A new beginning, a new album, and a summery pop sound. Things are finally looking sunny for the Vinyl Skyway. By Jonathan Perry, Boston Globe Correspondent
CAMBRIDGE -- When he was a child, his family called him a "walking mood," and it was true then as it is now. In fact, the dark clouds have always hung heavy around Vinyl Skyway singer-songwriter Michael Hayes's shoulders, starting when he lost his mother to cancer at age 6. When he was 17, he lost a best friend in a car accident. Then, a decade later, just as his country-tinged pop band, Lemonpeeler, had released a promising album that marked a bright new start, Hayes's father died. Lemonpeeler broke up soon thereafter.
No wonder, then, that back when Hayes's brother made him a mix tape called "Strum and Bum," filled with melancholic songs about grief and failure from the likes of the Smiths and Paul Westerberg, he identified, and powerfully.
"I still have that tape," Hayes recalls over a beer at a Harvard Square watering hole. "I looked death in the face at an early age, so there was always that sad side -- I think I went through a lot as a kid. I didn't get started writing songs until I was 26, 27, but as I went along, I got better, and it was an outlet."
Great artists create beauty from catastrophe, and writing pop songs -- ravishingly lovely ones that seem to effortlessly glide, soar, and transcend whatever tragedies inspired them -- is something that Michael Hayes does supremely well. You can decide for yourself when Hayes and his band, Vinyl Skyway, play the Lizard Lounge tonight to celebrate the release of their second album, "From Telegraph Hill, " the title of which refers to the band's bicoastal locales. Hayes, lead guitarist Andy Santospago, and keyboardist Dave Lieb all live around Boston, while drummer Booth Hardy and bassist Rob Pevitts both live in San Francisco.
Like Vinyl Skyway's 2004 self-titled debut, "From Telegraph Hill" is not the tedious, navel-gazing product of a self-obsessed "tortured" artist, or the doom-and-gloom pontificating of a barfly left too long in the lounge. It's lush, summery music in the vein of the Thrills, the Pernice Brothers, or Lindsey Buckingham-era Fleetwood Mac, with ambrosial harmonies, gleaming guitar hooks, and melodies so creamy and opulent that you barely realize you're humming along to one colossal bummer after another.
The lilting opening track, "Hangin' On," for instance, is about Hayes's cousin, who was attacked and beaten within an inch of his life. (He has since recovered .) "He walked out of a bar and somebody hit him over the head with a lead pipe. His brains were basically on the sidewalk," Hayes says.
The song has some of the most sweetly stacked Beach Boys-esque harmonies you're likely to hear. Ditto for Hayes's favorite track, "Deadly," a slice of sumptuous pop he says he wrote to cope with the alienation and anger he felt the day President George W. Bush was reelected to a second term.
"I think there's a classic element to their music that's just there," says Camp Street Studios engineer Adam Taylor, who helped mix the album. "[Hayes] is a very intelligent writer, and he understands harmonies and melodies, and that's a lost art. Those sound like simple things, but that's not always the case."
Hayes credits his Vinyl Skyway comrades with bringing those sounds to fruition. "It's really a reincarnation of Lemonpeeler," says Hayes, who patched things up with his old friends when Lemonpeeler reunited for a show last year. "Andy [Santospago] and I did the first Vinyl Skyway album, and we're proud of it. But it was mostly friends and hired guns trying to have a good time hanging out, playing in our kitchen on Sundays, and if we got a gig, great. But I missed Lemonpeeler. When I play with those guys, there's a chemistry there that doesn't exist with a lot of other people I've played with."
Lemonpeeler had originally collapsed under a crushing weight of personal turmoil and emotional upheaval. (In addition to Hayes's dad passing away, Pevitts went through a divorce, while Hardy's parents split up, and guitarist Jim Eddy -- now back as an ancillary member of Vinyl Skyway and also living in Boston -- became a parent.) Eventually, tempers flared, agendas changed, and accusations flew. "Now those wounds have healed," says a tranquil Hayes, all too familiar with the cycles of grief and recovery. "I think it's made us all stronger as a band. We're moving forward."