Feel the Feel

As fabricated as it might sound, Collective Soul has a valid grassroots success story to tell. After the band invaded alternative and AOR play lists out of nowhere last year with the relentlessly cheery "Shine," it was justifiable, perhaps, for the skeptical to tilt their nostrils skyward in search of a vaguely corporate odor. The song was just too, well, perfect -- with its gnawingly familiar hook, choral-like flourishes and tame love-is-universal theme. Surely, some shifty studio head or stiff-suit in major-label A&R must have concocted this most-immaculate of models for crossover airplay.

It didn't help matters any that when the tune was recorded, Collective Soul was more or less a vehicle for the pre-dawn doodlings of Ed Roland, a frustrated former student at Boston's Berklee School of Music who was then locked into a thankless job at a studio in his hometown of Stockbridge, Georgia, the closest to nowhere you're going to get 20 miles from Atlanta.

"It's just a strip of fast-food restaurants. That's really all it is," says Ed's soft-spoken rhythm-guitarist brother Dean, who, at 23, is Collective Soul's younger Roland. "It's close enough for you to say you're from Atlanta, but it's not really Atlanta."

And therein lies the irony of Collective Soul's curious rise. The band was, at best, an uncollected mess when Ed, nine years Dean's senior, began losing his patience with the typical breakup-reunion sagas that come with struggling for recognition in a tiny town. After recording what was essentially a songwriter's demo at the Stockbridge studio where he manned the boards for eight years ("Ed would work there all day, and then from like two till eight in the morning he'd do his own stuff," Dean remembers), the elder Roland found himself a manager and started sending the tapes to radio stations all over the South. Stockbridge legend has it an Orlando station was the first to pick up on "Shine." The song soon caught on in Georgia as well, and the labels came knocking.

Brother Ed's one-man show, Hints, Allegations and Things Left Unsaid, debuted in early '94, under the guise of Collective Soul, to resoundingly lukewarm reviews. Often overindulgent, repetitive and pandering in spots, the album, nevertheless, shocked everyone by going gold, which can do wonders for a band's self-image after a sound critical beating.

"Yeah, [the bad reviews] bothered us at first. We never followed any sort of scene, because, really there weren't any to follow," Dean says, hinting that maybe Collective Soul's refusal to be pigeonholed is at the root of the criticism. "I mean, I grew up listening to Elvis Presley in the house."

In an upbringing right out of the movie Footloose, the Rolands' dad, a Baptist minister, ran a tight ship, especially where Ed, the second of four children, was concerned. "My brother wasn't allowed to listen to the radio until he was 18. I pretty much got away with more because I was so much younger than he was," Dean admits. "I think our dad was very suspicious of rock and roll at first. But he came around soon enough."

And brotherly camaraderie? "In a lot of ways, we didn't have much in common because of the age difference until much later. He used to play songs for me every now and then," Dean says. "I was actually pretty shocked when he asked me to play in the band."

Ed, Dean and the rest of Collective Soul -- drummer Shane Evans, bassist Will Turpin and lead guitarist Ross Childress, all friends from the neighborhood -- made no mystery of the fact that Hints was, in essence, a rough sketch of the future. And with this spring's release of Collective Soul, the first true group effort, the guys would like to think they've made a case for their staying power. If you're looking for further proof, check the radio -- the singles "Gel," which first surfaced on the The Jerky Boys soundtrack, and "December" are all over the airwaves -- and the newsstand, where the band is the subject of a fawning cover story in next month's Musician magazine. So what if Spin still waves them off as mind-numbing and plastic? Collective Soul's got the backing of a national mag reputedly geared toward the serious practitioner.

Whatever the reason for this newfound clout, it's of little concern to Dean, who, quite frankly, thinks brother Ed deserved to be there all along, even if the rest of Collective Soul is curiously absent from Musician's front. "Every band's got to have their frontman. Who cares whether it's Ed or all of us?" he says, as if resigned to the reality of his small sliver of the spotlight.

Unearned accolades aside, Ed "the songwriter" borrows like the most irritating of yard-tool-pilfering neighbors. But at least on Collective Soul, he makes the price of his mischief interesting in spots. "She Gathers Rain" rocks harder than it has a right to in its attempts at psychedelic transcendence. "When the Water Falls," aside from shouldering an inane title, is a precise little chunk of freshly Squeeze-d jangle pop. And the oft-imitated Paul McCartney receives his tribute with "The World I Know," an only half-bad mid-tempo ballad, syrupy strings and all. On "Gel," Collective Soul gussies up '80s victims the Escape Club for the '90s, and the unnerving result is "Wild West End" with heaving distortion. The CD's finale, "Reunion," is a misguided whack at gospel coloring that simmers like warmed-over Rattle and Hum-era U2, finishing up too soon to have any impact beyond its swell Hammond organ and well-placed Dobro.

And then there's "December," the perfect summer single and quite possibly the best tune the songwriting Roland will ever put to paper. And if it's true, as brother Dean says, that Ed writes from the heart, it was pumping plenty when he sat down to concoct this gem of a melody, strummed simply on guitar and coated with whisper-falsetto vocals and a soulful chorus. Don't bother with the muddled lyrics, which are symptomatic of Roland's tendency to beat to death simple themes (in this case, a failing relationship) in search of broader meaning. Instead, revel in the joy of a perfect, pliable four-minute burst that emotes more than it explains.

This, Dean says, is essentially what Collective Soul is after: feel over all else, trends be damned. "You know -- and this is going to sound stupid -- we just see ourselves as a rock band," he says. "Ed writes the songs from his heart, which is good enough. So what if some people on the outside don't get it."

Collective Soul performs with Rusty at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, September 3 at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. Tickets are $15.50. Call 526-8338 for info.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Hobart Rowland