James Brown famously said, “Give the drummer some.”
And Tim O’Reagan proves how wise that advice can be.
Fans already know O’Reagan through his work with The Jayhawks, for whom he played drums and also wrote songs that were strong enough to find a place among those of bandleader Gary Louris.
But though his distinctive vocals earned him a place in their vocal tapestry, he stayed in the background, as drummers must do, a few yards from the action that transpired at the front of the stage.
Well, those days are over for O’Reagan, whose self-titled debut is not what you might expect from a drummer who’s stepping out on his own.
It is, for example, extraordinarily musical, beginning with the first track. “These Things” sets an immediate mood, with an accordion – not a zydeco blast but a French musette that might have been sampled in some Left Bank café. The rhythm sets in, ambling and strolling, with someone whistling absently in the background behind the lyrics, “I’m looking still” If you weren’t paying attention enough to notice the dark cast of the rest of the words, you’d think this was a lover’s wistful reverie.
Some of that has to do with O’Reagan’s singing. His style is conversational, understated, and richly emotional. It’s not hard to discern his influences, but in the end his voice is like none other. It is, in fact, a classic rock vehicle, harking back to Dylan, Lennon, even soul music of sixties vintage: melodic, aggressive when it needs to be, maybe a little sly and ironic, often haunting, ultimately unforgettable.
Then there are the songs. Think of them as prairie Americana, sweetened with a psychedelic sprinkle and treated now and then to a European vacation. Tendrils of melody weave through verses and explode in the choruses. They’re sharp too, many of them wrapping around hooks that aim for your ear and dig into your memory. Just check out “River Bends” and you’ll know what we mean: That line, “goodnight, desire,” would have sounded perfect coming through your AM radio on some steamy summer night back in the 70’s.
And, before we forget, he plays most of the instruments. A few guests, mainly friends in Minneapolis, do sit in (Jayhawks Gary Louris and Marc Perlman for instance) and do contribute to the mix. But most of the guitar, the bass, the keys, and of course the drums are pure O’Reagan.
Not bad for a guy who used to hear music in terms of locking the kick drum to the bass line. But judging from Tim O’Reagan, something deeper was stirring even as he was breaking into music on the R&B circuit in Kansas City. Eventually he and his friend Todd Newman put a band together called the Leatherwoods and headed toward the Twin Cities.
They cut one album, Topeka Oratorio, co-produced by Paul Westerberg.
O’Reagan quickly found a foothold in the lively scene that centered on Minneapolis. After four years of playing with the Leatherwoods and others in Minneapolis Joe Henry recruited him for shows and sessions. “Playing and writing with Todd and then just being a part of the Minneapolis music community put me on the track of writing my own songs.
Then in 1996 O’Reagan joined The Jayhawks. For more than ten years the Minneapolis-based band had built its success on a foundation of brilliantly crafted original material. Their standards, in other words, were high, which made it especially impressive that they would include “Bottomless Cup” on O’Reagan’s first CD with the band, Sound of Lies. He started singing around that same time too, all of which got him thinking about doing a project of original music, on his own. “I got a rehearsal space lined up,” he remembers. “I got a little more time in my schedule. I got married to a great woman with great health insurance and that’s what allowed me to finally get to work on this.”
O’Reagan moved ahead at a comfortable pace. First he brought in John Woodland, a respected guitar tech in Minneapolis, to join him as co-producer. Then there were the players, who included Jayhawks alumni Louris, Perlman, Mark Olson and Karen Grotberg, former Son Volt bass player Jim Boquist, and bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson from Bonnie Raitt’s band. Sessions were pretty loose: O’Reagan would usually show up at each musician’s house with his gear, set it up, and record wherever everybody felt most at ease.
Most of Tim O’Reagan, though, is Tim O’Reagan. Over the space of about a year and a half he laid down the majority of these tracks on his own. After letting them sit for a while, he’d often come back and tweak them a bit, sometimes far beyond their initial form. “I’ve got four or five versions of some of them,” he says. “I think ‘River Bends’ went through about 50 transformations in tempo, feel, and melody. Consequently, there are three other versions that I could easily turn into other songs.”
But that’s for another project, on another day. For now, thanks to Tim O’Reagan, even those who admire his contributions to The Jayhawks will be caught off guard by the gifts he’s been nurturing, more or less in secret.
In fact, you can forget – for now, at least – that “give the drummer some” idea. O’Reagan – a romantic, a philosopher, a wry observer of life’s oddities, an artist who is here to stay, and sure, a drummer too – gets his due on Tim O’Reagan, on his own terms.