Meeks Inherits the Earth

The annals of gospel-disco celebrate classically righteous cuts by the Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Clark Sisters; they applaud "D" Train's "Keep On," the O'Jays' "Love Train," the entire oeuvre of Sylvester. But query whether gospel-disco is ready to welcome Days of the New's twangy-guitared "Enemy," even though a torrid, sultry house beat underpins the voice—Travis Meeks's voice, once a carbon copy of sleepy-mode Jim Morrison, but now ga-ga for Rick Astley! Yet gospel it is, Astley-glam and all: orchestrally bright, soulfully harmonized, rhythmically delicate. Philly disco to the core. Every time Meeks, the 20-year-old Louisville avatar of Days of the New, purrs "I'm not the one who's trying to be your enemy" over a dark velvet house pulse as slinky as anything in Junior Vasquez's satin-doll repertoire, any club kid worth his lipstick will hear Robert Owens's 1990 house classic "I'll Be Your Friend" murmuring in Meeks's mouth.

So why, then, is it that up my way—up Boston way—it's WAAF, a "kickass" rock station that loves Led Zep and System of a Down and hates disco, that first played "Enemy"? They've recently started "eargasm" - ing the whole 13-track CD, Days of the New. Lots of airtime devoted to the darkly forceful "Not the Same"; the dreamy, tantric Europop of "Skeleton Key" and "Bring Yourself"; the righteous la - dum - da's that open and sustain "Take Me Back Then"; the techno - and - piano outcry of "I Think," structurally redolent of Tori Amos's passionate scream-pop; and the Gothic embroideries of "Last One." Do these radio guys realize what they're playing?

Because Meeks certainly knows the direction he is taking. Gone are Todd Whitener, Jesse Vest, and Matt Taul, who played guitar, bass, and drums on Meeks's identically titled 1996 Days Of the New (now referred to by fans as "the yellow album" to distinguish it from the new green one). The platinum debut yielded three hits — including "Touch, Peel, and Stand," the longest - running number-one in the short history of Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks chart — songs closer in tone and texture to Bruce Springsteen's acoustic Nebraskathan to dance - land. Gone, too, is the starkness of the first CD, the anger and frustration of not being able to be oneself but rather somebody else (and a dark and dismal somebody at that), the claustrophobia of an album exemplified by these words: "The shelf in the room/has been the way of holding me/and letting me stay." If Meeks's first CD was about letting stay and isolation, his second is about letting go and belonging.

Meeks has been rumored to be, and to sing about being, a dedicated Christian; one doesn't hear that on the first record, which has ears only for struggle, apartness, and don't - touch - me's. But the second Days of the New CD is all about reaching out, embracing, and befriending. These have always, from the very first DJ spin, been the basic reasons why dance clubs work. Yet for 25 years in disco history, the message was not often father to the music. Disco was the most single-minded of genres, stripping away whatever interfered with its fundamental duet: rhythm and voice—in other words, you and me, babe. But you-and-me is not enough for Meeks's new songs. Between its lavish vocal choruses, its fusion - jazz keyboards, its trip-hop (the background voice in "Enemy"), Days of the New circa 1999 really does feel like a world of people, of cultures and dialects all coming together, jangly and different but tight and unified by Meeks singing his mission. In other words, anthemic—a characteristic always mouthed by disco, but not often achieved by the genre. Even in its gospel state.

 
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