Okay, that last one was a cop-out. But really, I do want to write about the Deathray Davies, a band that few seem to have heard of. Hell, I discovered them by pure dumb luck – in high school I loved the band Cake, and loaded up KaZaa to find some songs by a band called Deathray, which had three ex-Cake members. I found “Chinese Checkers and Devo Records”, actually by the Deathray Davies, and I dug the song more than what I found by Deathray, so I went down that avenue instead. Next, I’ll tell the story about how I discovered The Sea and Cake. Ha, ha, ha. Let’s move on.
The Deathray Davies begun life as a solo project of Dallas native John Dufilho. The first album, Drink With the Grown-Ups and Listen to the Jazz, was essentially a collection of songs that Dufilho wrote and recorded in between sessions with his other bands. It was made up mostly of fun, catchy 3-chord rockers, harkening back to the heyday of 60’s garage rock (hence the band’s name). Listening to it now what jumps out is how undermixed Dufilho’s voice is – John doesn’t exactly have a great voice, but then again, neither did Ray Davies, and music like this doesn’t call for it. But there’s almost an air of shyness about the whole album because of it, to the point where you often had to refer to the liner notes to figure out what the lyrics were. Eventually, the Deathrays would become a six-piece band with a keyboardist and a man credited with “shakers” and “noise”, all of which allowed Dufilho to continue his mission of burying his voice on nearly every song. A shame too, because his lyrics are clever and often funny, if you can make them out. Obviously the point all along was to recruit a full band so they could play live (DRD are nearly legendary in the Dallas scene) but when Return of the Drunk Ventriloquist was recorded, it was still Dufilho plus the occassional guest (“The Bitter Old Man Blues”). The full band only appears on one song, the closing “Chinese Checkers and Devo Records”, ending the album on a high note. Great title too, though I must mention that DRD song titles often don’t appear in the lyrics, and if they do they generally aren’t even in the chorus.
Why this album? This was the first Deathray Davies albums I ever bought and I’ve probably listened to it over a hundred times. Music writers often talk about how music means so much more to you when you’re a teenager, though I think a lot of that is because you have a lot of time to listen to music and so few choices. I mean, most kids I knew had like 20-30 CDs, and among those maybe…five they actually really liked. Nowadays I’ve got hundreds of CDs, about a thousand vinyls, and maybe seven million more on MP3. And teenagers all have Spotify, so who knows what it’s like now. What I do know is that I’ve memorized every single note on this album, every lyric, every little noise burst or off-time keyboard part; the Deathray Davies don’t mind a botched note or two so long as the take is good.
Truth be told, precision isn’t really important with music like this. Return of the Drunk Ventriloquist is essentially a compendium of four-chord rock n’ roll, with references to “Hey Joe” and “I Can’t Explain” and a whole host of riffs you’ve probably heard a dozen times (“Square”, “Chinese Checkers”, “Jack Never Crashes”, “Clever Found a Name”), plus one that’s based off a standard guitar tuning (“How To Tune a Guitar”…let’s face it, you know every guitar player has tried this at least once). The key song for me is “Jack Never Crashes”, essentially a tribute to that special riff, with lyrics like “doing 60 in a 30 got your 45 stuck in my head”. Obviously Dufilho is a student of rock – the lyric “all the best records remain misunderstood, while the radio songs win awards in Hollywood” seems a bit odd given that the DRD’s musical touchstones seem to be pretty well-known. And I highly doubt he’s singing about himself here, so really it’s all about that feeling. The trick is that “Jack Never Crashes” – as obvious a four-chord basher as there ever was – is quite a banger itself, the sort which hits the right nodes in your brain from the first note. That’s the thing about the Deathray Davies – their music is so eminently agreeable that it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking them. To dislike the Deathray Davies would be, like, to dislike rock n’ roll itself. This isn’t to say they haven’t got a personality, just that their aim is clear.
So even though I’ve heard this a hundred times before, it’s still a great album to come back and listen to. Granted, it falls apart a bit in the end – “How to Tune a Guitar” is a bit of a gimmick, “I Killed Mr. Red” is just a lo-fi joke tune, and “Dear in the Headlights” buries a pretty good tune behind some high-pitched feedback. Sure, they pull it together with “Chinese Checkers and Devo Records”, probably the album’s best attempt at a bona fide single. But there are plenty of candidates – the first eight songs are all based off fairly simple hooks, sometimes not bothering to change chords (“The Bitter Old Man Blues”, which takes the first bar of a simple blues riff and just goes with it) or come up with a chorus (“Evaporated”, “Square”), but it’s a pretty great stretch. Other tunes are more adventurous and delve into power pop territory (“Behave You Silly Freaks”, “I Never Thought Today Would Be So Strange”), but they’re less immediately satisfying. It’s tough to pick favorites, as outside of “I Killed Mr. Red” (it almost begs you to skip it, but it’s only a minute…) there’s nothing that really stands out – even “Guitar” has a nice tune at its core.
For a time it looked like the Deathray Davies might actually break through and get that indie darling status they so rightfully deserved. The next album, The Day of the Ray, was their first as an actual band, and right away you can hear them kick out the jams in a major way (it is sort of analogous to XTC’s Black Sea). They did two more after that, and I remember there being a bit of hype around The Kick and the Snare, as though maybe this was where the band was gonna hit the big time (“The Fall Fashions” was absolutely the song of the summer in 2005, even if nobody heard it). Around this time I saw a Deathray Davies bumper sticker on a car in Minnesota, which I felt a bit vindicated by. When I bought all these discs in 2003, I remember the poor record store clerk at the first place I went struggling to figure out what the hell the Deathray Davies were, eventually giving up and asking “how did you find out about this band again?” But on a bumper sticker on a car five states away from their hometown? Ho ho ho, that’s the big time, fellas. A few years later, my uncle went to see the Apples in Stereo, and said to me “the drummer was the guy from that band you like”. It’s true, Dufilho joined the Apples and the Deathray Davies haven’t recorded another album since; the man’s a fine drummer but that doesn’t seem like the best use of his talents to me. I hope they know that they’re missed; maybe they never quite made it to the level they deserved, but they sure as hell meant a lot to me.
(by the way, I can’t find any of the songs from this album on Youtube, so let’s make due with the song that should’ve broke ’em through in 2005)