“Gravity,” off History of Panic — the new album from the New Haven-based Shellye Valauskas Experience — starts with a warm bass, a chiming guitar. “It feels a little like loss / and a lot like gravity,” Valauskas sings, her voice clear and confident, though the meaning in the lyrics conveys something more ambiguous. “Weighs you down, pulls you under / and it makes it hard to see / where you are.” Within a few bars, the music joins her, the tonal center shifting, then shifting again. It still has all the accessibility of a good pop song. But it speaks of years of musical experience.
“That was just a puzzle,” said Dean Falcone of “Gravity” in a recent interview. “You’d never know now, but the bridge of that song — it’s actually one of those songs that great to hear with the vocal off because you can hear the arrangement, which is really pretty.”
“What are you trying to say?” Valauskas interjected, playfully. She knew what Falcone meant. “Electric 12-string and harmonium,” he continued. “It was just a matter of putting in and taking out, putting in and taking out. It’s one of the few times I hear something and don’t want to go back and fix it.”
Valauskas and Falcone are the songwriting team behind History of Panic. They’re celebrating its release on Feb. 10 with a night at Cafe Nine that features the Shellye Valauskas Experience with special guest Jon Auer, of the Posies and Big Star. For Valauskas and Falcone, it’s the culmination of a lot of steady work.
Valauskas and Falcone met when Valauskas was still a teenager. Falcone was a few years older; her good friends with her older brother Ed and was in bands with him. (Falcone was also in the Excerpts in the early ‘80s with Jon Brion, who has gone on to become an acclaimed producer.) “I used to go see 100 Faces play” in the late ‘80s, Valauskas said. Falcone, by then already a fixture of the New Haven music scene, in 1986 began doing his Thanksgiving Vomitoriums — a night for good musicians and their friends to get together and good-naturedly slaughter songs they half knew, full of holiday cheer “When I was old enough to go, I started playing a couple songs,” she said.
Eventually she had enough songs together to make an album, and asked Falcone to produce it. They began working together on music in 1999. Their relationship came later; they’ve been together for 10 years.
Which, as it turns out, is about the age of the oldest song on History of Panic. Though Valauskas pointed out that others “were written right before the record were recorded.” The album itself is the product of a lot of stolen time. Valauskas teaches biology at Branford High School and Falcone works at the New Haven Housing Authority and scores films.
“We don’t have a deadline and that’s the problem,” Falcone said with a laugh. “By the time it’s done, it’s going to be a few years.”
But those years also allow time to think, and time to figure out how to do it right. The songs on the album hang together, yet each feels distinct; History of Panic is a cohesive whole, yet sonically varied enough to give the ear a fresh surprise with each song.
“It comes from so many things—from tones of instruments to keys of songs,” Falcone said. As Valauskas and particularly Falcone worked out arrangements, they paid attention to how much guitar was on one song, how much keyboard on another, making sure to change things up and not do the same thing over and over. “You put down everything in your head,” Falcone said. “I’m a big fan of ‘if you have an idea, you have to try it.’” But then he was never afraid to change and edit the work he’d done.
“That’s half the fun,” he said, “the detective work.”
The crew they assembled from years of playing helped. It started with Ed Valauskas, Shellye’s brother, who works at the studio Q Division in Somerville, Ma. He played bass on the album, and much of the album was recorded there. (Other parts were recorded at Firehouse 12 on Crown Street.) “I’m a ginormous Posies fan — we both are,” Valauskas said. Falcone had produced a record with Posies band member Jon Auer. “And Dean said, ‘let’s see what Jon Auer is doing,’” Valauskas said.
They called him, and in time Auer contributed backing vocals and guitar. Dave Mattacks — who has worked with Fairport Convention, XTC, and Elton John, among many others — played drums on many of the songs.
With pros like that, “it was probably the easiest session for doing backing tracks ever — one or two takes,” Falcone said.
But there was still detective work. For their cover of Cheap Trick’s “Mandocello,” Falcone found himself elaborating on the song’s “swampy” vibe by blending together three instruments to create one instrument. For “Over the Top,” “we had recorded it and then realized it was too fast. We’d already started doing overdubs,” Falcone said. So they slowed the drums down and then rerecorded everything else. “It kind of gave the drums a little funk,” Falcone added. “Any good mistake, you get something good out of it.”
But then there were songs like “Leftover Mistake,” the newest of the lot. “It happened fast,” in two sessions tops, Falcone said. Falcone wrote the music. Shellye wrote the words. The members of this songwriting team, who finish each others’ sentences, agreed that was why it probably came out so smoothly. But it was just one of many things that made making History of Panic “way more fun than ever before,” Falcone said. And that’s nothing to panic about.
The Shellye Valauskas Experience celebrates the release of History of Panic with special guest Jon Auer on Feb. 10 at Cafe Nine, 250 State St. Click here for more information.