"I think there are a lot of indie bands that became major-label bands that have shimmery guitars and hip drum beats," says Rob Collier. "But if you strip that away, the chord progressions, the songwriting -- it's not that great."
Collier's band, The Slow Reel, could be thought of as the opposite: The country-rock five-piece has the hallmarks of a classic band, and little of the sheen of an indie-darling outfit. The band (formerly known as Small Cities) releases its second album, Governor's Daughter, this weekend.
Collier grew up in Louisville, Ky., and Birmingham, Ala., going to college in Louisville with Slow Reel bandmates Madison Stubblefield and Matthew Troncale. After a time in Maryland in grad school for music, Collier (and bandmates) moved to Pittsburgh along with bass player Liz Adams. There, they formed Small Cities with keyboardist Teal Fitzpatrick and singer Zeina Saliba. After Adams' departure, the current band took shape, under its new name.
The Slow Reel began working on Governor's Daughter almost immediately after the band's first album was released a year ago. The record's 11 tracks tread territory from down-on-your-luck country tunes to shuffle beats that recall The Band and basic old-style R&B. But still, to the classically trained musician Collier, it's all rock 'n' roll.
"I came to music through The Beatles," Collier says. "I saw Paul McCartney on Saturday Night Live [in 1993], doing 'Hey Jude,' and everything changed. I started playing guitar, and until I got to college, I played pretty much exclusively rock 'n' roll."
Collier grew up in a house where, he says, music wasn't a huge deal. "My parents really liked The Oak Ridge Boys," he recalls, "So I really started to like The Oak Ridge Boys. They really loved Neil Diamond; I hated Neil Diamond."
While much of the band's music recalls the influences Collier cites -- Delaney & Bonnie and other STAX Records artists have figured prominently in his mind lately, he says -- there are little moments on Governor's Daughter that remind us that it's 2011, and that the folks behind it are skilled musicians, not just weekend warriors. (Band members recorded and produced the album themselves at Collier and Stubblefield's house in Brookline.) In "Ain't It Something," for example, Fitzpatrick's organ line bends and Saliba's vocals double up a simple guitar melody to an almost psychedelic effect.
"Originally one of the main things about the band was having lots of backing vocals," Collier explains. After the lineup dropped from six members to five last year, the live backing component became less of a focus. "But we still were able to do a lot of that for the record."
Elsewhere, on the dark but tongue-in-cheek track "Rattlesnake," the band mixes up French verses and an English chorus -- something that likely doesn't come up in a whole lot of classic-rock songs. Collier explains that the inspiration for that move came from seeing Dean and Britta cover Serge Gainsbourg's "Bonnie and Clyde." Saliba translated Collier's lyrics into French (and sings them with a breathy, Gainsbourg-worthy articulation).
"The song itself is kind of ridiculous and a bit over-the-top, considering it's about a rattlesnake," Collier says. "I wanted it to be sort of a novelty song, albeit a creepy one."
The Slow Reel is at its best on the new album when it lets go and simply plays to have a good time. "Word Around Town" and the opening track, "Where It Was," are both standouts because they're simple, jubilant and find a bassy groove. Likewise, the rocker "My My My," penned mostly by Stubblefield (as opposed to the rest, all of which originated with Collier), is a windows-down, highway-driving jam.
There's an ongoing debate in pop music on the matter of writing and playing music that's inspired by older forms, as opposed to attempting to break new ground. It usually splits along party lines, with the new-and-experimental crowd accusing the retro types of living in the past, and the old-style musicians asserting that new music is essentially shallow and has a short shelf life. Collier splits the difference, though.
"I hope that these songs do have a long shelf life," he says. "But I don't consciously try to write songs I'll want to listen to 10 years from now. I try to write songs that will hook you immediately, and that you'll want to listen to again immediately.
"I'm pretty focused on songwriting. I think a good band has to start with good songs."
THE SLOW REEL CD RELEASE with CAROUSEL, NIK & THE CENTRAL PLAINS. 10 p.m. Sat., June 11. Brillobox, 4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. $6. 412-621-4900 or www.brillobox.net