Unfortunately, we can’t expect a reunion tour. Harvey and his later band NRG Krysys played what would be its last show on New Year’s Eve 2005. On the first day of 2006, Harvey and his wife and two children were murdered in their home by thieves. While Hott has gone on to play with Cracker, Sparklehorse and others, he probably would have loved one more chance to play with Harvey. Even though the world wouldn’t know, they would love to hear it.

When it’s all said and done, let’s remember them well.

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