WHEN WALTER CLEVENGER WALKS INTO the club, heads do not turn. Compared to the buff surfer types and well-manicured himbos that populate our particular corner of the universe, there isn't much about the small, soft-spoken Costa Mesa resident that would instantly command your attention. On the off chance that you did notice him, his flannel shirt, Converse high-tops and long, center-parted hair would probably remind you of one of those Dungeons & Dragonsplaying guys from junior high.
But once Clevenger straps on his Danelectro six-string and steps up to the microphone, he surprises. Possessed of a big, clear voice and an inborn will to rock, he puts his songs across with heart and confidence to spare. And then there are the songs themselves; like Buddy Holly, Cleven- ger has a knack for extracting instantly hummable melodies from the most rudimentary of chord progressions, and for distilling complex ideas and emotions into candid, to-the-point lyrics.
The Buddy Holly influence is readily apparent on Love Songs to Myself (Permanent Press), the new album by Walter Clevenger & the Dairy Kings. Whereas The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, Clevenger's 1997 debut, sounded uncannily like a collection of lost Nick Lowe demos, Love Songs strikes a perfect Holly-like balance between pop jangle and country twang. "Back to You" and "Real" respectively sound like the Beatles before and after marijuana; "Only You" has the down-home accessibility of a mid-'60s Buck Owens single; and the jaunty "Girl at the End of the Bar" features some Everly Brothers style vocal harmonies from none other than Kim Shattuck of the Muffs. Throw in the tasty playing of the Dairy Kings (guitarist Steve Bancroft, bassist Henry Clift and drummer Mike Fernandez), and you've got a record that even the bespectacled Texan who wrote "That'll Be the Day" would be proud of.
"You can trace a lot of pop stuff back to Buddy Holly, even though you don't hear a lot of him in today's pop bands," Cleven-ger says. "I guess we just wanted to take it back a little further."
Exploring the common ground between pop and roots music is something that comes naturally for Clevenger. Raised in Orange County by music-loving parents, young Walter was immersed in groovy sounds from the get-go. "My parents were into early rock & roll and country stuff," he says. "Growing up, that's pretty much all I listened to. I heard Johnny Cash's 'Ring of Fire' and Merle Haggard's 'Swinging Doors' before I ever heard 'I Want To Hold Your Hand.'"
Clevenger finally got hip to the Fab Four when a fourth-grade classmate blew Walter's Hee Hawlovin' mind with a copy of Sgt. Pepper's. Two decades later, this particular epiphany still cracks him up. "I remember listening to 'Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds' and thinking, 'Hey, this sounds just like that Beatlemania band on the TV commercial!'"
He eventually picked up the guitar, but making his own music wasn't really high on his agenda. "I wrote a few songs in high school, but they sounded like I wrote 'em in high school," he says, laughing. It was only at the beginning of this decade, after years of playing in weekend cover bands, that he finally felt compelled to give songwriting another go.
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"Cover burnout was the catalyst," he says. "I was always picking the more obscure stuff to play, the Rockpile and Elvis Costello tunes, while the other guys would always want to play stuff like 'What I Like About You.'"
Clevenger began making demos in his home studio, occasionally distributing tapes to various friends and family members. One cassette found its way to Michael Mazzarella of the Rooks, a New York City pop band with a rabid cult following of their own; Mazzarella flipped, and the subsequent word-of-mouth buzz landed Clevenger a deal with L.A. indie label Permanent Press, and enabled him to establish a solid following among local pop fans. "I wasn't sure my stuff would fit in with what these pop bands were doing," he says. "But I had some friends who said, 'Aw, they need somebody like you up there -- somebody coming from a different place.'"
LOVE SONGS SEEMS MORE COMMERCIALLY viable than anything else that's recently come out of the L.A. pop scene. It was the sixth-most-added record to AAA radio playlists during the last week of February, and would have charted even higher if Tom Petty's new "Free Girl Now" track hadn't been shipped to stations at the last minute.
"Yeah, Petty snuck in there," laughs Clevenger. "But that's cool; he can make it up to us by letting us open for him on his next tour."