Sam Llanas (pronounced yanas), lead singer-guitarist for the acclaimed Milwaukee band the BoDeans, takes listeners deep into the night on his new release, 4 A.M., arriving Oct. 25 on Inner Knot Records. The intimate, mostly acoustic collection, produced by longtime collaborator Gary Tanin, features 10 new Llanas originals and a dazzling cover of Cyndi Lauper’s hit “All Through the Night.”
Llanas says of his latest work, “I do a lot of work late at night. It’s a night record, a nocturnal record, thematically about things that happen in the night. That covers a lot of ground. It could be the simple things — being in love, being with somebody — or about the loneliness that the night can bring.”
The album, an understated complement to the BoDeans’ just-released 10th studio album Indigo Dreams, is markedly different from Llanas’ 1998 solo bow A Good Day to Die, which was a powerful eulogy for Llanas’s brother recorded under the group rubric Absinthe.
“The Absinthe record was kind of bombastic and very intense,” Llanas says. “I wanted to do something that was lighter, as light as I can get. I wanted it to be completely different. That’s why 4 A.M. is pretty much an acoustic record.”
Work on 4 A.M. began nearly four years ago, when Llanas’ band the BoDeans, which he has led since 1983, was between projects.
He recalls, “I had time on my hands, and I had some songs I wanted to record. I started working with Terry Vittone — I just said, ‘Hey, let’s make some recordings.’ There was no real thought that it was going to be an album or anything like that. It just sort of escalated from there.”
Sessions for the embryonic project commenced at guitarist Vittone’s house. “I would record the songs in the afternoon,” Llanas says, “and get them to a point where I liked them. Then the next day I’d go back, and Terry would say, ‘Sam, I want you to hear some ideas I threw down on the track.’ And Terry was willing to take really strong direction from me, because I didn’t want a guitar player who was playing all over the song. Terry was really good at putting in the nuances that were needed. He played very little, and that seemed to work very well.”
With the majority of the material in the can, a protracted layoff from recording ensued. After almost two years, Llanas began completing 4 A.M. at Daystorm Music in Milwaukee with producer-musician Tanin, who had also worked on A Good Day To Die and supplied the strings on the new recording.
Llanas decided to preserve the original recording’s spare quality, and added a couple of new tracks that were left untouched. “I wanted to keep it simple. ‘The Way Home’ and ‘Janey’ seemed to work really well just the way they were.”
However, he adds, “I thought the other songs needed a bit more dressing up. Some I thought would work better if we put a little bit more on them.” Thus, BoDeans keyboardist Bukka Allen was called in to play accordion, while Milwaukee musicians Matt Turner and Ryan Schiedermayer contributed bass and percussion, respectively.
Some of the compositions on 4 A.M. began life as prospective material for the BoDeans, Llanas says: “‘Nobody Luvs Me’ was actually recorded with the BoDeans, but it’s quite a different version — you wouldn’t really know it’s the same song. ‘Shyne’ was on our album Mr. Sad Clown. I thought that would work really well there, so I brought it into that project. The first song on 4 A.M., ‘Oh, Celia,’ was demoed with the BoDeans years and years ago. That’s quite an old song.”
Nestling seamlessly with Llanas’ own cycle of before-dawn melodies is his hushed cover of Lauper’s 1983 perennial “All Through the Night,” penned by Jules Shear. “It’s a beautiful song,” Llanas says, “but when they recorded it, in the early ’80s, the sound that they got on it was so harsh . The keyboards always ruined the song for me. I really wanted a version of that song that was just beautiful. That’s what I tried to do — honor that song, and give it what it deserved.”
Llanas’ new solo opus offers a new dimension to his music — one that actually dates back to the sunrise of his professional career.
“Before I ever had the BoDeans, I was a solo performer in Waukesha,” he remembers. “I would go and play at these open mic shows, and I learned my craft and honed my stage skills that way. I think this record really reflects that part of my career, that part of my personality. It goes back to before I ever performed with the BoDeans. It was just me — one man and one guitar.”
Esteemed rock critic and author Dave Marsh calls 4 A.M. “A great record. Really the best thing that has come out of their music in a long, long time — closer to classic BoDeans. Sammy’s voice is so much what I love about BoDeans and it has never been showcased any better.”