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The title track from Blake Rainey and His Demons’ latest album, Helicopter Rose, is about rescue, and it’s a theme that carries throughout the new record, one populated with stories of forlorn barflies, tattered relationships, and other hard-luck realities of modern life.
“The song ‘Dear Brother’ is about a soldier who’s lost at war, and all of his family and friends are drinking at this bar where he used to hang out, wishing he was there,” Rainey says of the record’s opening track, a dusty roots-rock cut topped off with splashes of Sprinsgsteen-esque Americana. “The record deals with this constant struggle to be rescued from something, whether it be addiction, bad love—or being in the military and being captured by enemy forces.”
Rainey has earned his share of acclaim over the past 15 years. His previous band, the Young Antiques, won Rainey critical accolades for his rollicking mix of power pop and roots rock, including high marks from SPIN, PopMatters, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and more. But it took the Antiques’ dissolution for Rainey to push his songwriting into deeper thematic waters. Citing inspiration from lyricists including Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Paul Westerberg, Helicopter Rose is checkered with smart wordplay and sharp storytelling in the tradition of his legendary influences.
“I’ve always been drawn to people who write songs that are very unique,” Rainey says. “It takes a talent, or at least an attention to detail, to write lines that aren’t just like ‘Hey baby baby baby.’ You want to try and spin a story that you haven’t heard before. Or maybe you’ve heard it before, but there are interesting new twists in the song that make it fresh.”
And this is exactly what Rainey pulls off with Helicopter Rose. While much of the record is rooted in typically sad-eyed country music fodder,Rainey displays an uncanny knack for turning otherwise painful stories into songs that are, by turns, thought-provoking and amusing. “Go Find Yourself Another Barroom” is about the territorial lines that are drawn at the end of a relationship—a custody battle over a barstool at a couple’s favorite corner dive. “Every Time I’m Thinking Of You,” meanwhile, chronicles the long journey toward acceptance that comes in the wake of a breakup.
“In the song, there’s this guy getting drunk, and he’s heartbroken over this girl,” Rainey says of the Byrds-channeling country rocker. “Then in the middle of the song, at the bridge, he drops this line, ‘The forgetful part is I too broke your heart.’ By the end, you start to realize the narrator isn’t exactly as reliable as you thought. You’re not sure what you can trust coming out of his mouth. I really love using an unreliable narrator. It can add a whole new layer.”
Helicopter Rose also represents new territory for Rainey, musically. A native Georgian, he grew up with country music staples such as Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Waylon Jennings on the stereo. But with the Young Antique’s power-pop approach, there was little room to incorporate his love of country. After recording and touring with the band, off and on, for more than a decade, Rainey released his first record with the Demons, The Dangerous Summer, in 2007. The band’s sophomore effort, Love Don’t Cross Me, followed in 2014. “The Demons have freed me up to do different stuff,” Rainey says. “With the Antiques, we mainly did all these fast, rocking songs. I never had a chance to do crazy country licks or anything like that.”
The first two Demons records found Rainey refining his songwriting style to canvas the full scope of his tastes and influences. Helicopter Rose, though, represents a more deliberate push to find where punk rock meets country, where Merle Haggard crosses paths with TheReplacements. It took his backing band of drummer Eric Young, guitarist Aaron Mason, and bassist Joe Foy—a seasoned veteran of New York City’s CBGB punk scene—to bring his eclectic vision to life. Rainey also enlisted the services of revered steel guitar player Steve Stone to give the songs some added country authenticity.
Helicopter Rose also reunited Rainey with longtime friend and producer Tim Delaney, a former understudy of Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien.
“We labored over the mixes for a while until we got it exactly where we liked it,” Rainey says of working with Delaney. “The cool thing—he’s a friend of mine, so I never really felt like I was on the clock. That can kind of kill creativity when you’re like, ‘Ok, we need to get this done now.’ Instead, we were able to take the time to do things right, and let the creative process unfold at its own pace.”
With recording wrapped, Rainey and the Demons are shooting a video for the record’s first single, “Losing My Way,” which will be out in November. He also plans to tour behind the record, both solo and with His Demons, in the months ahead.