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.


Dreams So Real: ode to lost love fallen down

Dreams So Real – Rough Night In Jericho from Trent Allen on Vimeo.

When an artist becomes a part of your life, you remember the first time you hear them. Junior year of college, delivering copies of the Brockport Stylus in my 1978 Chevy Malibu, the band Dreams So Real jumped out of the car stereo and suddenly demanded my attention. Based in the college rock feel of fellow Athens, Ga., band R.E.M., Dreams So Real also brought influences of southern culture and a touch of psychedelia that somehow sounded unlike anything I’d ever heard.

The song was “Rough Night in Jericho,” the title track to their irrepressibly compelling 1988 major label debut and their biggest minor hit (#28 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart and earning MTV airplay). The song opens with singer/guitarist Barry Marler and bassist Trent Allen encircling each other’s driving riffs and a propulsive drumline by Drew Worsham. Then Marler’s vocals hit, growling yet melodic, and I was hooked.

The band’s debut album “Father’s House” caught a little bit of attention, and they appeared very briefly in the documentary “Athens, Ga. Inside/Out,” then Arista Records signed them. “Rough Night in Jericho” was the culmination of their five years of playing together and the pinnacle of their success. While obscure, it remains an iconic part of the late 1980s music scene to the lucky few of us to discover it.


It sounds strange to say of an environment surrounded by people, but going away to college was one of the loneliest times in my life. I hoped to expand my horizons, learn as much as possible and maybe meet the right girl. Two out of three, as Meatloaf once said, ain’t bad, but when you’re a shy, awkward, smalltown boy with bad hair, acne and no self-confidence, you can feel outclassed when you step into a campus filled with people who all seem so much better looking, more confident and more affluent.

People seemed to pair up quickly, and I felt like an outsider looking in, a stranger in a strange land. Music was perhaps never a more important solace to me than it was then, and suddenly the car radio delivered me this band that immediately captured my interest.

I went to Brockport’s now-defunct Main Street Records, bought “Rough Night in Jericho” on cassette and it played nearly non-stop in the car most of my junior year, when I wasn’t playing it anywhere else I was.

The title single and its follow-up, the hypnotically catchy “Bearing Witness,” are (imho) simply two of the best forgotten songs of the late 1980s. They are mesmerizing and mysterious, borne by Marler’s strong yet quavering vocals, carried with tight musicianship and filled with obscure religious references. And while they provide the blueprint of what made the band deserving of much greater airplay and recognition, other songs on the album forged a more personal connection.

“Heart of Stone” seemed to apply to people I met at college who seemed unaccepting of others because they were into their own thing. “California” was a wonderful bit of yearning both shimmery and cloudy, with the wonderful couplet “When California falls in the sea/That’s when she said she’d come back to me.” “Distance” applied perfectly to a girl I met from another college who I fell for … for about a week. “Melanie” was about the joy of meeting the girl of your dreams (dream on).

Closing out the album (and providing a phrase inspiring the name of this blog), “Love Fall Down” brought it all together, the desperation of longing, the vague spiritual allusions and a feeling that hope would chase away the despair, asking “Will love fall down from the clouds today?” The Cure and The Smiths are all fine and dandy, but it’s hard to imagine any album could have provided a better soundtrack to my college years than Dreams So Real’s “Rough Night in Jericho.”


Dreams So Real – Bearing Witness from Trent Allen on Vimeo.

While “Rough Night in Jericho” was a minor commercial and critical success, it proved impossible to recapture, let alone top. Followup “Gloryline” in 1990 was a disappointment commercially, critically … and to me, one of the band’s biggest fans. “We Have Danced the Night Away,” “Overton Park/Faith” and “Here Comes the Train” showed they could still create outstanding songs, but most of the album didn’t rise to that level.

The passion so evident in “Rough Night in Jericho” seemed lost somewhere in the shuffle and many of the songs were simply unremarkable. In a time of televangelist scandals, Dreams So Real alluded to some of this and other politics, but very opaquely. Perhaps worst was inserting a cover of Badfinger’s “Day After Day” in what some A&R man thought was an attempt at a hit, but it seemed so out of place of what the band represented and was executed very ordinarily.

To perhaps nobody’s surprise, Arista discarded the band soon after and for all intents and purposes, Dreams So Real dropped off the map. But they had at least one final gift for their most ardent fans.



I sent fan mail to the band, Marler in particular, at some point. I’m not sure if any official response came because I moved a few times right after college, but somehow I made it onto their fan mailing list for a wonderful piece of news around 1992: Dreams So Real planned to release a collection of outtakes and rarities, “Nocturnal Omissions,” available for a mere $10.

Ordering that was one of the easiest decisions you could imagine.


The “Noctural Omissions” compilation wasn’t something that would overshadow “Right Night in Jericho” but its 20 tracks painted a marvelous tapestry of the band’s career arc. Their debut single, “Everywhere Girl/Whirl,” provided a reference to their earliest sound, coupled with five tracks that appeared in various forms on “Father’s House” to show their early days — with “Maybe I’ll Go Today” a marvelous pop/rock nugget that foretold their ability to craft such wonderful short stories in music. “Please Don’t Cry,” probably their best unaffiliated track, headed a mixed bag of outtakes from various recording sessions that nonetheless were all very listenable.

The liner notes by Allen tell a tale of the band taking bad advice for the sake of expedience. Two songs recorded with saxophonist Randall Bramblett — “And So We Love” and “Open Your Eyes” (a version of which appeared on “Rough Night in Jericho”) — show a lot of potential if the band had decided to go that direction. “We were delighted by the sax on both songs, but our publishing agent with CBS was adamant that the saxophone would confuse record companies and insisted we record a guitar solo,” Allen wrote. Of the songs “In the Garden” and “Egypt” not appearing on “Gloryline,” Allen tellingly observes: “Their omission, in hindsight, was another example of an essential element of the group being discounted.”

The compilation includes a pair of Christmas singles, “Red Lights” and “Just for Christmas.” The latter, with Marler’s yearning vocals and a plaintive mandolin, has actually become one of my favorite Dreams So Real tracks. The record closes with a comically bad rap song, “Eppy,” poking fun at their manager. In addition to musical value, “Nocturnal Omissions” provides a much more encompassing look into the band’s influences, experimentation and history.

An intriguing footnote is that the limited-edition pressing, available for a mere sawbuck at the time, is now worth hundreds of dollars on the resale market. Apparently a small but dedicated fanbase shows this obscure band still has some value.

The trio long ago went on to work day jobs and generally put music behind them, although they have played a handful of reunion shows in Atlanta and Athens. A relaunched website shows nothing since spring 2012 — be we merry few fans can dare to dream.


A few months ago, I came across a vinyl copy of “Father’s House” selling for a mere $4.39 (plus $4 shipping and handling) and made the easy decision to complete my collection. It shows the band’s early days as fairly limited in that they had a sound that they didn’t stray far from, but it’s all enjoyable. The song “Canadian Girl” — an obscure track on a very obscure recording by an obscure band — is a new favorite, beautiful in its simple lyrics, arrangement and trademark feeling of longing.

I am miles and decades removed from the life I had when I discovered Dreams So Real. But their music — especially the “Rough Night in Jericho” album — took me through a, well, rough time in my life and on some days kept me going and inspired. Dreams So Real is the epitome of an obscure band that shone briefly and brightly, but listening to their music in another time and space can still immediately make me smile and sing along. 

From the past, a word unspoken … or at least unheard

I’ve been writing about music since before the Internet was a thing. Yet it’s something I’ve generally strayed from recently with the exception of an annual best albums list as part of the Higher Ed Music Critics consortium.

But music is a big part of my life. I’ve been a (not particularly successful) musician, a roadie, a road manager, a music reviewer (paid and otherwise) and — most of all — a fan.

Moreover, I find myself a fan of obscure music. Not in a hipster “I knew this band before it was cool” way, but more like “I know this band hardly anybody even knows exists let alone thinks is cool” context.

So many bands out there exist that 99.9% of the public don’t know, and that’s a shame. So many bands have awesome catalogs or just one album or just one song or even just one riff or turn of phrase that deserves a bigger audience. I’m not sure if anybody will read this blog or that the artists I blog about will find a new audience, but by trying I can at least give something back to the music that has given me enjoyment.

The title of this comes from arguably my favorite obscure band and album, “Rough Night in Jericho” by Dreams So Real. The album closer, “Love Fall Down,” contains the line “from the past, a word unspoken,” which would have been perfect if not quite long. So I’m going with “A Word Unspoken” in honor of the many words and riffs that are unspoken to the majority of listeners, unappreciated and unheard.

Because they deserve to be heard, appreciated and spoken about … that’s why I’m writing.