NEAR THE END OF THE 88's BRILLIANT DEBUT, Kind of Light, at the coda to "Melting in the Sun," the band kicks into a primo piano-horn-rhythm boogie groove straight out of the Stones' "Loving Cup." More homage than rip-off, the lift is the kind of deceptively simple, in-the-pocket playing that can't be faked. And it says three things: These guys are confident, these guys are having a good time, and these guys have some older brothers with cool record collections.
For The 88, though, you gotta credit the dad.
"I don't have an older brother or sister," says 29-year-old Keith Slettedahl, The 88's lead singer and songwriter. "So I was 15 and listening to Motley Crue, begging my dad to get his records out of storage. When I got to listen to the White Album and Bowie and Elton John and Exile on Main Street and Dylan's Greatest Hits for the first time, I didn't want to leave my room. That was what really made me want to write songs."
On the evidence of Kind of Light, and The 88's recent ecstatically received monthlong Monday-night residency at Spaceland, it's clear the elder Slettedahl did the right thing. This is the real dadrock: highly melodic, superbly crafted rock that's neither ashamed of nor intimidated by its heritage. The 88's songwriting, arranging and playing are so assured, in fact, that the question is where these guys have been for the last decade.
The answer is multiple: shyness, a late-blooming talent, a serious drug problem, a true recovery and a timely recent infusion of work ethic.
Along with Adam Merrin, The 88's multi-instrumentalist and producer, Slettedahl formed the first of two bands featuring drummer Mark Vasapolli and bassist Carlos Torres around 10 years ago. But it wasn't until five years ago that Slettedahl started to contribute his own songs to the group, then called the Freeloaders.
"I didn't think I could write songs, even though that's all I wanted to do. I was terrified to play anything I wrote for anybody. I started showing them to 'em, but I would literally shake. Mark said, 'These sound kind of like the Kinks,' who I'd never heard. So I ended up buying Village Green Preservation Society or Something Else, one of those two. And I flipped out. As fucked up as I was, and as sad as I was, I felt like I was 15 again."
Slettedahl's abuse of hard drugs came to a head. "Needless to say, we broke up, and I went to get help. I said I'd never play with them again. I didn't even know if I wanted to play anymore. I was mad at everybody, but really, it was just me the whole time. After I got sober, slowly I started talkin' to Adam again. By that time I had a lot of songs written. I knew I could do it. That's where the Freeloaders started again."
A CD of the band's unreleased songs began to circulate, attracting the interest of another classic-rock head, Silver Lake scene stalwart Brandon Jay (a.k.a. Quazar), who asked if they wanted a percussionist.
"He started playing acoustic guitar and little shaker stuff," remembers Slettedahl. "We changed the band's name to The 88 at Brandon's suggestion it's the title of a French Kicks song, and of course there's also 88 keys on the piano. Our work ethic had always been crap, but ever since Brandon joined the band, we rehearse a lot harder and longer. He's amazing."
Last year, the band finally sat down and started work on a proper album. We didn't have any plan whatsoever," laughs Slettedahl. "Adam made a list of all hundred or so songs that we had at the time, we recorded 20-something and then picked 13."
SLETTEDAHL IS BLESSED WITH A VOICE THAT'S part Ray Davies with a twist of Lennon, and a superb, generous ensemble committed to song and arrangement rather than mere accompaniment or instrumental showboating. Listening to The 88 can be pleasantly overwhelming: an avalanche of hooks, riffs, melodies and backup harmonies. But this is more than Kinks-kopyist kraftsmanship and anyway, Slettedahl's lyrics are more concerned with the personal than Davies' usual observationalism. In fact, if you listen to them closely enough, you'll hear exactly why Slettedahl and The 88 have taken so long to arrive.
"I'm rarely trying to tell a story the lyrics are usually just real stream-of-consciousness type of stuff. But the songs always do end up telling some kind of story a lot tell about what was goin' on with me [five years ago]. You know, I couldn't stay sober before, and now I can. I don't really understand how that could happen. But it comes out in the songs."
The 88 play at the Derby on Tuesday, March 4.