Graded on a Curve: Jeremy D’Antonio, “Spinning Wheels” EP

Jeremy D’Antonio, who currently hangs his hat in San Geronimo, CA, has been in few bands over the years, but with the “Spinning Wheels” EP he’s stepping out as a solo artist. More descriptively, he’s embracing the singer-songwriter mode of expression while dipping into the reservoir of old-school country, but with a satisfying grasp on that long tradition and an appealing lack of hang-ups over authenticity. There is rich vocalizing, solid playing from an assembled crew that includes a few gents who played with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and four songs that hold up nicely next to a full-bodied John Prine cover. It’s out September 18 on clear vinyl through Track Records.

Of Jeremy D’Antonio’s prior bands, the ones that folks are most likely to know are Tiny Television and San Geronimo, with the former having morphed into the latter after a move from San Francisco. But before that, while D’Antonio was living in Colorado, he was in the heavily Dischord Records-inspired Fahrenheit 451; it’s unclear if that unit ever recorded (as you might imagine, their choice of moniker makes web research a wee bit difficult), but they did once open for Fugazi, which D’Antonio relates as a fond memory.

This youthful, punk-inclined background contrasts pretty sharply with the sound heard on “Spinning Wheels,” but I’ll suggest that D’Antonio’s range of activity, as he’s additionally a contributor to Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s current live band, helps build the foundation of this EP’s success. Another block in the architecture is sequencing, as “Sad and Blue” kicks off the record in a honky-tonk-infused vein and with a touch of humor in the lyrics.

The opening line, “I’m sorry that I left you on your birthday,” led me to think of something Steve Goodman might’ve penned in the early ’70s, but just as noteworthy is how the cut finds D’Antonio’s strumming and singing joined by the pedal steel of Jay Dee Maness, the piano of Malcolm Burn, the drumming of Jim Christie, the guitar of Eugene Moles, and the bass of Lindsey Brown, plus some backing vocal enhancement in the choruses (the credited singers are Jessica DeNicola, Jen Corte, and Darren Nelson).

Maness is probably the highest profile name in that bunch, having played on The Byrds’ masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo, plus working with Buck Owens and more, but Christie and Moles are also vets of Owens’ and Merle Haggard’s bands, as Burn and Brown are part of the same instrumentally ace milieu. And while everybody is fully cracking on these selections, it’s Maness who especially shines during the cover of Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.”

That this splendid version, positively dripping with pedal steel, gets placed second in the order is to my ear something of a strategic maneuver. “Sad and Blue” is a solid tune, but it’s also likeably minor; next to it, the Prine cover is poised on first listen to be a standout (in the manner of Prine’s original, also sequenced number two on 1988’s German Afternoons). But then the title track hits the speakers with no drop in quality as the stylistic thrust makes a subtle but noteworthy shift.

In short, “Spinning Wheels” the song travels to the border of cosmic country, particularly in Moles’ solo, the psych aura deepened by some Mellotron-like atmospherics (which I suspect is a keyboard’s string setting). This decidedly non-trad quality, emphasizing that D’Antonio isn’t shooting for any kind of standard purism, is shared with “Sad and Blue” and gets extended in penultimate track “Heaven Knows,” where Burn’s piano resonates a little like kettle drums, an attribute that recalls the brief ’70s vogue for tropical country; the lead singing only intensifies this comparison, while avoiding kitsch.

Now, D’Antonio is certainly invested in elevating his writing with traditional elements, e.g. the Bakersfield sound (of course), classic honky-tonk a la early Johnny Paycheck, post-Byrds/ pre-Eagles country-rock and yes, those ’70s outlaws (including their C&W chart turns), but he manages to avoid getting boxed in by these parameters, so that the songs thrive in this concise setting and bode well for the full record that’s on the horizon.

“Spinning Wheels” is further solidified through its unified sound, which is impressive given that closing number “Crawling Out of My Skin” features a different band, including Phil Ferlino on piano, Rob Hooper on drums, Joe Kyle Jr. on bass, and Barry Sless from Lesh’s band on pedal steel. This lineup has some distinct qualities, with the steel more atmospheric for one thing, but it’s the cohesiveness that shines through, along with the strength of D’Antonio’s songs and delivery.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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