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April 17, 2013


Dazzling new disc is packaged with 36-page book,
encapsulates longtime Chicago heroes’ career

CHICAGO, Ill. — When the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra set about creating the album that would mark their silver anniversary — encompassing the group’s evolution from their 1980s rock-blues-soul-R&B-funk origins (as the Nicholas Tremulis Band, which released two albums on Island Records) to their ensuing 13-piece assemblage (as the Nicholas Tremulis Band) to their current five-piece incarnation as purveyors of passionate, timeless rock — bandleader Nick Tremulis was adamant about making “something I would actually buy. In hard copy.

“Hardly anything,” he points out, “is worth buying in hard copy anymore. I like packages.”

And what a package accompanies For The Baby Doll, NTO’s first album since 2008’s Pinky. The CD comes tucked into a 6½ x 8½-inch, 36-page book whose cover is an arresting black-and-white rear view of an unclothed Simone de Beauvoir, taken in 1952 by famed photographer Art Shay at the home of legendary Chicago-bred author Nelson Algren. (It’s a photo that, rather amazingly, Tremulis had first seen at age 9 — and long forgotten about — while investigating a pile of vintage chairs in his interior-designer dad’s office.) Inside the cover, preceded by an elegant and heartfelt foreword from novelist Michael Thomas, is Nick’s memoir (along with song lyrics).

In ten brief, captivating pages, the singer-songwriter-guitarist-keyboardist traces his own artist’s odyssey, as a music-besotted kid from suburban Chicago who, after getting his professional start in the Second City, goes on to ply his trade in New York City. (Writing it, Tremulis says flatly, was “torture. I said to my writer friends, ‘You do this for a living?’”)

Nick deftly and matter-of-factly details his enthusiastic participation in NYC’s recreational drug scene of the ’80s, sketching a vivid portrait of the grit and glam (mostly grit) that playing music for a living entailed — with an affection for the seamy side that Algren himself would appreciate. Looming large in Nick’s memoir is his new album’s namesake, an unpretentious Tribeca strip joint called the Baby Doll Lounge, where a cash-strapped musician could drink “three ice cold Rolling Rocks and eat three hamburgers for around four bucks. I remember them tasting really good.”

This much-loved (and now defunct) hangout is directly referenced in a pair of FTBD’S songs, including the wistful, almost otherworldly title track, penultimate of the disc’s 11 cuts. “I went to steal a kiss,” Tremulis sings in this self-described “mini-story” of love so potent it snatches the breath from one’s body. “But you stopped me in my tracks/And said, ‘Let’s kiss . . . like it’s the last kiss ever.”

And sassy, brassy album opener “Pitiful,” which proffers the phrase, “I can remember the first time I saw you dancing at the Baby Doll;” dives into Tremulis’s favorite subject with relish: “Trouble walking hand in hand/We’d kiss so hard we could barely stand.” In other words, says Nick, NTO’s talking about “that kind of love you felt before you knew better; it’s purity. I still look for that, even though I don’t think it’s ever really gone.”

Tremulis himself has always found that hot-yet-innocent ardor in the story-songs of the 1950s, which served as For The Baby Doll’s general template. “I loved that era’s tunes,” Nick says. “Phil Spector, Leiber & Stoller — I love the sturdiness of the writing, which you could really craft a song around, production-wise.” It was Spector’s signature, timeless “wall of sound” approach — a juggernaut of horns, strings, percussion, backup singers — that he and co-producer/NTO guitarist Rick Barnes decided to go for after hearing a rough cut of what would become For the Baby Doll’s closer, the anthemic “Walk in the Sun Again.”

After five years of writing and arranging songs to be played by his increasingly unwieldy 13-piece ensemble, Nick had pared NTO down to five musicians, including original members Barnes and bassist Derek Brand, before starting work on the album at Chicago’s Rax Trax Recording. And the smaller band had its advantages — but when he heard ‘Walk in the Sun Again,” Tremulis knew he wanted a bigger sound. “‘Let’s do this right,’” he remembers saying, and immediately called upon Chicago-based violinist Susan Voelz (Poi Dog Pondering), with whom NTO had previously toured backing up Alejandro Escovedo.

Once Voelz was on board, bit by bit “we gave up the idea of small, and started going for bigger stuff,” Nick relates. “We said, let’s do it on all these songs — bringing in the horns, bringing in more strings. We’d grown up with big, beautiful records, so we decided to spare no expense.”

Five pieces became nine; longtime backup singers including powerhouse Shawn Christopher (a Tremulis veteran) were reactivated. Nick’s then 15-year-old daughter Electra wound up providing innocence-aware backing vocals à la the Shangri-Las on “Walk in the Sun Again.” Now 17, Electra wants to re-record her part, according to Nick, who much prefers the youthful vibe: “She says, ‘I sing better now!’ I say, ‘I don’t want ‘better’ — I want 15!’

“We tried to make as classic an album,” says Tremulis, “as the classics that influenced us. It’s not a retrospective; it just follows the stream. ‘Without You With Me’ has a call-and-response, Motown vibe; ‘Push It’ is set in the nasty ’70s world I grew up in.” “You’re Too Much (But Never Enough)” is a balls-out rave-up that’s too hot to touch, while the gospel-infused “Super Human Love” continues a Tremulis tradition of enlisting left-field guest performers and collaborators. Previous Tremulis productions featured Beat poet Gregory Corso and the late Rick Danko of The Band; here, South African guitarist and erstwhile Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin contributes backing vocals and guitar, and renowned NYC punk guitarist Ivan Julian, formerly of Richard Hell & the Voidoids, sits in on the piquant “Lost Without You.”

The five-piece NTO hits the touring trail in June, and Nick himself couldn’t be more elated. “I have the best band ever,” he declares, “and For the Baby Doll puts it all together for us; it contains the full arc of the last 25 years. The album is a tribute to a longstanding band that’s never stopped recording — and never stopped making beautiful records. I still want to be astounded; when I see a movie that’s so good it ruins other movies for me, I’m happy, and it’s the same thing with music.”

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