music: review: september 18, 2000
Agents of Good Roots
Needle and Thread
produced by Steve Fisk
Conflict Records
released Aug. 16, 2000

Working with producer Steve Fisk (Nirvana) in a studio in their hometown of Richmond, VA, Agents have produced a well conceived, consistent album. The sound has a lo-fi, gritty, sharp texture that is different from any other recent album I've heard. Brian Jones's drum set was captured with a distinct, edgy, appropriate quality. Using upright pianos, wurlitzer and rhodes keyboards, moog analog synthesizers and other miscellaneous equipment, the Agents have developed a unique sound that is appealing and consistent with their musical personality. The gravelly voices of Jones and singer/guitarist/keyboardist Andrew Winn, in particular, can not be confused with many other modern vocalists. This album cover lots of ground, from the laid back, piano driven Jakob to the biting Radio King to the bubble-gum pop feeling Meet Me on Main Street, the rocker, What I Need, and the Radiohead-esque The Blinds. Yet, while these songs are diverse, the timbres and overall voice is consistent, unlike on One by One, which seemed like it had a few different version of the Agents show up. Needle and Thread sounds like it was recorded by one focused band.

The album opens with a driving drum beat from Jones and a building guitar riff from guitarist Andrew Winn leading into the slow groover I Gotta Move. The introduction to Gotta Move is as distinct an opening to an album as the half-step riff of Airbag, from Radiohead's OK Computer. Unfortunatly, between the introduction and the coda, the song never really builds and develops in intensity. This seems intentional, however, because the song itself is engaging, almost hypnotic. As an opener, I find this song both an odd and compelling choice. The song is not dynamic, but it is still engaging, which would make more sense towards the middle of the album. The opening, however, is quite distinct and does draw the listener in. The Agents show their willingness to go out on an edge, leading the opening song into a spacey outro, which dies down and then builds up through some neat effects into the piano introduction to Jakob. Jakob appeared on both the Agents original 1995 demo tape and their independent debut album, Where'd You Get That Vibe? The version on Needle and Thread does not even resemble the prior versions, being more laid-back (and piano-based, rather than guitar-based.)

Radio King is one of the edgiest and most original songs on the album. It features a scathing vocal performance from Jones and nice little touches of organs and guitars to add to the sound. The instrumental break/coda is an off-beat keyboard/saxophone unison that is more akin to its roots in avant-guard jazz than pop. The lyrics seem to be about Jones's take on the music industry, and while that would seem to make it a song that would not get any radio play, the chorus is catchy enough to overcome any industry backlash. "Turn up the Radio King."

Meet Me on Main Street is another piano based track, which evokes the happy feeling that Upspin did on One by One, but without unneccesary soulful female backup singers and excessive production. This song has what the key lyric for the entire album, Andrew Winn's plea that "won't you give this old dog a second try," applying not just to the relationship motif in the song, but to the album as a whole, as Needle and Thread is the Agents' redemption for One by One. Unfortunately, RCA did not want to give the second try. Listeners undoubtedly should. Meet Me on Main Street happens to feature a long saxophone solo, which demonstrates the Agents' musical ability and ears, as the backing to the solo is dynamic and constantly evolving.

The album then moves into a a more typically rock sequence, beginning with What I Need, which features vocal exchanges between Jones and Winn and a short but intense guitar solo. This song, more than any other on the disc, showcases Stewart Myers's unobtrusive, yet complex and musical bass lines. I could see this song as a popular single. Innocent Days is an off-kilter song, with an aggressive bass line, choppy vocals, and a very catchy refrain. This is probably the edgiest song on the album.

Shot Down is one of the best songs on the album. Surprisingly, it's also one of the longest, clocking in at over six and a half minutes. It's a sharp, biting song, about the assasination of twentieth century figures: Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and John Lennon. Jones's drumming helps to capture the frenetic feeling of chaos, with unsteady off-beat accents driving the pulse. The electric keyboard theme is distinctive. The long saxophone solo in the middle is well-structured with interesting and varying support. This is a song that has been in their live reportoire for a number of years and is captured perfectly on tape.

The Blinds feels detached from the rest of the album. Part of that it is Myers's sole composition and vocal spotlight and that his voice is much cleaner than either Winn's or Jones's. The main reason is that the production is just slicker, with strings, classical guitar and vibraphone evoking an atmosphere similar to that of a Radiohead track. While it is a departure from the rougher sound of the other tracks, it is a welcome one, as this is a wonderful song. The track is well-produced and layered with many different textures mixing together.

John Brown is one of the strongest songs on the album and in the Agents' catalog. This version was previously released on the 1999 EP "Seed," and remains an excellent song, with a catchy sax line, chorus, and very strong lyrics. This song deserves to get serious radio play.

By far, the weakest song on the album is the closer, Everyday. Lyrically, the composition is mediocre at best. Unlike the other tracks on the album, the music does not draw me in. This is not the result of the production, but of the song itself. However, the performance is dialled in, and the avant guard introduction almost redeems the whole track. Unfortunately, it is not enough.

Despite the weakness of the closing track, I still unequivicolly recommend that you drop everything and go buy Needle and Thread. Besides Everyday, the weakest point of the album is the continuity of The Blinds. It is less consistent with the rest of the songs, but is done so well that it would have been a mistake to leave it off. Of course, buying Needle and Thread may present a challenge, as it was not released on RCA as originally intended, so it is not yet distributed well. Your best bet would be to buy it from I hope to have to change the precedng two sentences at some point. In the studio, the Agents of Good Roots have finally been able to capture the unique sound they have developed on the road and created a very compelling album that faces the threat of being overlooked by the industry because of it being dropped by a major label.

Agents of Good Roots Needle and Thread: *****/4.5

Needle and Thread

  1. I Gotta Move
  2. Jakob
  3. Radio King
  4. Meet Me on Main Street
  5. What I Need
  6. Innocent Days
  7. Shot Down
  8. The Blinds
  9. Beautiful Genius
  10. John Brown
  11. Everyday
the album that was almost never heard
It is not often that a band can take on a major label and win (or at least not get squashed.) After their less than successful major label (RCA) debut album, One by One, Agents of Good Roots return with Needle and Thread, an excellent album, recorded for RCA, but finally released independently. While this album was completed and delivered in April 1999, RCA sat on it, eventually deciding to drop Agents from the label. After a long series of negotiations, the band controls their recording and was able to release it independently. When the band matured and grew enough to deliver a first-rate record, the label decided not to support it. Needle and Thread shows that the Agents learned from the experience of making their first label album and finally succeeded in capturing the essence of their sound in a studio environment.