It's a long and somewhat twisted road that has led the Wallflowers back to record stores this week with Red Letter Days.
The band first met the masses with its 1996 commercial breakthrough Bringing Down the Horse, an album that helped to make the Wallflowers one of the hottest groups in America. Torchbearers for a roots-rock resurgence that included Sheryl Crow, Counting Crows and Joan Osbourne, the band and its "6th Avenue Heartache" crackled on radio and video outlets, where a David Fincher-directed clip ran in heavy rotation.
Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi dropped in for encores at their shows. The Rolling Stones tapped the Wallflowers to open, and the band won two Grammys. From the cover of Rolling Stone to the Billboard Hot 100 to the coveted "Saturday Night Live" stage, the Wallflowers were everywhere.
But when the band resurfaced in 2000 with the equally luminous Breach, the mid-tempo guitar rock that was its foundation had fallen from grace, bumped from the charts by prefab pop.
And now Red Letter Days finds the band — especially its blue-eyed frontman, Jakob Dylan — bruised, perhaps, but resolute in the face of fickle pop-music fashions.
The LP opens with the oscillating synth bass and electronic breakbeats of "When You're on Top." Dylan sing-speaks the verses (not entirely unlike his father's "Subterranean Homesick Blues") over what could be momentarily mistaken for a David Gray or Paul Oakenfold outtake. But when the chorus explodes with the band's trademark shimmering guitars and richly textured harmonies, it's like someone put the top down on the convertible.
"I feel fine with the sun in my eyes, the wind in my hair, falling from the sky" Dylan sings, "I'm doing better than I thought I would but nothing's ever as good as when you're on top."
"[It's] the first thing that really got the group excited," Dylan said of the track. "[We] realized that we were reaching somewhere different from just louder or softer or faster or slower. [It] really set the pace for the group that we were on to something."
The band turned to original Wallflowers guitarist turned producer Tobias Miller and his partner Bill Appleberry (Adema) to helm the project.
"We had the finger on exactly what we wanted to do, [so] there was really nobody better," Dylan said. "He was truth to me. Knowing that this is a guy I went to grade school with, he's as good as anybody else out there with a four-star name, really."
The song's ProTools-enhanced flourishes demonstrate something of a new direction for the Wallflowers. But the balance of the CD, from the staccato electric guitars of "Out of the Water" to the more plaintive, acoustic-driven "Here in Pleasantville," suggests the band understands its strengths and is sticking to its guns. Lyrically, Dylan the singer/songwriter wrestles with the fickle nature of fame, and wins. The signposts are everywhere.
"I'm not looking for a warm embrace, I'm not looking for a friendly face," Dylan sings on "Everything I Need." "On the way down is when I found out I've got everything I need."
Capable of adaptation but confident in its skill set, Red Letter Days demonstrates that the quartet is in the rock band business for the long haul.
"It's too late to quit, too soon to go home," Dylan sings in "Too Late to Quit," summarizing the band's position in the corporate pop landscape.
"There's that saying that 'It's not a race, it's a marathon,' " Dylan said. "[But] I don't see anybody in front of me or anybody behind me, and there is no finish line. You just keep going."
Wallflowers tour dates, according to their Web site:
- 11/20 - Englewood, CO @ Gothic Theater
- 11/22 - Minneapolis, MN @ The Quest
- 11/23 - Chicago, IL @ House of Blues
- 11/24 - Milwaukee, WI @ The Rave Complex
- 11/26 - Indianapolis, IN @ Egyptian Room
- 11/27 - Detroit, MI @ St. Andrews Hall
- 11/29 - Toronto, ON @ The Phoenix
- 11/30 - Winooski, VT @ Higher Ground
- 12/1 - Sea Bright, NJ @ Tradewinds
- 12/2 - Boston, MA @ Avalon
- 12/3 - Hartford, CT @ Webster Theatre
- 12/5 - New York, NY @ Irving Plaza
- 12/6 - Philadelphia, PA @ Theater of Living Arts
- 12/7 - Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club