Seattle singer/musician Rusty Willoughby’s demeanor is so unassuming, the simple acknowledgment of his music feels like it’d give him a case of the awkwards. He’s never seemed super-comfortable with attention, or with the kind of networking and extroversion necessary to be a Big Time Rock Star. Even the times he’s edged close to outright breakout success in conventional music-industry terms seem to have occurred almost by accident.
But his recorded output over the last 30-plus years, both solo and as a member of several bands including seminal local acts Pure Joy and Flop, represents one of the most consistent catalogs in Northwest rock. All of Willoughby’s disparate projects share his calling cards—namely a slightly-bent pop sense, sharp and self-lacerating lyrical sensibilities, and his unchanged, distinctive schoolboy tenor voice.
At the risk of rampant hyperbole (and at the risk of making this unassuming guy really uncomfortable–sorry,dude), Rusty Willoughby’s one of the great unsung heroes of Northwest music, period. And there’s a surplus of evidence out there, if you care to look and listen.
Unsung (Flydaddy Records, 1994/1988)
Gelatin and Bright (Book Records, 2002)
Amidst the knuckle-dragging noise arising from the Northwest in the mid-to-late eighties, a small movement of Seattle bands (Room Nine, Weather Theatre, and Chemistry Set, among them) swam against the current, looking to British new wave and pop for inspiration. Pure Joy, more than any of the other great bands of that scene, wore their influences on their sleeves while still carving out their own identity.
The sound quality in this belated release of what would’ve been Pure Joy’s debut full-length is sometimes iffy, but there’s no denying how famously the songs hold up. The guitars on “Standing on a Bridge” and “Calvin and Hobbes” chime like the best songs The Church never recorded, and the awesome “Gun Thing” stomps like an extra-raw Julian Cope track. But it’s Willoughby’s persona that informs and distinguishes Pure Joy. Think Echo and the Bunnymen with their vocal slot bum-rushed by a smart-alecky, flannel-clad American kid, and you get the idea.
When I interviewed Willoughby in 2010, he dismissed Pure Joy’s reunions in the years after the band’s 1990 breakup as “practice to learn to play again…like nursery school” If that’s the case, I wish I’d have attended the nursery school that spawned Gelatin and Bright. The 2002 record reconciles the new wave textures of the band’s early work with Willoughby’s love of British invasion rock, sporting one of his strongest batches of tunes. “Samuel the Flying Pig” sounds like a children’s song as turbocharged by The Who, while “Red Transparency” lopes and marches in classic faux-Kinks style. Local rock godfather/favorite uncle Kurt Bloch contributes some punchy guitar and visceral, immediate co-production, and he, bass player Lisa King, and drummer Jim Hunnicutt go to town on the epic, harrowing bad-trip rock of “All The Best Things Come in Pills.”
Flop and the Fall of the Mopsqueezer! (Frontier Records, 1992)
Whenever You’re Ready (Epic Records, 1993)
World of Today (Frontier Records, 1995)
Willoughby’s next band after Pure Joy’s 1990 dissolution was a hybrid of the Buzzcocks and Cheap Trick, filtered through Willoughby’s insolent wit (find me another band that uses the words ‘obsequious’ and ‘caramelizing’ in their choruses) and a quintessentially Seattle sense of self-deprecation. Flop injected their very catchy, compact songs with hyper-caffeinated energy and neck-snapping precision. It was a sound (described by You am I singer/guitarist Tim Rogers as “power pop in extremis”) that seemed poised to break out.
Major label megalith Epic Records agreed, signing Flop during the Nirvana-stoked major-label feeding frenzy of the early nineties. But Epic fell asleep at the promotional wheel, and the band’s second long-player, Whenever You’re Ready, died on the vine—a real waste, given the exhilarating consistency of Flop’s albums.
All three Flop records are decidedly of a kind, and they all pretty much rule. Mopsqueezer boasts the most thunder out of the gate, but Whenever You’re Ready wraps Willoughby’s funny and fiercely catchy songs in a tasty high-gloss production courtesy of Buzzcocks producer Martin Rushent. World of Today tempers Flop’s humor and hyperdrive with a hard-won sense of reflection, while still delivering hooks, humor, and copious regional references (“North Mason Middle School”, “Vancouver Door Company”). Seattle’s finest power pop band? Maybe.
Rock musicians generally handle growing up/middle age by either making desperate grasps at recapturing the fire of yore, or dissolving into wan middle-of-the-road blandness. But the best of ‘em take a path less followed, honing their strengths without laurel-resting and acknowledging the passage of time without getting sentimental or losing their spark. Rusty Willoughby’s last decade-plus, post-Flop, has undeniably trod the latter route—and it’s led to some of his best music in the bargain.
Llama, a trio consisting of Willoughby, bassist/singer Scott Sutherland (former member of fellow Seattle brit-pop acolytes Chemistry Set and an accomplished singer/songwriter himself), and returning Pure Joy drummer Jim Hunnicutt, shares Flop’s rock and pop framework, only the tempos aren’t as over-caffeinated, and the songs aren’t as self-consciously twisty. Rest assured, however, there’s plenty of Beatles/Cheap Trick hookiness.
Best of all, the guy’s lyrics—always one of his great strengths—are more open and affecting than ever, without losing their sharpness. Like a more impishly-humorous, less overtly angry Elvis Costello, Willoughby’s traditionally used his vocabulary and lyrical intelligence as protective armor and camouflage against feeling things too deeply. So it’s incredibly powerful when those ageless schoolboy pipes betray unguarded vulnerability (“This feeling isn’t going away/I’m fucked, right now”) on the lovely, Beatles-tinged “Right Now.” And with maturity comes the wisdom of acknowledging how scary adulting can be (“All I want is to be back in the womb once again,” he sings nervously on the coiled and tense “It’s OK”).
Willoughby’s solo recordings, by contrast, have allowed him to immerse his melodic sense in acoustic moodiness and a sort of timeless, burnished darkness that owes a little to Scott Walker and Elliott Smith.
Filament Dust is sparse and stark—little more than Willoughby and his acoustic guitar, recorded with a lo-fi, reverbed remoteness that makes it sound like some forlorn late-night broadcast over a dying AM radio. With its combination of haunting originals and well-chosen covers (his take on the Beatles’ “Cry Baby Cry” is a work of quiet magic), it’s his most unadorned and eerily beautiful work.
Cobirds Unite finds Willoughby’s songs and delivery gracefully adorned with Americana-informed lushness provided by a Northwest supergroup including Screaming Trees percussionist Barrett Martin, Tripwires guitarist Johnny Sangster, cellist Barb Antonio, and ex-Visqueen singer Rachel Flotard, who harmonizes exquisitely with Willoughby throughout. And the great, cheekily-titled Adult Soft Record oscillates between decaying cabaret (“Crustacean Blues”), gently pretty heart-on-sleeve pop (“What You Give”), and ravishing baroque darkness (“Something I Can Sleep Through”): Not bad for a bunch of self-described drunken home recordings.
Llama plays, for free no less, at West Seattle’s Parliament Tavern Friday night, April 14. And with openers Swedish Finnish and No One Can Save Us likewise sporting plenty of Seattle rock veterans (Scott Sutherland puts his guitar skills to work in the former, while the latter is a tribute band to old-school Emerald City psych-poppers Green Pajamas), catching up with unsung local rock heroes couldn’t be more of a bargain.