The Pursuit of Happiness leaves Todd Rundgren for The Downward Road



By Steve Newton

Recalling the televised carnage of last year’s L.A. riots, it’s hard to believe that a happy-go-lucky Canadian band was simultaneously recording its breezy, good-time pop music within shooting distance of the scary stuff. A grungy thrash or hardcore rap band laying down a soundtrack for anarchy, maybe, but the Pursuit of Happiness?

TPOH drummer Dave Gilby, sipping a coffee at Cafe 501, says he imagines they were about a mile away from the riots. “We were in the Hollywood Hills, so we were sort of away from it—like they hadn’t climbed the mountain and attacked the house yet—but at the same time it was still very tense. And not being familiar with the city, we didn’t know exactly how close we were.

“But two days after the curfew was lifted, someone still needed to move some of the stuff they’d stolen, so they took our van.”

The result of TPOH’s uneasy sojourn in a hellish City of Angels is the appropriately titled The Downward Road. The band’s third album, it’s the first one that wasn’t recorded in New York with producer Todd Rundgren.

“It was just time to move on,” says singer/songwriter/guitarist Moe Berg of the split from “the Runt”. “It’s not meant to reflect in any way negatively on him; I still think he’s great. I mean, he did a great job on our records. We just wanted to try a different approach and work with somebody else.”

Instead, the band hired producer Ed Stasium, whose previous work with the Smithereens, the Ramones, and Living Colour had thoroughly impressed Berg and company. The change resulted in an entirely different approach to studio work.

“When we did the records with Todd, he had this real live approach,” says Berg. “He was entering into his live phase, around the time of his Nearly Human record, which was live in the studio. So that was his whole philosophy, whereas Ed’s way of producing is a lot more meticulous, sort of a sweatin’-out-the-details kind of approach.”

The Downward Road is the Pursuit’s first release in two-and-a-half years, and there are many reasons for the long wait since 1990’s One Sided Story. First of all, the band changed labels—from Chrysalis to Mercury. Then it had to bide its time to suit Stasium’s busy schedule. Finally, once the recording was finished, Mercury decided it should come out in the new year, so it was shelved for another six months.

TPOH fans hungry for a dose of the band’s invigorating, hook-filled pop—highlighted by Berg’s incisive, cheeky lyrics and the potent backing vocals of Kris Abbott and new member Rachel Oldfield—should find some pleasure in The Downward Road. They’ve certainly been quick to snap up tickets to the band’s three-night double bill with local heroes 54-40, which runs Thursday to Saturday (April 8 to 10) at the Commodore. And while yours truly still prefers the band’s exhilarating 1988 debut, Love Junk, I must admit a certain attraction to new tracks such as “Pressing Lips”, “Heavy Metal Tears”, and “A Villa in Portugal”, which was co-written by pop maestro Jules Shear.

“That was sort of the record company’s idea,” says Berg of the collaboration. “I wanted to go to New York for a trip, and one of the stipulations was that I had to spend one night with Jules Shear. And I really thought Jules was a great writer, so that was a pretty good trade-off.

“I’ve written songs with some other people,” he adds, “but they always tended to sound more like them than me. And Jules sorta plugged into what we were doing. The song ended up sounding like our band. That’s why we included it on the record.”

The Downward Road is probably the most varied TPOH release to date. It’s definitely the first one to include an oboe solo (courtesy of Paul McCandless, from the jazz group Oregon). And the title track’s 26-second intro—an old Staple Singers song—could turn a few ears, as well.

“I was a big fan of theirs,” says Berg, “and I like gospel music a lot. I like the image of the downward road, and it sorta went with the frame of mind I was in at the time. And fortunately, at the end of the writing process, it still seemed to tie everything together. It was like a good sort of hanger to hang the whole record on.”

Pursuit of Happiness members are no doubt hoping that the new disc’s title won’t end up referring to its performance on the charts. That’ll depend on public response—and on how seriously the band’s new label takes its promotional duties. One Sided Story didn’t sell nearly as well as Love Junk, which must have had something to do with the split from Chrysalis. But Berg says sales figures don’t mean much to him.

“I think the music business tends to have an unrealistic attitude about what doing well and not doing well is,” he says. “I mean, our second record sold 70,000 copies in Canada, and I consider that a very successful record in Canada. I’m grateful—ecstatic—that we sold that many. And it was only because our first record went over platinum that people say [One Sided Story] didn’t do that well. It’s like when Bruce Springsteen doesn’t sell 10 million copies. They call it a bomb, even if its sells, like, three million.”

“Yeah,” adds Gilby. “So Michael Jackson’s had stiffs ever since Thriller, for that matter.”

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