Dead Rock West
Bright Morning Stars
If it's true that where there's dark there's light, and where there's despair there's hope, then you could say Dead Rock West found its shine transforming dark nights into daylight over 11 songs on Bright Morning Stars.
“I wanted to get back to the simplicity of life by connecting with the source,” says Cindy Wasserman who with Frank Lee Drennen is Dead Rock West. The pair collected the old time spirituals of Blind Willie Johnson, the contemporary gospel of the Staple Singers, and a desperate plea by the Jesus & Mary Chain, plus six more songs of strength and hope, with the help of producer Peter Case. Joining Dead Rock West with the voices of their talented mentors and friends--John Doe, Exene Cervenka and Mark Olson--the result sounds like some of the best hill stomping music you’ll hear west of Texarkana. And yet, “This is a total California spirituals record,” says Drennen. “Made by California musicians.”
It was Wasserman who envisioned an album inspired by the lore of angels, while it was Drennen who suggested they seek guidance from Case, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter-and producer who understood the pull of a spiritually-based project. “All the great singers eventually get around to recording gospel-themed music, from the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers to Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan,” says Case. “Dead Rock West is singing their way through the American Songbook.” Case accompanies the band throughout, singing with Wasserman on “God Moves on the Water" and "God Don't Never Change," two songs popularized in 1929 by blues preacher Blind Willie Johnson. “I think the Blind Willie Johnson songs reminded me that no matter what chaos may be going on, there are certain things that stay constant,” says Wasserman.
Though Bright Morning Stars finds Wasserman largely on lead,
Drennen takes his turn on "God Help Me," by William Reid of the Jesus & Mary Chain. “This record isn’t just for people with a certain religious bent—it’s a calling out, a reaching out,” says Drennen. ‘These songs urge you to look up, whatever that means to you.”
Case pulled in guitarist Ron Franklin, a Southerner whose ease with everything from hillbilly music to garage rock gave the repertoire’s built-in twang all the right twists. With the addition of hometown drummer DJ Bonebrake (X), bassist David J. Carpenter, and multi-instrumentalist Phil Parlapiano, the band settled in for four days of recording at Winslow Ct. in Hollywood, as their special guests lined up to grace the tracks with their distinct vocals.
"I hoped the project would hit a sympathetic frequency with everyone involved," says Wasserman, though just how easily things came together can only be described as heaven-sent.
"I'd just finished singing on Exene's record and found out we both shared a love of gospel music. We started to trade our favorite songs with each other," explains Wasserman. Cervenka adds to the heavenly choruses of the Staples’, “The Last Time,” and “Two Wings,” as well to Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Tell the Angels." Cervenka and Wasserman also wing their way through an auto-harped “What Are They Doing in Heaven.” She couldn't think of anyone better than Olson to join her on the June Carter Cash hymn, “Wings of Angels." As for Doe, he and Wasserman hit the mic hard on “Ain’t No Grave,” and counter it with a subtle duet of “Beyond the Blues” (written by Case, Bob Neuwirth and Tom Russell).
"It's always magical to sing with John," says Wasserman, "And that feeling never lessens. Both John and Exene have been extremely generous in their support of Dead Rock West."
As native Californians, Wasserman and Drennen are inspired as much by the state’s natural beauty and forward thinking as they are by its singers. Having absorbed firsthand the rough hewn sounds of X, the Plimsouls, the Blasters and other LA bands of the '80s and '90s, the pair also shared an enthusiasm for the melodies and harmonies of the Byrds, the Buffalo Springfield, the Beach Boys and other mythical California musicians of ‘60s and ‘70s. Coming together to form Dead Rock West, Drennen and Wasserman distilled the essences of all their favorite music and poured it over their own close harmonies for Honey and Salt, their 2007 debut on the Populuxe label. Following the album's release with a series of live dates and collaborations on the road and in the studio, Drennen and Wasserman were rapidly becoming members of the circle of LA musicians who’d initially inspired them, but after two years of non-stop work, the time eventually came for them to recharge their own sound: That's when Wasserman found her unexpected source of strength in faith-based songs. “It got me excited about music all over again,” she says.
Not long after last December’s sessions for Bright Morning Stars Drennen felt a shift of his own, while sitting behind the wheel of his truck in a thrift store parking lot: Looking up, he saw a man emerge from the store victorious, brandishing a Christmas tree. “He’d found a treasure, and it occurred to me that it was like these songs: We dug, found these pieces and are using them again.”
The wings and prayers that comprise the parts of Bright Morning Stars are as welcome as the light of hope that shines at the break of dawn, the kind following a long dark night from which one truly needs deliverance. Without a doubt you can hear that hope in the grooves of Bright Morning Stars and Dead Rock West.