Grownup Music

In which Wide Right's working-class broad from the provinces expresses her arty side

Leah Archibald's favorite music quote comes from Andy Shernoff. "People like bands for the music," the Dictators' master theorist supposedly said. "But they love bands for the words." You can see the attraction of this idea for the leader of the Brooklyn-based, Buffalo-rooted Wide Right. "We are not players," she says of a band boasting Archibald's muscular, gung ho vocals and willing rhythm guitar, Brendan O'Malley's solid drums, Dave Rick's solider lead guitar, and whoever tags along to approximate the bass parts Rick devises on record. "You can't plug us into another situation and expect us to execute."

Not that Wide Right's "straight-up rock" is generic. For one thing, it doesn't aspire to the barroom boogie in which most straight-ups subsume their generic songwriting—it's sparer, the better to set off the words. But if songwriting means catchy tunes supporting well-observed lyrics with a p.o.v., as opposed to whatever formal tweaks indie aesthetes are into, then Wide Right are a band after Andy Shernoff's heart. No wonder he bought their eponymous 2003 debut on Poptop, where Archibald serves as president, production supervisor, and mail clerk.

Of the many lines I wish I could quote, let me isolate two that stick out, one from Wide Right and one from Sleeping on the Couch, available now at widerightmusic.com or June 22 at their Southpaw release party. From "400 Miles," about driving to Buffalo to "grownup music" with the kids finally asleep: "A Diet Coke and one more salty snack." From "Flicker Film," about a Fluxus freeloader Archibald kicks off her couch: "Let the narrative decay." To me, these sharp details imply a redolent contradiction. Archibald presents herself as a working-class broad from the provinces, a Bills fan given to vulgar pleasures she knows too well: fish fries, firemen's fairs, lots of beer, and "a Midwestern guy/Who plays guitar and wears his hair in his eyes." But she's no folk artist; she has an arty side. So occasionally there'll be one about Vincent Gallo's pores or a pretentious has-been "on tenured life support" who'll steal your cough medicine while you're at work. Need I add that in none does the narrative decay?

On the F train to dinner at Archibald's house, I remembered the three shows I'd caught and pictured something like this: tastes run classic rock, met a few avant-gardists at SUNY Buffalo, moved here for the music's sake around 2000, mid-level computer professional, two kids, husband . . . the real breadwinner? an average joe? what did "Why can't a Ph.D. find his own shoes" mean? As I mounted the stoop of a Park Slope attached beyond the brownstone zone, the vinyl siding struck me as a homey touch.

I was right about the kids—though I obviously didn't know that eight-year-old Kira spent a year in a cancer ward, which means among other things that Archibald will always need good medical—and wrong about everything else except the straight-up half of this Drive-By Truckers fan's tastes. Archibald, who will turn 40 five days after her release party, studied sound recording at Michigan State and after graduation returned home to become a secretary, just as her Irish cop dad if not her Jewish school secretary mom had figured—only soon she was making better money selling fragrances on commission at a now defunct department store. Cosmetics would be a career path for Archibald, who left her dying rust belt hometown way back in 1988 and has been describing it from memory ever since, migrating first to D.C. and then L.A. as her spouse, SUNY Buffalo alumnus Dave McBride, earned his doctorate in American history. But increasingly her income came from jobs in politics, including an excellent one as de facto chief of staff for a councilman in West Hollywood. The family settled in Brooklyn in 1998. McBride is an editor at Routledge, and Archibald, who now has a New School M.A. in public policy, is marketing manager of the Industrial & Technology Assistance Corporation, which generates industry in New York City. That comes before music. "My self-image is tied to what I do professionally. I'm working for the cause. I'm a very competent voice for working-class jobs in the city."

In most indie bands, young bohemians spend months on the road regaling the bohemian fringe. Not Wide Right. "I have a $2700-a-month mortgage," says Archibald. "How many CDs does an indie-rock band have to sell to pay that? I feel bad that I didn't get to do this 20 years ago." But of course, "this" wouldn't have been Wide Right; if "not so many 19-year-olds want to hear about an argument you had with a guidance counselor," fewer still want to write about one (unless maybe the guidance counselor is their own). And though lots of indie bizzers like her new album, no one can see making it pay without major touring the band can't commit to. So call Wide Right, which began with Archibald playing rhythm for friends and discovering she could do it all, an art project—solid as Dave Rick may be, he's also put in time with Bongwater and King Missile. Sleeping on the Couch cost Archibald five grand she doesn't expect to see again. But hey—maybe she will.

"People who read like Wide Right," is Archibald's joke of a slogan. But though they're admittedly none too funky or all that funny either, no band has ever meant or sounded like this. BIYL Amy Rigby—or just Loretta Lynn, whose "The Pill" gets a loud cover on the new album. On top of a class analysis that's less startling when you learn it proceeds from her lifework as well as her personal history, Archibald has a domestic analysis—no Nashville pro has approached the title tune, where she apologizes for last night's fight: "I say these things to improve you, honey/I don't mean to put you out." Read the lyrics and admire their intelligence and thematic originality. Hear them, though, and they take on the sensible candor and irrefutable force of a good talking-to from, I don't know, Molly Ivins or Studs Terkel—socked home by, I don't know, Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Leah Archibald has a mortgage to pay. She can't always bring the music to your door. But send her your money anyway. She gives good value.


Wide Right play Magnetic Field May 27.

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