Madhouse on Castle Street CD
Steve Deal - vocals, guitars, harmonica
Robert Dietrich - vocals, guitars, mandolin, harmonica
Nick Appleby - bass
Steve Harris - keyboards
Jim Balga - drums, percussion
Steve Bunovsky - guitar on "Run Away," "Walter Byrd," Snake Lake" and "When I Call For You"
Buddy Cage - pedal steel on "Ragged and Grey"
Recorded and mixed at Studio 45, Hartford, CT by Michael Deming, assistant: David Shuman
The central core of the band remains the two principal songwriters Steven Deal and Rob Dietrich. They are accompanied by a variety of musicians including fellow CT native Steve Bunovsky of Hannah Cranna and on pedal steel the legendary Buddy Cage, best known for his work on Bob Dylan's "Blood On The Tracks" album. The album was produced in conjunction with Michael Deming (Lily's, Monsterland, Scud Mountain Boys, St. Johnny). As they follow-up the tremendous critical success of their last album "Slogans and Jingles," Chopper deliver an album that will both please and surprise their fans, winning a slew of new ones in the process.
Chopper's been chopped up again. Originally a fully operating live band, the CT-based trio and sometimes quartet became essentially a studio duo in 1993, with Rob Dietrich and Milford's Steven Deal trading off democratically on songwriting, yet aiming for a consistent aural aura and production style.
Now the division's much more pronounced. MADHOUSE ON CASTLE STREET, Chopper's second full-length album for the New York based Big Deal label, was released nationally last month. It's a study in pop psychology, a six-songs-of-one, half-a-dozen-of-the-other split personality. The often strikingly dissimilar musical ideas are readily apparent in how the disk's been organized, alternating Deal songs with Dietrich songs evenly from start to finish. No composing collaborations. No covers.
"A lot of people think it sounds like two different albums," Deal says. "There's this (the Beatles') WHITE ALBUM perspective. We each led the band through the basic tracks. It sounds very totalitarian but... well, it's just not as much of a cooperative effort as the last one." Dietrich adds that "there was more immediacy. The studio atmosphere (at the well-respected Studio .45 facilities in Hartford) was weird -- frantic guys with weird schedules."
MADHOUSE's cover photo, a creepy double-exposure taken by Susan Alzner, shows Steve & Rob (who titled the disk after a London play in which Bob Dylan appeared) strolling in a quiet residential neighborhood -- not Castle street, but High Street in downtown New Haven. The back cover depicts the London apartment where playwright Joe Orton (of LOOT and unproduced-Beatles-screenplay fame) was killed by his roommate Kenneth Halliwell.
Given that grisly image, and the my-song/your-song breakdown of MADHOUSE, you might suspect friction in Chopperland. Dietrich's vague about his future with the band -- "Right now we're just doing whatever comes our way."
Reflecting his renewed interest in old country & western records and particularly his newfound love for The Band's MUSIC FROM BIG PINK and "Dylan's country-rock stuff," Dietrich's songs are stripped-down affairs driven by piano, acoustic guitars and Nashville-inflected vocals. For one big number, the elongated, dreary "Ragged and Grey," he was able to get a solo from pedal-steel guitarist Buddy Cage, whose credits include Dylan's BLOOD ON THE TRACKS.
Steven Deal's still churning out short pop masterpieces in the vein of '60s post-invasion groups. "Love Goes Down The Drain" begins in glum love-ballad mode ("Although I may seem happy/ I'm struggling with a frown"), then intriguingly changes to a Mary Hopkinsesque bar singalong. Dietrich's country fetish seems to have rubbed off on Deal, who's got Rob playing mandolin on "It's So Obvious To Me."
The result of the looser, folkier arrangements may benefit the band when dealing with what Dietrich calls "those reviewers who have gripes about the brighter pop aspects of what we do, and reject it out of hand." Adds Deal,"We used to get the 'Power Pop' tag a lot, because we'd be wearing it on our sleeves. But I've ALWAYS been into pop music, BEFORE Power Pop happened. Only two or three of those power pop bands, like the Records or (Paul Collins') Beat, really made records that lasted."
And then there were bands such as Big Star, whose increasing introspection and personality crises resulted in the deterioration of a band structure but also in vastly improved songwriting techniques and lasting influence on a spate of future bands. Is MADHOUSE ON CASTLE STREET Chopper's own BIG STAR 3/SISTER LOVERS? Time will tell, but in the meantime it's nice to see a small-label follow-up album from a pigeon-holed pop band raising this many eyebrows.
CHRIS ARNOTT, NEW HAVEN ADVOCATE, JULY 1995
This band has quickly moved from catchy-but-generic beginnings to a unique sound that's adventurous within its own boundaries.
STEVE HOLTJE, THE NEW REVIEW OF RECORDS, 1995.
This is their third full-length album and it seems that with each new release they move further away from their rockin' pop roots and more into singer/songwriter territory. Chopper has always mostly been the work of Steven Deal and Robert Dietrich and I get the feeling that I could easily be listening to their respective solo albums...
THE PLATTERPUSS, FOSTER CHILD, 1995.
The chameleonic Steven Deal and Robert Dietrich return with "Madhouse", Chopper's third full-length release. It's being referred to in some circles as "Chopper's Country Album," and while that's true in some respects, the negative connotations that it brings to mind are not entirely fair...
JOHN, AUDITIES, 1995.
...This is a good album, if a bit uneven. The two main members of Chopper pen alternate tracks, and though I have no clear favorite, "Madhouse On Castle Street" appears to be a compilation at times...
ANTON WAGNER, INK NINETEEN, 1995.
I was initially terrified by the daunting list of musicians (7) on this CD -- I was afraid it was some sort of jazz thing!
MARIE M., SOUND VIEWS, 1995.
With "Madhouse," CT's Chopper eclipses all their past efforts. This supremely melodic, sparklingly-produced work is so much deeper, it's akin to the progression the Beatles made from the simple, great "Beatles For Sale" to the more introspective, careful, thoughtful, timeless "Help." Err, "Rubber Soul" on the horizon, anyone?
JACK RABID, THE BIG TAKEOVER, 1995.
Piqued by Steven Deal's work with Chopper since the scrappy 4PLAY EP from six years ago, I found it interesting to see how his concept of power-pop has evolved since. The most striking move is the addition of Robert Dietrich, who nowadays writes exactly half the material. And it's a good working relationship, with Dietrich's pinched, strident singing and more reflective pieces acting as a worthy foil to the jauntier material of Deal. Like the most recent album from Velvet Crush, Chopper at mid-life wears the weather-beaten Gram Parsons/Gene Clark sound like a broken-in Stetson. Buddy Cage, former pedal-steel player with the New Riders Of The Purple Sage (gasp!) drips his sugary specialty over "Ragged And Grey" like Tennessee molasses. "Tin Star" lifts the simultaneous use of piano and organ from The Band, and the results are riveting. Encompassing two such distinctive personalities, it's hard to get a fix on Chopper as a "band." But the results are so invigorating, who cares?
JUD COST, MAGNET, 1995.
Let's go home