For nearly a decade, Lovedrug has been combining terse, bristling indie-rock propulsion with textured atmospheric backgrounds reminiscent of British acts such as South and Elbow. In that time, the Alliance, Ohio quartet has seen its share of ups and downs. The band has released three albums and three EPs, endured a brief spin at Columbia that ended without anything being released ... and then watched its label, The Militia Group, go bankrupt just as it was releasing 2008's The Sucker Punch Show.
Along the way, frontman Michael Shepard has gone through at least eight musicians, and survived a 20-day DUI jail stint with a 7-foot-tall cellmate, Godzilla (who fortunately was a big fan of Lovedrug's onetime tourmates, Yellowcard). So with Lovedrug about to record two consecutive albums with the same line-up, the outlook is starting to improve.
Guitarist Jeremy Gifford and bassist Thomas Bragg joined just two months before recording Sucker Punch Show, Lovedrug's third album. They barely knew each other before they had to start writing songs together. Since then, however, they've had time to grow into a well-oiled unit just now hitting its stride.
"It's evolved into this very solid thing. We all have great chemistry with each other," reports Gifford. Freed from label obligations, they've hit the practice space with a vengeance, writing 30 songs -- and judging from demos posted on their MySpace and PureVolume pages, they're among the best songs the band has ever written.
That's welcome news to fans who were disappointed with the dark, claustrophobic tone of Sucker Punch Show. Lyrically consumed with ideas of confinement and affliction, the music's hard edges and foreboding environs sucked the air out of the tracks, creating a bitter, biting sound anguished enough for grunge.
"I was just pissed off, and it was like purging," confesses Shepard. "It was inevitable that some people were going to be offended or not like it."
Those not already scared off will find a tighter, crisper Lovedrug on the recent demos. Shepard has turned increasingly to the guitar, even transposing those songs conceived on piano to the six-string. Tracks like the teeniage love paean "We Are Owls" and the brisk, shimmying "Pink Champagne" are as unrepentantly catchy as anything the band has written. It's as though the group has pulled up the blinds and thrown up the windows: The songs really breathe, and it's easier than ever to be swept up in their energy.
"Just playing music for the amount of time we've all played music, you kind of inevitably trim away some of the fat when it comes to writing," Shepard says. "I like pop music, and over the years that's just become more evident. I like to hear a song that makes me groove, and that I can sing along to. That's coming out more with the new material we're writing, so it does seem a little bit more accessible."
Indeed, the new material is so engaging that their friends feel no compunction about sharing their true feelings. "They're like, 'Wow, this stuff is really good. I really didn't like your last album,'" reports Bragg.
Lovedrug has passed along demos not just to their friends, but labels as well. And while they've generated plenty of interest, the members aren't in any hurry. Aware of the missteps they've made before, they're taking the time to get it right now. Lovedrug is scheduled to play several shows at SXSW and hope to finalize a record deal some time after that, get a producer and then head into the studio. Meanwhile, the group is concentrating on re-engaging its fans and showing them a better time, fueled by Lovedrug's renewed spirit.
"It just feels like a new beginning," says Shepard.
Lovedrug with Recession. 10:30 p.m. Fri., Feb. 5. Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. $8. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com