The Continental Drifters can't escape their history. Susan Cowsill was once the little girl singing with her family, the Cowsills, back in the late 1960s. Peter Holsapple was leader of one of the most critically acclaimed and yet least-known bands of the '80s, the dB's. Vicki Peterson was in the Bangles, one of the finest and most successful bands of the '80s. Mark Walton used to play bass with Dream Syndicate and Giant Sand, two icons familiar to longtime indie-rock fans.
History doesn't necessarily matter, though, when you listen to the Continental Drifters' album Vermilion (Razor & Tie), finally released this week in the United States after appearing last year in Germany, of all places. Sure, longtime listeners will recognize the voices of Holsapple and Peterson and may even pick up on their familiar styles of songwriting. Vermilion, however, is good enough that you don't need to know who these people are. You will just be left in awe at the luxuriance of the guitars and keyboards, the vocal harmonies, the intricate arrangements, the deftly constructed melodies and hooks.
There are six Continental Drifters. Russ Broussard, who has played with Terrance Simien and the Bluerunners, holds down the drum chair. Robert Mache is the primary lead guitarist. Peterson mostly plays rhythm guitar, and she contributes those amazing harmonies when she's not singing lead. Walton is the bassist. Cowsill plays acoustic guitar, and sings a lot. Holsapple, as he has done with the dB's, R.E.M., and Hootie and the Blowfish, plays a million instruments, including guitar, organ, piano, banjo and accordion. He also sings.
Vermilion was one of last year's best albums, and now, with this American release, it stands a chance of being one of this year's, too. These songs are timeless. "Meet Me in the Middle" is as great as any song Holsapple has written; he recorded it on his fine but obscure (even for him) solo record Out of My Way a few years back and gives it to Cowsill to sing here. She also sings his delicately beautiful "I Want to Learn to Waltz with You"; he rips into a classic scorcher, "Don't Do What I Did."
Peterson, who wrote or co-wrote most of the Bangles' greatest songs, lives up to her legacy with "Who We Are, Where We Live," a contemplation of sadness, darkness and recovery that leads to a rippling guitar solo. She and Cowsill co-wrote "The Rain Song," an absolute masterpiece that sets their pleading voices to the task of obliterating a painful memory with as memorable a hook as you'll ever hear.
Two years ago, the Continental Drifters stopped off in St. Louis to play an all-too-brief set during the MRMF. They proved to be dynamic, energetic performers onstage. This time, when they play the Duck Room, they should have enough time to stretch out, to give us even more of the brilliance that shines from this band. More good information exists at the Continental Drifters' official Web site, www.continentaldrifters.com.