Plainview brothers kill with musical concept album
In 2019, who has the audacity to release a rock opera about an adopted chimp raised as a boy? That would be 22-year-old Brian and 20-year-old Michael D’Addario, the Plainview brothers who are professionally known as The Lemon Twigs. On their current full-length album, last year’s Go to School: A Musical by The Lemon Twigs, the duo tell the story of a simian character named Shane who is raised as a human, attends high school and is ostracized, bullied and a victim of unrequited love. His lost innocence eventually drives him to an extreme act of retribution.
Playing the role of Shane’s parents are the D’Addarios’ mother, Susan Hall, and rock legend Todd Rundgren. Also helping out with the musical heavy lifting is Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and their father, Ronnie D’Addario, a former soundman at storied rock club Folk City. Birthed as the twosome were hashing out ideas while touring behind their 2016 debut Do Hollywood, the siblings’ sophomore bow wasn’t intended to be a concept album.
“We were writing a lot of songs that had to do with each other in some way. Then we had to kind of figure out what it was,” Brian recalled. “We didn’t set out to necessarily create a concept record when we were first writing songs. We probably had about seven songs pulled together before we realized that it was definitely pointing in that direction. Then we would just talk about it all the time when we were on the road for the first record. It was sort of a way to stay creative on the road by conceptualizing how we want the record to sound and what the story was going to be. It was kind of organic. You would think that it would have to be completely formulated before we wrote the songs, but once we had [the theme], it kind of made everything make sense.”
Opening number “Never In My Arms, Always In My Heart,” is a galloping clash of Beach Boys harmonies, Nilsson-esque vocal phrasing and glorious dollops of glockenspiel framing the story of a human couple working through a miscarriage by adopting an ape. From here, the D’Addarios pull out all the stops, going from the power pop jangle of “Queen of My School” and the samba-flavored nuances of “The Bully” to the harmony-driven breeziness of “Small Victories” and “Wonderin’ Ways,” with its lush string arrangments that give it the feel of a Broadway musical centerpiece. The latter comes as no surprise, as both brothers cut their chops performing in musical theater—Brian on the Great White Way in The Little Mermaid and Michael in productions of Coast of Utopia and All My Sons. For the elder D’Addario, those experiences were an invaluable resource in helping shape his and brother Michael’s music-making craft.
“I did workshops where you work through the songs that are very new and are in the room with all the writers and people are cutting things, adding parts and trying to make it very clear to an audience what’s going on. It’s not like a lot of pop music where as long as it feels good and sounds good you keep it,” Brian explained. “You’re trying to actively communicate to an audience. A lot of great writers do that. It’s never much of a mystery what Leonard Cohen is talking about. He did it very beautifully, but it’s not supposed to be completely alien or complete symbolism, even though that’s a great style as well. I think the Broadway stuff really clued us into how to tell a story in a coherent way.”
Not surprisingly, the pair’s experiences attending Hicksville High School has some influence in the way Go To School came out. Brian admittedly got through it in a self-described “comfortable sort of isolation.”
“I knew it was probably better to separate myself than become corrupted in some way. And that’s a big part of what the record’s about. School is one of those things that weeds out the excitement in your life, and the main character is supposed to retain that excitement more than everybody else. And it eventually gets beaten out of him.”
Michael added, “When I was going to school, there was so much negativity and so many ignorant people that I’m kind of surprised that I was able to keep it away from me to the extent that I did. So, in a sense, I felt like Shane, and I think we got that angle from our own experiences.”
Having already opened for indie rock outfit Arctic Monkeys, a less-than-favorite experience for Michael (“It really wasn’t great because a lot of fans didn’t take to us. I don’t love playing to that scale of show. They weren’t really listening; they just wanted to hear the Artic Monkeys.”), the Lemon Twigs have been playing theaters and clubs. The rest of 2019 will find the Long Island natives crossing the pond to Europe and heading back into the studio. In the meantime, the Plainview residents, who still live at home with their parents, will have their early musical experiences continue to shape the quirky musical path they’ve been going down.
“I would say most of our parents’ influence came from when we were kids,” Brian said. “I think when we write, perform and record, I’m always trying to capture the spirit of when I was young and everything was exciting.”