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Photo By Laura Roberts
Between Two Lions

BETWEEN TWO LIONS:

Doing The Genre Straddle

By Tim Roberts

My God, no wonder they want everything they're telling me off the record! The paparazzi won't leave them alone! Just sitting here at a sidewalk table in front of a bar and grill, some young woman calls, "Hey, guys," snaps off a photo, then scurries with her bulk-shouldered bodyguard down the street. He drapes one big arm around her, as a guide and a shield, the other he holds close to his body, ready to spring out and back to smash away any who dare pursue. Or pull a matte-black Glock from some holster hidden in his jacket. He glares back at us, just to make sure we won't rise to chase. She's laughing. The sound of it echoes back, mocking.

The four young men who were the target of the lens-and-flash image thief all mutter, some through gritted teeth, about this being a bad idea. A really. Bad. Idea.

No?

So. . .the real story then:

The day after Derby in Louisville there's a confused calm. The carnival is suddenly over. The rides have all been packed away, loaded on the truck, driven off. The sideshow's tents are now just rolls of canvas and wooden poles stacked on a flatbed. The bearded ladies, lizard boys, mushbrains, headless midgets and tallest women in the world are now back in their trailers, living their normal lives, emerging the next day as bank tellers, customer service reps, stockbrokers. Until next year. And we've awakened in the middle of a field of trampled grass where we had passed out to find it has all gone away. It had been there for two weeks and the final two nights were just insane with color and booze.

And only the residual craziness remains. Like a couple walking past where five of us sit outside one of the several bars on the street level of 4th Street Live. The woman raises her camera and says, "Hey, guys!" We all lean in and grin. She snaps the picture and walks away.

"Wow! Paparazzi," said Eric Moore. She could have been just another visitor in town for the Kentucky Derby, still in tourist mode wanting to make permanent anything she saw so she wouldn't have to commit it to unreliable memory. Even taking a hammy snapshot of the members of Between Two Lions.

From left, Brent Engle, Eric Moore, Tim Corley, Todd Corley.

"That happens a lot," said guitarist and vocalist Brent Engle with a smile that actually meant not really.

The table where we sat still had some splotches of the sticky remnants of spilled drinks that could have come from the night before, or maybe the previous visitors were just messy and a server just hadn't come out to wipe it down. Either way, the post-Derby haze slowed just about everybody's responses. Above us, a speaker blared some Agularian-Clarksonian dance pop. And we dared to sit under it, trying to talk about lap-steel guitars and tone coloring and production values.

"Did you hear they pulled Kelly Clarkson's record," Engle asked. "They pulled it and scrapped it. They're redoing the album. Said the single was weak."

Such news like that in the music industry always floats between rumor and fact. No matter what the truth is, no one is every really surprised. Turns out Clarkson's new album is still on track for its scheduled late July release and everyone at Sony BMG has the warm fuzzies about it. With so many eyes watching and ears awaiting the result, the slightest hint of dissatisfaction can doom a superstar's recording project. The stakes are always that high and the fingers get pointed at the usual suspects if the release tanks. Which is often expected.

Meanwhile, a band like Between Two Lions can have a surefooted plan for an album, base the theme and title around a piece of artwork made by a friend of one of the members, record it in five days, have it worked through the production and engineering process by someone with a sensitive pair of hands on the mixing board knobs, release it to local acclaim while it slowly gets the attention of more and more people, including some on the West Coast. Which, too, is often expected but is never newsworthy. Careers and the ancient model for a business that is being whapped with the irrelevance stick aren't at risk.

Between Two Lions Cover

"We had been playing the songs forever," drummer Moore explained, "so there was no writing while we were in the studio. We just had the track list and we even cut one out that didn't quite fit into the storyline."

"The songs sound the same in the recording as they did when we went in," Engle said. "None of the songs changed form drastically."

It couldn't have gone off better even if it had been planned with the same precision as jeweled watches are made. But once you learn more about how the band Between Two Lions works, it makes sense. Four young men from New Albany (that also includes twin brothers Todd and Tim Corley, who play bass and lap-steel and guitar, respectively) with professional business careers, three of whom are married, two of whom have small children: there's a need to think ahead, plan, work and minimize risk.

It shows in their second release, Put This City on My Shoulders: music that mirrors the hard work and thought that went into making it, done in a sound that fits into that vague category of Americana or alt-country, but seems to favor the second half of that term.

It's a label, though, that Engle questions.

"I don't think we're a country band," he said. "I think some of our songs might be a throwback to country. Country music right now has a fiddle, a pedal steel, a guy who has poor grammar, all rolled in high production value. What we hear on country music radio is rock music, if you ask me. We think ours is rock. With a pedal steel."

Years before they had arrived at the sound that defined them (for one recording, at least), Engle, Moore and Todd Corley were in a band called The Thieves with their friend John Stein. They had written a bunch of songs, but Stein moved out west and nothing was done with them. The three remaining members later formed Between Two Lions as a pop trio and recorded a batch of nine songs that would become their first release.

"All the time we were trying to get him to join," Moore said, nodding his head toward Tim Corley. "He had been in the band Rural Recovery for about three years."

"So we kept on him," Engle said. "We weren't able to get him for the first record. Then he came on before we started any of the new songs. We tried to come up what we thought would be our sound. We took advantage of his pedal steel. It gives it more of a rootsy sound. He gave it color. That's a Duane Lundy quote."

Duane Lundy, the band's producer for Put This City on My Shoulders, had met the band through Jeff Smith after they had played a show Uncle Pleasants here in Louisville.

"He came to identify what we were looking for in terms of sound and style," Engle said. After seeing them once more at a show at Phoenix Hill, he had decided he wanted to work with them at his Shangri-la Productions studio in Lexington.

The production for City didn't take long. All initial recording was done in five days, eight hours each day. "We came in and we were ready to go," Engle said.

When finished, the band had made an album that, as a whole work, tells the story of someone who has left home, explored life, then comes back with a deeper appreciation of the city from where he came. City isn't strictly a concept album in the sense that every song relates to a specific event in the life of the person (not heavy-handed and burdened with metaphors for battles with the Man, man, like Pink Floyd's The Wall). Instead, the songs illuminate changes that occur in between the time someone leaves and returns home. In literature it's related to the apprenticeship novel, stories that take place during someone's youth and young adulthood where he or she develops (or at least tries really hard to) a sense of self, a philosophy of life and tries to find life's meaning and how it's all supposed to work.

"It's about standing up and being proud of where you're from," Engle said. "If there's any recurring theme in the album at all, that's it."

Inspiration for the title came from a painting by Engle's friend Michael Nicholas. The oil-on-canvas "City," used as the CD's cover art, has a drawing of a brick wall onto which is grafted a bulge of riotous colors and lines and scrawled shapes, as if Picasso had come upon a blank spot on a cobblestone alleyway and took out his sidewalk chalk. Our cities, our hometowns (in keeping with the recording's theme), have their foundations and structures, but they also have the stuff we like best about them: smells, sights, lights, neighborhood streets, people, the things that might be harder to define, things that you can only feel and relate to others in stories. And even though the city features some disillusionment and disgrace, those are still the things that you can put on your shoulders and bear for the world to see, just as they had borne you.

The theme of leaving, learning, living and returning fits the band's name, at least obliquely. In literature and myth, the lion often represents both divine energy and way too much self-confidence, admiration and fear, divine justice and vengeance. Those times when he thinks he's the guardian of his pride, all the others think he's a dictatorial asshat. Buddha's throne is said to have been made of golden lions, the eyes of each one were garnet stones rimmed with tiny diamonds with a hundred facets sliced from each. Likewise, it's believed Donald Trump's executive toilet is on a pedestal made of a ring of golden lions biting each other's tails. Normally, lion statues flank sets of steps that lead to buildings containing knowledge or where everyone gets a chance at justice. And you walk in between two possible extremes the lions might represent. You get what you go in for, or you get devastated. It's a wonder you don't see them in front video stores.

The reality? Brent Engle just doesn't remember how he came up with the name.

"I've been asked that so many times," Engle said. "This is the honest-to-God answer: I. Don't. Know. I have a notebook next to my computer. I come across something, note it down. I'll get song titles with it, context for songs, whatever. We were The Thieves, then John Stein left and we wanted something that would identify with a new start with the three of us, because it was going to be a new project. So I opened the notebook, looked down to see if there was any ideas in it and found Between Two Lions.

"There are lion statues in front of peoples' houses. Maybe I saw that. I wish there were a little story to go along with that. But there's not."

So they saved the name-origin story for Put This City on My Shoulders. In this case, the lions might represent the rather benign opposites of leaving and returning and all that happens in between that makes us grow, mature and find a philosophy of life.

As far as the band's philosophy of handling the business side of their music, they are taking the same entrepreneurial path that others have in booking their own shows and sending out their own press, with help of attorney friend and manager Scott Estes.

"We haven't gone outside for much of anything other than the making of the record," Engle said. "We're not affiliated with a label or anything. We do all of the things a label would do for us. We've gotten just as good a result than those who've hired out press agents. And a lot of that credit goes to Scott Estes."

"We looked at that stuff," Moore said. "They said they would take 200 CDs of ours and mail them out. That's easy enough. You could get just as much a response doing it yourself."

Helping them to get enough ears to listen to City has been Michael Young, host of WFPK's "Roots 'n Boots" program on Sunday evenings. As for other radio stations?

"That's something we haven't done a lot of tracking on," Engle admitted. "We got added somewhere out west. I'd have to look it up. But there's a lot that has to leverage that. It's something we haven't tackled."

Touring right now would be hard, since each member of the band has a professional career and three of them have family obligations. If pressed and, eventually, sold on the idea, they might be able to play in one of the regional cities like Nashville, Cincinnati, or Indianapolis.

For now, Between Two Lions is happy trying to make its gentle mark locally.

"I want to be remembered by the performance of the song," Engle said, "something that people can identify with. Some bands need a gimmick. Some bands don't. We don't."

"We just haven't thought of a good one yet," Moore added.

Find out the wide extremes of what lies Between Two Lions at www.betweentwolions.com.