A new Emitt Rhodes album. That’s right, say it again – a new Emitt Rhodes album. With the release of Rainbow Ends, Omnivore Recordings has delivered on what has long been thought an impossibility. The cult tunesmith and multi-instrumentalist earned his stripes as a member of The Palace Guard and then the harmony-soaked LA band The Merry-Go-Round (“You’re a Very Lovely Woman,” “Live”) before recording four beautiful solo albums for A&M and ABC/Dunhill. His last full-length LP, Farewell Paradise, was released in 1973, and Rhodes all but disappeared. A trickle of new music emerged in 2010 and 2011, and in 2015, the artist contributed a fine recording of The Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” to a Gibb tribute disc. Yet against all odds, with this release some 43 years after Farewell Paradise, Emitt Rhodes has found pop paradise once again on eleven lovingly crafted new songs.
An all-star cast of indie rockers has assembled under the aegis of producer Chris Price to aid the Illinois-born, Hawthorne, California-based Rhodes in his “comeback.” Members of Jellyfish (Roger Joseph Manning and Jason Falkner), The Bangles (Susanna Hoffs), Wilco (Nels Cline and Pat Sansone), and The Brian Wilson Band (Probyn Gregory and Nelson Bragg) have joined Fernando Perdomo, Taylor Locke, Jon Brion and Aimee Mann, among other equally impressive talents, on Rainbow Ends. Musically, the album isn’t a pastiche or recreation of Rhodes’ multi-layered, DIY sixties/seventies sound, though the talented cadre of musicians assembled certainly could have delivered on such a release. Though it conjures a late-1970s feel on occasion, Rainbow Ends is the sound of Rhodes today, with crisp, jangly guitars, and Price’s lean production adding its vocal and musical adornments sparingly but effectively.
The singer’s McCartney-esque burr is more burnished and world-weary now, sounding a bit like latter-day Warren Zevon with a dash of Jackson Browne. The voice is assured but still vulnerable on these compositions centered on the nature of heartbreak, a theme with which Rhodes is seemingly well-acquainted. Rhodes’ unerring gift of melody hasn’t abandoned him, as is evidenced by “Dog on a Chain,” the album’s catchy opening track. The upbeat pop arrangement – featuring shimmering lead guitar by Jon Brion, mellotron and clavinet from Roger Manning, guitar from Manning’s onetime Jellyfish bandmate Jason Falkner, and breezy SoCal harmonies from singers including Aimee Mann and producer Chris Price – beautifully contrasts Rhodes’ melancholy lyrical rumination on a divorce. Rhodes remains an inventive songwriter, keeping the listener alert with an unexpected mid-song pause and a sit-up-and-listen bridge. (That the chorus is infectious goes without saying.)
A not-unexpected current of sadness runs through Rainbow Ends; the chilling reflections of “If I Knew Then” (“The future is dark/And the way not clear/And your fate may be worse/Than you fear…”) are set to a bluesy rhythm (featuring Manning tickling the ivories) with just enough space to surge; “I Can’t Tell My Heart” is also painfully bleak (“I can’t tell my heart who to love/I can’t tell my heart what to feel/You can see why I don’t trust in love…”). Nels Cline of Wilco is responsible for the evocative lead guitar on the latter. But as he did so often on his early works, Rhodes can find beauty in the darkness. The pretty, McCartney-evoking “Isn’t It So” is sad and sweet. Subtle strings add to the track’s warm understated atmosphere. Whereas “Isn’t…” reflects on loneliness, the older, wiser Emitt finds some peace in it on “It’s All Behind Us Now.” He rides a slinky groove as he addresses an ex-lover with magnanimity on the touching but quirky tune.
Susanna Hoffs paid tribute to Rhodes when The Bangles recorded The Merry-Go-Round’s “Live” on their debut album; she joins in on harmony for the self-questioning Rhodes/Price co-write “Someone Else.” Rhodes also teamed with Don Mayer, Jim Rolfe and Matt Malley for a pair of tracks on Rainbow Ends. “This Wall Between Us” boasts soaring harmonies as well as strings and horns, the latter courtesy of the multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory. The Brian Wilson Band member shows up elsewhere on Rainbow Ends, including wielding a mean slide guitar on “Isn’t It So,” but his brass contributions are so strong that one wishes there were simply more of them! The second Rhodes/Mayer/Rolfe/Malley composition, “What’s a Man to Do,” provides a frank look at a conflicted relationship.
Roger Manning’s Fender Rhodes adds to the cool vibrations of the story-song “Friday’s Love,” perhaps the most rock-oriented track on Rainbow Ends. There are lighter moments, too, including “Put Some Rhythm to It,” the song in which Emitt implores listeners over a funky beat and cascading vocals to “shake your ass!” (And why not?) The gentle, happily upbeat and lightly percolating “Rainbow Ends” (featuring Gregory’s horns and Brian Wilson bandmate Nelson Bragg’s percussion) brings the LP to a close, leaving the listener wanting more from Rhodes, Price and company.
Rainbow Ends has been packaged on compact disc with customary care by Omnivore Recordings, with a handsomely designed digipak courtesy of Greg Allen and top-notch mastering from the team of Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen. The enclosed booklet contains full lyrics. (A vinyl version – with download card – is also available from Omnivore.) Rhodes concludes his new album with the lyrics, “My eyes, they’re open now…” Our ears are, too. With a little bit of luck, it won’t take another 43 years for the next Emitt Rhodes album.