Summer's coming early this year if Al Church has his way. His new solo LP, Next Summer, is a suite of pop confections conjuring up carefree days of his youth. His summers were filled with driving around with the windows rolled down bumping Dr. Dre's The Chronic and R.E.M.'s Monster. "My album is like [Monster], but with saxophone and keyboards instead of Peter Buck's guitar tremolo," the Duluth-raised multi-instrumentalist exclaims when the Athens alt-rock legends' "Strange Currencies" hits the speakers. He's with City Pages at Mackenzie Pub on a frigid night in downtown Minneapolis.
Actually, Next Summer is more reminiscent of Beck's funky soul circa Midnite Vultures. But there are even more chill Yacht Rock flourishes with the aforementioned saxophone, played by Cole Pulice, who performs with Sonny Knight and the Lakers as well as Black Market Brass. "Cole is a genius sax player," Church says. "He basically took the role of lead guitar on the record. When I think about lead guitar, and all the solos and stuff — that was all replaced by Cole. It was super organic, and he just flowed over everything."
Pulice's wailing sax and Church's retro synth strains on "Next to You" have a Billy Ocean flavor, but they don't overshadow the vocals. Just as powerful as Fitz & the Tantrums vocalist Michael Fitzpatrick, Church's treated falsetto is always in control, even amid an over-the-top story of drunk, text-messaging ex-boyfriends. On the piano-laced title track, he sounds more like Queen's Freddie Mercury. Church's affable personality soaks into the endearing Next Summer like suntan lotion on the neck. He freely speaks about music, sports, and Minnesota living over beers for nearly an hour before getting around to the record.
"You And I" comes off as a dynamic combination of Dirty Projectors' angelic harmonies and the effervescent pop that filled the original Miami Vice soundtrack, like cruising in a white Ferrari to a hot house party or to solve a crime. A rare guitar solo appears on the earnest blue-eyed soul of "You Came Into My Life," affectionately written for Church's new fiancée after they got engaged in Paris. "I think it's almost like a vibe," Church says, when asked how he knew which songs to put in this project. "These songs just didn't fit anywhere else. I think it's partly because of the content, but also because of the structure. I don't really have any interest in your typical A part, B part, verse, bridge, song structure. I wanted to experiment with the idea that maybe this whole thing is just a verse, or maybe it's all chorus, or maybe it's just hooks."
Like much of his past work, Next Summer has plenty of heart beneath the gloss of the dance-party jams. Up until this point, Church had more of a rep for guitar-centric work in BBGUN, Dear Data, Al Church and State, Clustercuss, and Private Oates (a Hall and Oates cover band). He's also been a sideman with Haley Bonar, Pink Mink, Frankie Lee, and Actual Wolf, among other local acts. "All of these other projects, I've been hiding behind something in a way," Church says. "I wanted this to be more naked and revealing. I'm treating this more as my rock band — or my solo rock band. I gave myself a lot of time to do this. I didn't have any deadline, really. And that freed me up to try anything."
Church's many projects kept Next Summer percolating for the past two years. After starting out modestly, the songs grew with guest vocalists Mina Moore ("The Clock") and Gabe Douglas ("Birthday Party," "The Clock," "S.A.T.J.") along with producer/synth player Matt Sandstedt during recording at the Hideaway studio in Minneapolis. The key players on the album frequently drew inspiration from a secret Google doc filled with lyric snippets and random song notes.
His lyrics are frequently as radiant as the arrangements themselves. "Turquoise Sun" is where "Memories drag on like a cigarette," and "The Clock" might start a new dance craze. "Birthday Party" took shape when Church overheard a euphoric father and his young son in Brooklyn. "This guy was just hanging out with his kid, singing, 'I'm coming to your birthday party! I'm coming to your birthday party!' And I just thought, 'That's a song right there,'" Church reminisces with a hearty laugh. "In fact, I had to do some research to see if it was already like a Rihanna song or something."
To match the album's joviality, Church's release party will have a middle school carnival theme, and will feature a dance party, karaoke, and a cake walk. "It's going to be a really fun party," Church says animatedly. "You've got to prepare for summer, even in March." [Erik Thompson for City Pages, March 2015]