The signature of the subdudes' Miracle Mule -- and the band in general, perhaps -- is the harmony. The album opens with a stock ticker guitar line waiting for the band to harmonize on the phrase "morning glory" and the opening lines to the song by the same name. There's no line in the song that doesn't have at least two voices singing in unison, harmony or counterpoint, and that's no anomaly.
"Most of them happen live," Tommy Malone explains from his home in Jackson, Miss., talking by phone while rebuilding a Sears Silvertone amp. "Some were retouched where possible, but the majority were live. By and large, if we could get away with it we kept it for the vibe to try to get the feel on tape."
For Malone, "feel" is so important that he wanted to round up an audience when he was recording a lead vocal. "We were in Santa Monica on Pico Boulevard. I wanted to go out and get 10 people off the street and bring 'em in and cut one, but no one went for it," he remembers. "Singing's a very difficult thing to do in the studio. You're isolated. In the live thing, you're emotionally reacting immediately to the crowd and it comes through in the timbre of your voice. It has to."
Even the choice of percussion -- Steve Amedee's tambourine -- affects the feel of the vocals. "The nature of that instrument allows the music to breathe in a whole different way that we've found beneficial as a vocal band," Malone says.
To some extent, it was feel that led the subdudes to reunite in their current lineup, with Malone, John Magnie, Steve Amedee and new dudes Jimmy Messa and Tim Cook. In 2002, Malone's solo project, which included Messa in the band, played Denver. Magnie joined them on stage. "All of a sudden I felt like I wasn't struggling anymore and was making music again," Malone recalls. Magnie's Three Twins and Malone's solo band merged soon after into a new band, the Dudes. "We liked the music we made together," Malone says very matter-of-factly.
Making the Dudes into the subdudes -- and using the name "subdudes" again -- involved more than just a few lineup adjustments. "It involved some paper exchange -- that's the short version," Malone says carefully. He's similarly terse about why the subdudes broke up in 1996, obviously uncomfortable with saying much about former bassist Johnny Ray Allen, who is not a part of the reunited group. "I'd say the short version on that, too, is bad feeling inside the group," he says. "Some division going on internally, and the writing as a unit had stopped. It was just not right anymore."
By contrast, the band shares songwriting credits on six songs on Miracle Mule. "It really did happen that way," Malone says with a laugh. "It was beautiful the way it happened, with contributions from everybody including Steve Amedee, which was really a new thing. He always did his rhythm thing, but he had music ideas, lyric ideas, right in there with us."
The band did much of its writing at Malone's new home in Jackson, which he sings about in the appropriately titled "Mississippi Home." He and his wife moved to Jackson following the birth of their first child, to be nearer to in-laws. ("Frankly, we needed the help," Malone says.) The song has a Band-like lope as he sings goodbye to the city life, but the good timey bounce doesn't quite mask his ambivalence about country life: "I ask my friends to come on up/But it's hard to get them just to call/and it's so doggone quiet here/you can hear the roaches climb the wall." Malone admits he's already thinking about returning to the city. "You get used to New Orleans. Godamighty, there's so much going on."
Malone knew producer Freddie Koela from his days in New Orleans, well before Koela became the guitarist in Bob Dylan's road band. "I'd been over to his house by City Park and done demos with Freddie and admired him for many years," he explains. It turns out John Magnie had worked with Koela's partner Warren Dewey at his studio in Santa Monica, so when it came time to record the album, the choice was obvious. Into every good-feeling, harmonious band's life, a little rain must fall. In the subdudes' case, it took the form of the title cut for Miracle Mule, which is an unlisted bonus track at the end of the album. "The record company didn't want it on there!" Malone says, laughing. "They weren't crazy about it and we loved it. We thought it summed it up for us -- the unlikely winner, the thing that won't give up. It would have been 13 listed instead of 12, but they didn't feel it belonged with this collection of songs -- but it was the inspiration for the whole damned record."
- Why did the subdudes reunite after seven years? "We liked the music we made together," guitarist/vocalist Tommy Malone says.