When David Rice finally got down to work recording greenelectric, his debut CD for Columbia Records, he couldn't have been farther from his element. Stowed away in the converted remains of an old grain mill in the rolling countryside outside of Bath, England, the Houston-raised singer/guitarist was so far removed from familiar distractions that he couldn't help feeling, well, distracted.
The place was Real World Studios, a sprawling studio compound that looms tasteful and impressive in the tiny village of Box, where sheep and cows graze the misty expanse of pastureland largely unimpeded and Peter Gabriel has been known to turn up for a meal on a moment's notice. Real World is, after all, Gabriel's home away from home, which was the main thing that made Rice -- an acknowledged sucker for early Genesis -- so uncomfortable.
"It's his hub," says Rice. "I decided to go there at the last minute. I don't think I was really prepared to see Peter Gabriel sitting across from me at dinner. Because if my day was anything less than brilliant in my mind -- and it usually was less than brilliant -- then it was just hard to pass the potatoes to others. It took me too far away from my roots, I think."
After spending nearly three months of 1996 working with co-producer David Bottrill and a host of session men, Rice found the pressure to excel (much of which was self-imposed) too much to bear and abandoned Real World, returning to Texas with only four usable songs to show for his discomfort. Those tracks -- scattered throughout the ultra-poetic, sonically complex greenelectric, which is due in stores Tuesday -- reflect Rice's feelings of detachment while in England. The rhythmically hypnotizing, hauntingly sad tone poem "I See You" is saddled by its obvious likeness to So-period Peter Gabriel; "Good Life Alone," its angular, unstrung qualities defined by Rice's alternate 12-string tunings, sounds as if its emotional edge was sanded smooth by too much elbow grease in the control room; "Telephone" is all abrasive mood swings, confounding prose and abrupt transitions at the expense of substance ("Your hypothetic Hollywood is putting me to sleep," the singer spews cryptically); and the nine-minute, album-closing "Watching You Remembering" simply rambles on too long -- a fitting metaphor, perhaps, for a studio stay that should have been cut short weeks earlier.
Simply put, the Real World material shows signs of an artist trying too hard to measure up to his surroundings, an interpretation Rice won't dispute: "Every time I'd been in the studio [before], I'd been in a place that was sort of my domain, whether it's been at Loma Ranch [in Fredericksburg] or at Sugar Hill in Houston, or making demos at home," he says. "Going into this enormous studio every day that was clearly someone else's -- it was just a completely different energy. At first, it was intimidating. When that wore off, I felt like I was playing and singing for the tape or the place."
Fortunately for the 11-song greenelectric, that still leaves seven tracks. And they more accurately convey the quirky likeness of an unconventional Texas singer/songwriter familiar to many here via his early gigs around town and his output on the local Justice Records. Self-produced at Loma Ranch, the remaining greenelectric tracks readily display Rice's skill for incorporating the most basic pop elements (acoustic and electric guitar, keyboards, orchestration, drums, bass) into elliptical, larger-than-life soundscapes so aesthetically challenging you might be inclined to hang them on your living-room wall if it were possible. Most notably, "Thirsty Girl," "Another Sign of Life" and the album's first single, "Father," all utilize sinfully catchy choruses, lush, unexpected instrumentation and a good bit of restraint to cushion painful subject matter (At the time they were written, Rice was suffering through the breakup of a four-year relationship.) The all-too-brief CD intro, "Baptistry," is another standout, alternately touching on the sparse, neo-blues leanings of Chris Whitley at his most intimate and the impressionistic high drama of early Gabriel at his most epic. Like a compelling graphic or a wrenching series of televised images, the best parts of greenelectric stay with you longer than you realize, dangling just outside consciousness until the mind is at its most vulnerable.
"[Columbia] stood by me," says Rice of his label, which could have pulled the plug on his increasingly expensive venture a lot sooner. "They allowed me to go down a bunch of roads to get the record done."
Originally, the rolling hills of Austin were to be the sole setting for the making of greenelectric. After Rice was signed by Columbia in 1995, he made up his mind that he would record at home and went about collecting equipment for the job. He had recently moved to Austin after a short stay in Los Angeles, a city he couldn't wait to leave after tackling the logistics of his contract with Columbia.
"The minute I got signed, I went to the [Columbia] office, got my check, went to the bank, went to the U-Haul office and moved back to Texas the next day," says Rice -- who, at the moment, finds himself back in L.A. of necessity. "I needed to mix the record."
Upon realizing that all that recording gear might not be the best thing to leave lying around some empty Austin apartment for months on end while he toured, Rice aborted his home-studio strategy. Meanwhile, producer David Bottrill (Tool, King Crimson, Peter Gabriel) had heard demos of his work and flew into Texas to meet Rice. The two hit it off, and the seed for the Real World sessions was planted.
"He talked about my voice having some of the characteristics [of Gabriel]," says Rice. And initially, he admits, that comparison made him somewhat uncomfortable -- though not as uncomfortable as more recent comparisons to adult alternative poster boy Dave Matthews.
"Everyone's got to find a niche, I guess" says Rice, whose eerily resonant vocals resemble Matthews's only on the most superficial level. "It's so weird."
Weirder still is the realization that five years ago, Rice was living in Houston as a struggling college dropout wondering which way to turn next. The only son of a motivational speaker, Rice was raised near Katy in a household dominated by his three older sisters. Not surprisingly, it was their Stevie Wonder and Led Zeppelin albums that got him started on music. A good piano player by his early teens, Rice patiently went about learning guitar and other instruments, recording homemade demos in his bedroom. After high school graduation in 1988, he moved inside the Loop, got a job at a music store and sampled classes at the University of Houston.
Oddly enough, Rice got his first break at the downtown dance club Power Tools, performing cover tunes with just his guitar. Then came a steady gig at a now-defunct gay bar on Richmond Avenue. Steadily, Rice began to slip his own songs into his live sets, and by 1991 he was ready to find a studio in which to record. Soliciting funds from friends, the singer was able to complete the full-length Orange Number Eight. Recorded at Loma Ranch with the help of Houston drummer/engineer Eddie Hawkins (formerly of Horseshoe), the finished product piqued the interest of the nascent Justice Records, which purchased the masters from Rice in 1992, overhauling and rereleasing Orange Number Eight.
In the meantime, Rice established a friendly rapport with Teresa LaBarbera-Whites, then a regional rep for Columbia parent company Sony. "When I first made Orange Number Eight, I didn't have the money for shrink wrap," Rice recalls. "So I sent one out to Teresa, and I got the CD back in a package that basically said, thanks for sending this but something's not quite right here. I opened up the case and there was a Cocteau Twins CD. I'm not very good at putting CDs back in their proper place."
Despite that slip-up, correspondence increased between the two. Around that time, Justice president Randall Jamail sent Rice into the studio with producer David Thompson to record a follow-up to Orange Number Eight. Those sessions, Rice says, did not go well: "I was young. It really didn't get off the ground. I wanted to go back to Loma and work with Eddie; they wanted me to work with David."
Rice's tenuous relationship with Justice grew shakier still in 1995, just as Columbia began to seem interested. Even though he'd moved to Los Angeles, Justice put out the Thompson-produced Released anyhow. Rice had no idea it was being released until he received a copy in his mailbox.
"I listened to the record and, quite frankly, I wasn't that knocked out by it," Jamail says now about Released. "[But] records don't do us any good sitting on the shelf. We both look back on the situation and know that mistakes were made."
For his part, Rice seems to have moved on. He even agreed to remix and reconfigure Released under the new title Certain Music for release in conjunction with an upcoming Justice reissue of the original Orange Number Eight.
These days, though, Rice has bigger things on his mind -- like the immediate future. Though he's currently touring solo as an opener for enigmatic piano diva Chantal Kreviazuk, he has a full band waiting in Austin and is itchy to give his new songs the fleshed-out live treatment they deserve. Of course, he's also itchy to get off the West Coast and return to Texas.
"I flew out here with a round-trip ticket, mind you," he says. "I have every intention of coming back."
David Rice performs at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 24, at Cactus Music and Video, 2930 South Shepherd. Free in-store appearance. For info, call 526-9272.
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