CASEY NEILL had his thoughts on what "All You Pretty Vandals," the title track from his new album, was about. He wrote it, after all. "Self-sabotage and the human tendency to piss in the river we drink from and have fun at the same time," he says. That's in there, definitely.
Then a friend, as friends do, gave his take: "First you learn how to keep your shit together and not destroy things," the friend told him. "Later in life, you look back and wish you'd destroyed more shit."
"I liked that," Neill says.
All You Pretty Vandals is the follow-up to 2010's Goodbye to the Rank and File, and Neill is recently back from a long drive around the country with his band the Norway Rats. While there's a string of destruction that runs through Vandals, Neill sometimes wishes he'd build a little more—for the amount he tours, there should be more records. "If I lightened up a little bit," he says.
All You Pretty Vandals was recorded quickly. Three days of rehearsals with the core musicians—bassist Jesse Emerson, Jenny Conlee-Drizos on keys, Chet Lyster on guitar, and John Moen on drums—were followed by three days in the studio back in September 2011. But it wasn't finished. Neill and producer Chris Funk got to work adding overdubs and musicians. And they added a lot of musicians; they added a roster that defines the position of esteem that Neill's elbowed out since his 1996 debut: Funk, Matt Brown, Annalisa Tornfelt, Lisa Molinaro, Langhorne Slim, Scott McCaughey, Ezra Holbrook, Luz Elena Mendoza, Kaysandra Irving, Miss Michael Jodell, Redray Frazier, and more.
What they wanted to do, Neill says, was "avoid Americana tropes." His default settings generally dial in at Springsteen, Strummer, and the Pogues, so he needed to expand on that. The title track has a certain Tom Waits weirdness to it, Moen tapping out junkyard rhythms while Conlee-Drizos adds drunken saloon piano fills and Neill wonders, "Have you come to wreck the place and leave?" And "In with a Shout," full of broken glass and fire, is Neill's attempt to write about rock 'n' roll, "since you can't sing about rock 'n' roll the way you used to."
"You used to be able to say, 'I wanna rock. I wanna rock,'" he says. "A song could be based on just that. Now it would seem funny."
When he puts it that way, yes.
And no matter how many times Neill's tried to stop writing about New York, he returns to writing about New York. "I like to know the scene in my head," he says. Neill knows New York as well as he knows Portland. "Sainted Streets" is full of characters making their way through the city wrapped in "that famous black pea coat" and "walking like he's on stage at the Garden." He tried to mask the inspiration for "She Came Alive," tried to make it all more universal, but it's a direct result of having read Patti Smith's book Just Kids.
"My Little Dark Rose" is for Portland, though, and it shares the broken glass underfoot in "In with a Shout." Neill said the song came from a conversation with Emerson. While they both like plenty of mellow music, they wondered why there was so much mellow music around town.
"Where's the destruction?" Emerson asked.
"It can't be only Red Fang," Neill said.
And it isn't. So the song references Dead Moon and the Wipers, along with a request for more of the same: "Bring me destruction, sharpen the edge."